Former NFL great Herschel Walker has offered some interesting opinions on the apparent surge in the number of concussions in the NFL, suggesting that not all of the problems former players face are because of concussions suffered while playing. I happen to emphatically agree with him.
I have written extensively about the importance of sports safety and how the NFL and all other contact sport should work toward protecting the safety of athletes at all times. And while some former football players have suffered brain trauma that has in fact hindered their lives post-football, many more of the players who struggle with alcohol, drugs, violence, relationships, and marriages experience these issues not because of head trauma or brain injuries, but instead because of the lack of attention toward sport retirement and the dearth of counselors available to help.
When an elite-level athlete plays a sport his entire life and is treated like royalty for doing so, it is often a very abrupt and unplanned transition when the day comes that he has to retire from sports. In most cases his mind is sound and safe, but his coping skills are lacking and his self-identity is so completely absorbed into being an athlete that he struggles with the changes needed to re-identify who he is after sports. It is for these reasons that so many athletes fall on hard times after their sports careers end — not because of concussions.
How can I be so confident making these statements? Several reasons actually – first, there are countless empirical research studies showing the struggles athletes experience after retiring from sports, making it a relatively expected experience to witness. Second, many athletes who fall on hard times after their careers end are from non-contact sports, meaning they never had any brain trauma in the first place. And third, without appropriate counseling and transition support services in place, it’s very understandable why former professional and collegiate athletes often lag behind when it comes to developing identities beyond “athlete,” and developing the career skills (i.e. resume writing) to help them with a non-sports career after their playing days are over.
While it is easy and convenient to assume that the majority of former athletes who fall on hard times are the victims of concussions while playing, this simply isn’t true. And while the public attention continues to follow this one single reason for these problems, we are missing the real reasons why athletes have trouble with sport retirement. Think about it – when you play a sport from a young age, often specialize in that sport, and then play it year-round in many cases, how difficult would it be for you if all of a sudden all of it ended — literally overnight and when you least expect it — and then you are left to yourself to “figure it all out.” Aside from the fact that society no longer identifies or values you, you also have no work experience, no resume, no career skills, and in most cases no support system or sport psychology assistance to help you transition. This scenario is far, far more common than the athlete who has trouble after sports because of brain trauma.
I believe Herschel Walker should be heard, and if professional sports (and college sports for that matter) really want to address the issue of sport retirement they should spend equal amounts of time studying the sport retirement transition psychosocial concerns as they do brain trauma and concussions.
Positive Transitions for Student Athletes book is designed to help student athletes with sport retirement – pick up your copy here