When it comes to sport retirement, you usually think of professional athletes making their teary farewell speeches after enjoying successful sport careers. While famous athletes often get the most attention when it comes to sport retirement, perhaps we should pay closer attention to the countless number of kids each year who also experience sport retirement without the fanfare, but often with the same feelings and emotions around grief and loss. Sure, young athletes who retire from sport may not feel the pain of losing millions of dollars, but they do experience similar distress when examining the impact on their mental health, personal identity, and challenges beyond sports while pursuing a new path in life. Sport retirement is a big deal for all athletes (including kids), and 95% of kids playing sports today will experience this transition before the end of high school. The end result? Most young athletes are left to cope on their own with an unplanned, often unwanted, immediate removal from an experience (sports) that they spent most of their life doing — talk about a big transition!
Why kids are overlooked, but shouldn’t be
Even though the majority of kids playing sports will not play beyond high school, the reality is that kids who play sports today dedicate incredible amounts of time and energy in the role of “athlete,” sometimes to the exclusion of learning about and developing different parts of their personality and identity. Young athletes play all the time, often year-round and increasingly more with multiple different sports at the same time! Because of all of this sport intensity and commitment, kids can become vulnerable to putting “all their eggs in one basket” when it comes to their mental health, self-confidence, and exploring and developing other aspects of their being when answering the self-imposed question of “Who am I?” Young athletes, therefore, become a vulnerable group when the following occurs:
A.) They play sports so much that they fail to learn about the broad, personality and identity-based qualities they possess beyond sports, and
B.) Their sport and role of “athlete” ends relatively early in life, leaving them scramble and figure out what’s next? Who am I if I am no longer an athlete, or no longer have a team of athletes around me daily?
What is especially important to note here is that the dream of one day becoming a professional athlete does not need to be present for a kid to struggle with sport retirement, as it is his or her overall identity and sense of being that changes when sports end — and this can be quite a big deal for a kid. I have written articles and books on this topic that primarily focused on pro and college student athletes and how they experienced sport retirement, but today we need to turn our attention toward kids and the unique struggles they experience that are sometimes different than what adults experience.
If you are a sports parent you know that it is easy to get caught up in youth sports, but while enjoying the ride it is important to have regular, ongoing talks with your child so that he or she can experience more to life than just seeing oneself as “athlete.” When kids fail to prepare for the inevitable sport retirement transition that looms, they can be left vulnerable to mental health concerns including stress, anxiety, depression, and they may engage in potentially unhealthy coping methods, too. No, pro athletes are not the only people who struggle with sport retirement, millions of kids do, too, and it is for these reasons that we pay closer attention to helping kids successfully exit from sports when their time is up.