Learn About the Impact of “Unfinished Business” in Sports
Most competitive athletes develop personal goals they would like to reach before the end of the season (or their career). When goals are not met, athletes often feel a sense of “unfinished business,” an especially difficult reality to accept for athletes entering the sport retirement transition and unable to ever go back and reach their specified personal goals. In fact, sport psychology studies have shown a fairly clear and reliable pattern when it comes to unfinished business and readiness for sport retirement — simply, athletes who have a lot of unfinished business (or unmet goals) tend to be less ready to retire from sports, while athletes who have reached all or most of their sport goals are generally more ready and accepting of sport retirement.
Examples of unfinished business
Athletes vary dramatically when it comes to their goals and expectations, so it should be no surprise that when it comes to unfinished business not every athlete has the same experience. For example, an elite-level athlete might feel as though his or her sport career didn’t quite measure up if a world or national championship wasn’t achieved. On the other hand, a less accomplished amateur athlete might feel a sense of unfinished business going through his school without ever competing on the varsity team. While there is clearly a monumental gap when comparing these two examples of unfinished business, the important point to note is that each individual athlete measures goals against their own hopes and expectations, and then judge their level of accomplishment accordingly. Another key takeaway is to note that while it may seem on the surface like it is a bigger loss for an elite athlete to not win a championship compared to an amateur athlete simply trying to earn a varsity letter, the sense of dissatisfaction is similarly challenging for each person.
Keys to help
If you are a sport parent, coach, or a teammate of an athlete who might soon be facing sport retirement, take note of the following tips and ideas to help the transition go smoothly.
- Set specific, objective goals that the athlete can control and measure. Often unfinished business is measured against things like championships or promotions to the next level of sports, but those goals can be misleading. For example, if your goal were to win a championship and your team lost only because of a bad call, then it would be unfortunate to call your career a waste. Instead, help athletes set personal goals that are specific, measurable, and controllable and do not rely on luck or the help of others.
- Steer people toward reality whenever possible. While setting lofty goals in life can be exciting, if goals are unrealistic it can actually serve as a precursor to an even more difficult eventual sport retirement.
- Use the process of goal pursuit to apply to future life endeavors. Even when athletes come up short, they still benefit from setting goals that they responsibly pursued (meaning they still had to employ focus, discipline, motivation, and countless more life skills). Make sure to encourage athletes to use this same mindset with endeavors (and careers) outside of sport.
- Use unfinished business as a precursor to understanding the potential magnitude of future sport retirement. If you know an athlete who has come up short on many of his or her personal sport goals, then there’s a good chance that athlete has some unfinished business – and may be frustrated as a result. Keep in mind athletes with a lot of unfinished business are more at-risk for a challenging sport retirement compared to athletes who have reached most of their sport goals.
- Use unfinished business to motivate for greater future life success. Help athletes channel frustration into positive future energy by encouraging discipline, problem-solving, and focus.
Most athletes don’t readily think of the impact unfinished business has on sport retirement. Unmet sport goals are important to examine as studies have shown a direct, inverse relationship between sport retirement success and sport goal attainment. It is important to note that there are other important variables that impact sport retirement beyond goal attainment, including the timing of sport retirement (for example, career-ending injuries are experienced differently compared to athletes who voluntarily decide to quit sports). For more help with sport retirement check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes.