Last week while delivering a seminar on the subject of sport retirement, a discussion developed around the idea of athletes having a “Plan B” in case sports don’t work out. Of course, it’s advisable for all people — not just athletes — to have backup life plans in case their original hopes and goals don’t work out. With athletes, though, it may especially important to develop backup plans as they are a very unique subset of society in many ways. Athletes often retire from sports at a relatively young age, develop an “athletic identity” that sometimes limits them from seeing their self-worth beyond athletics, and many have difficulty finding counseling resources to help them with the transition of sport retirement when they are no longer able to compete.
All this brings me to the story of Nastia Liukin, the American gymnast who recently lost her opportunity to compete for Team USA in the upcoming London Olympics. Sadly, Liukin lost her chance to advance to the Olympics because of an unfortunate fall on the uneven bars, essentially ending her gymnastics career in that moment. While Liukin should be applauded for her efforts and lifelong commitment to pursuing her Olympic dreams, her story also presents a reality for families who go all-out for their sports dreams, many of whom are guilty of overlooking (ignoring?) the odds of “making it,” as well as the harsh realities that sport endings often occur in very sad, unplanned for, and devastating ways.
I have met many families from different sport backgrounds that follow a similar path to Liukin’s, ignoring the realities of sport competition and how quickly things can change. In these examples, “Plan B” is never discussed, and a full-go lifestyle and schedule is developed around the child’s sport. Again, my goal today is not to discourage anyone from chasing a dream, but to instead help folks open their views and perspectives to include a more thorough understanding of just how difficult it is to make it in sports. In the case of Nastia Liukin, it was one slip on the bars that ended years and years worth of intense physical and emotional training, aches, pains, injuries, and countless tests of mental toughness. Think about that for a moment — one slip ended a lifetime of training and devotion. Hopefully she has developed a “Plan B” and will parlay her athletic experiences into a future career that brings her happiness.
Of course, today’s column is not meant to suggest that Liukin will need to immediately schedule an appointment with a sport psychologist, nor am I predicting she will have a variety of mental illnesses that will bog her down for life. The point of today’s column is to remind families of the incredible odds young athletes face in pursuing professional and Olympic aspirations, as well as the importance of developing backup life plans just in case your son or daughter experiences a career-ending injury, or allows anxiety to impact his or her athletic performance when the game is on the line. To make it to the top requires a lot of unbelievable things, including great genetics, great coaching, strong motivation and perseverance, and even some luck.
It is prudent for families to understand the odds of making it, as well as develop backup life plans for the possibility that sports may not work out. Developing this mindset does not mean you are conceding to failure, nor does it mean you are less committed to “making it.” Many great people (including great athletes) develop backup life plans and benefit by doing so.
For more help on the topic of sport retirement, check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes and our other educational products designed to help only at Advanced Human Performance Systems!