Reality: If you’re an athlete, your career will eventually come to an end.
More reality: In most cases sport retirement occurs much sooner than athletes think, and it’s often an abrupt, unplanned, and challenging life transition.
Examining sport retirement
Sport retirement is one of the most challenging transitions an athlete will ever experience, as it is not only the end of the sport experience, but also an event that prompts athletes to redefine who they are as people. The reality is that only about 5% of all high school student athletes will go on to compete at college, and less than 2% of all college athletes will play professional sports. If those numbers sound startling to you, know that you are not alone — when I talk to student athletes and sport parents I am often told that they never knew the odds against playing sports after high school were so great.
Retiring from sports is a very unique life transition for a number of reasons, including the following:
- It usually occurs quite early in life, especially when you compare sport retirement against others types of vocational retirement.
- Sport retirement is based entirely on sport performance, meaning athletes become deselected based directly on their athletic abilities (very different than how other employees are measured in their work).
- Many athletes are oblivious to the odds of making it, as well as their own chances for playing at the next level, and are often left surprised when faced with sport retirement.
- Unlike most other careers, athletes can be forced into retirement because of injury.
- Sport retirement is also unique in that most athletes develop to varying degrees a personal identity tied directly to being an athlete (an “athletic identity”), and are forced to re-define who they are once the games end.
- Athletes left unprepared for sport retirement have been found to have lower levels of career readiness, future planning, and holistic identity development.
Prepare for the inevitable
Remember, it’s not being pessimistic talking to athletes about sport retirement, as it is an inevitable transition for every athlete who plays sports. Also keep in mind that even the best athletes are always one play away from a career-ending sports injury (and immediate sport retirement experience). It is for these reasons that it is actually quite prudent to talk to athletes about the odds of making it, the various reasons why a sports career can end, and plans for when sport retirement eventually occurs. Additional tips include helping athletes see their self-worth beyond only being an athlete, and developing future non-sport plans to help with the transition.
Sport retirement doesn’t have to be a negative life experience, and countless athletes have used their previous sport experiences to move forward in life and excel in various non-sport careers and endeavors. In fact, when you take note of all the athletic transferable skills learned in sports, you could easily make the argument that athletes are far more prepared for life after sports than they might initially think.