Each year millions of athletes of all ages and skill levels will experience a unique transition known as sport retirement. Some athletes leave sports voluntarily, some because of injury, and others due to deselection. Athletes cope with the loss in different ways, too, as some move through the sport retirement rather easily, while other struggle trying to figure out who they are after the cheering stops. It is this second group of athletes — the ones who struggle — that I would like to focus on today, and provide professional insights relating to one of the mediating variables that impacts the degree and length of time relating to a successful sport retirement transition.
An interesting variable that correlates with how well an athlete exits sports is the degree of success the athlete experiences before retiring (also know as level of unfinished business). In theory, the more sport goals you reach, the less difficulty you will have walking away from sports when your time is up. Conversely, the less goals you reach, the more anxiety and frustration you may experience during sport retirement realizing those goals will never be met.
Of course, level of unfinished business is not the only variable impacting sport retirement, but it is a major variable, and it seems to affect athletes from prep sports to the pros. In some cases, the athlete doesn’t even recognize how missed goals are contributing to post-sport stress, while in other cases athletes are very aware that goals not met while competing will never have a chance to be reached.
One way to quickly assess the potential degree unfinished business will impact sport retirement is to widen the scope of assessment of the athlete facing sport retirement to include his or her personal identity. Our self-identity is based exclusively on how we see and define ourselves, while our social identities are how others see and describe us (which may or may not match our self-identity). High-risk athletes are those who have developed an exclusive athletic identity, one that has essentially foreclosed on “athlete” at the cost of exploring and developing other non-sport aspects of their personalities. This identity foreclosure becomes problematic when athletes retire and are left with little, if any, understanding of who they are beyond sports.
When putting together the pieces we are left with a fairly clear picture of athletes who may be more at-risk than others when it comes time to retire from sport — specifically, I am talking about athletes with significant unfinished business and who largely, if not entirely, see themselves only as “athlete” with respect to their personal identity.
Raise awareness early
If you are a parent or coach, it is important to try and implement the following ideas:
- Watch for signs. Young athletes who over-identify as athletes and/or set incredibly lofty sports goals may be at-risk for difficult transitions out of sport.
- Talk to kids. Explain in kid-friendly terms the importance of becoming well-rounded people, and help them set goals that are realistic to accomplish.
- Assist in identity broadening. Kids who over-identify as “athlete” often do so because they haven’t found (or been encouraged to find) worth in their lives beyond sports — do your part to show them their overall value and not just that of “athlete.”
- Parlay the unfinished business into other areas of life. One way to move on from sports in a healthy way is to use the athletic transferable skills from sports in future endeavors — try making a list of all the skills learned in sports and apply them to school, career, and life.
While it is true that not all athletes experience a difficult sport retirement transition, those who do often struggle finding the tools and support to successfully move on from sports. The challenge to re-identify who you are, and to cope with sport goals that were never met, are 2 important factors that contribute to how athletes experience sport retirement. The sport experience can be a vehicle for future life success, and successfully transitioning out of sports is the first big step to making this happen.