Ever since Junior Seau’s surprising suicide a week ago, the mainstream sports media has continued to rev up the coverage of false correlations suggesting brain damage, concussions, and head trauma are to blame for Seau’s (and others like him) troubles upon sport retirement. This is surprising, especially as we have plenty of sport psychology research to examine over the last 20-30 years that actually points quite clearly to a number of inter-related psychosocial factors that are far more responsible for sport retirement difficulties. From a personal standpoint, I have tried to reach out to a number of national outlets to help better inform people about what research has found, and not what many media folks are trying to develop as the primary reason why athletes struggle (the brain damage theory). Thus far, these attempts have been met with very little interest.
Although brain damage should certainly be considered when an athlete displays any kind of cognitive trouble, it’s also important to widen the lens and look at many of the facts we now know in 2012 to be true:
- First, millions of athletes each year struggle with sport retirement. These athletes are sometimes from the professional level, but they are also found at the college and high school level, too. In fact, I bet you probably know a young person who had difficulty with sport retirement, even if he/she wasn’t suicidal.
- The vast majority of athletes who have trouble with the sport retirement transition do not have brain trauma, and most come from sports that are low- or no-contact sports. Athletes who compete in baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and wrestling are at-risk, as are athletes from many other sports. While it is true that these athletes do experience physical play, rarely do they experience concussions and/or head trauma.
- With athletes today often starting the sports careers as early as 5-6 years old, and many specializing in one sport and playing it year-round, it’s easy to see why so many develop an exclusive athletic identity that sometimes limits their self-value beyond that of “athlete.” This paradigm has nothing to do with concussions of brain damage, but instead a product of how one perceives oneself, couple by how the world around the athlete often limits his/her worth to athletics.
- Many athletes, especially talented ones, foreclose on their future careers outside of sports and display what we call a low level of career maturity. What this means is that they are often far behind in the “normal” career path that one takes, often having an unrealistic expectation of going pro in their sport (and as a result not very invested in looking into more realistic careers).
- Even though we know countless athletes from all different sports and age levels struggle with sport retirement, there are still very few programs available to help athletes with the sport retirement transition. Making things more difficult is the “machismo” mindset many athletes have that served them well in sports (not asking for help but doing things on their own). While this might make a strong athlete, it usually limits people from gaining the help they need in order to readjust to a new identity and learn more about potential future careers beyond sports.
It’s really amazing to me how the sports media continues to push a theory that at best is speculative, and at worst is incredibly irresponsible when you think of the empirical evidence we have ascertained over the last few decades. Hopefully some of the sports media folks will begin actually talking to athletes (and not just football players) and explore the many issues they experience pertaining to athletic identity, role confusion, career maturity, future planning, and the lack of help available. If they listen closely to retired athletes, they will see that the issues are far more tied to psychosocial variables than biological “brain damage.”
Check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes for more information on sport retirement and how you can help an athlete who is struggling with life after sports.
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