A recent ESPN 30 for 30 program (“Broke”) examined why so many former professional athletes struggle and fall on hard times after retiring from their sport. Of course, there are probably as many reasons for these stories are there are athletes who go through their own unique spending experiences post-retirement, but there is one psychological construct that I have found through my experiences to be present in most of these cases. More specifically, career maturity (or lack thereof) is, in my opinion, the primary reason why so many athletes have gone from multimillionaires while playing to destitute and broke after retirement.
Examining Career Maturity
Career maturity, generally speaking, is the age-appropriate readiness we experience as human beings as it relates to making mature career-related decisions. For example, when you were just 5 or 6 years old, you might have had brief aspirations of one day becoming a pro athlete, astronaut, or even the president. While all of these options might be plausible, they are usually the kinds of ideas young kids have about their future without having any real understanding of their unique interests, talents, abilities, and aptitude. In other words, their career maturity is low (and this is quite normal at 5 or 6 years old). On the other hand, when a 25-30 year old with no formal education continues to one day dream of being an astronaut, his career maturity is not only low, but also dramatically deviates from the norm when compared to others his age who have in all likelihood figured out what they want to do for a living (or at least have a good grasp on what they are best suited to do, even if they are not currently in that career).
For professional athletes, they do not usually follow the same developmental trajectory as the rest of us do — and consequently, this leads to low career maturity, and often poor life decisions as a result. While you might have been focusing on a real college major that suited your interests, the athlete might have been coaxed into a “dummy major” to simply stay eligible. When you were working on your resume, cover letter, and how to prepare for a job interview, the athlete was probably training, practicing, or working closely with his agent about goals for his future in pro sports.
Applying Career Maturity to Sport Retirement
So how does this all circle back to why so many athletes go broke after retiring from sports? First, when you are 25, 30, or 40 years old and still have no clue about your own interests, values, and the careers that most closely align with those personal traits, it often leads to a lot of personal confusion, frustration, stress, and lethargy. When athletes experience these things, they (like the rest of us) often look for a respite, and as a result might engage in activities and endeavors that not only do not help their future, but may even compound their problems (like drug/alcohol usage, reckless spending, and poor decision making). So as their money dwindles away, the transition into a more fitting and appropriate career is lost (or never discovered n the first place), leaving the athlete to have to figure out things that most of the rest of us got worked out many years ago.
Where to Point the Blame
While it would be easy to simply point the finger at athletes who fall into this trap as a result of their own doings, I would argue this is a far too simple explanation for these circumstances. Career maturity develops with chronological aging when A) the individual makes concerted efforts to learn about his or her interests, values, and appropriate career choices, and B) there is a support group (i.e. counselors, teachers, etc) who support these endeavors and provide the framework and scaffolding for athletes to pursue this normative life experience. The problem, however, is that a “perfect storm” hits, whereby the athlete doesn’t feel he or she has to learn more about a future non-sports career, and the support group of people around the athlete focus more on riding on his or her coat tail than they do investing in a more realistic conversation about non-sport careers (which will inevitably need to be examined at some point).
No, athletes who fall on hard times are not “dumb jocks,” but they are not necessarily victims, either. Instead, they are often the product of both individual decisions as well as institutional and societal norms and expectations that allow for the athlete to completely blow off attention that would otherwise be directed toward making mature career-related decisions.
For more information on this subject please check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes