As we battle through the cold days of winter and the school year inches toward a close, millions of senior student athletes across the country will soon hang up their varsity letter jackets for the last time. Some of these student athletes will see their sports careers end because of lacking talent, others because of injuries, while still others will voluntarily retire. In fact, studies show that about 95% of all high school student athletes will be deselected by the time high school ends, leaving only about 5% of high school graduates talented enough to move on and play college sports. Many student athletes are unprepared for this transition, with just as many sports parents are unprepared as well.
Uniqueness of sport retirement
Sport retirement is an interesting, unique, and complex human experience for athletes. First, every athlete will eventually retire from sports, unlike other non-sport careers where individuals can, in some cases, work their entire lives. Sport retirement also occurs relatively early in life for most, with only a select few athletes being able to compete past high school. The sport retirement transition also often occurs when athletes are unprepared to retire, as in the case of athletes who see their careers end because of injury or lacking talent.
While those factors alone make sport retirement a very unique human experience, it is perhaps the connection athletes feel to their sport that sets them up for the most difficult part of the transition. Specifically, athletes develop an “athletic identity” over time, often to the point where this identity becomes an exclusive identity. What this means is that many athletes come to see themselves as “athlete,” and when this role quickly vanishes during retirement they are left to figure out a very big question: Who am I now?
Who is prepared and who isn’t?
Readiness for sport retirement is an important variable when examining what athletes may be most at-risk for a difficult transition from sports. Athletes who have prepared for retirement and are accepting that they can’t play forever are usually more ready to move on compared to athletes who have not prepared for or planned that they would ever exit sports. As you might imagine, athletes who experience unforeseen career-ending injuries are usually most at-risk.
Other variables that often dictate how prepared an athlete is to retire include how broad their identity is (meaning beyond ‘athlete’), their level of future planning, and the support system around them (others who can assist during this transition). Interestingly, level of sport competition doesn’t have quite the impact one might think — in other words, not every pro athlete struggles with sport retirement, and there are increasingly more amateur athletes (some still involved with interscholastic and youth sports) who did experience distress when being forced to quit.
Fill the void of sports
When athletes retire from sports there is usually a big chunk of time to fill in the absence of practices and games. Athletes who stay busy seem to have fewer problems compared to athletes who don’t use the extra time to pursue other life interests. Additionally, some athletes have found it therapeutic to remain involved with their sport (either as a coach or official), though the timing of the new role may be different for individual athletes (meaning some find it helpful to jump right in to a new role, while others need time away to hit ‘reset’ before trying a new role).
Never assume your child’s final game will be ‘just another day,’ as today’s generation of kids have been playing sports from an early age, with many having specialized in one sport and played sports year-round. In other words, sports are a big deal to a lot of kids. If your son or daughter is nearing sport retirement, sit down as a family and talk about how to successfully deal with the upcoming transition and how to use the new free time in the absence of sports. Be sure to validate the importance of this time with your child, and help him or her identify and use athletic transferable skills for future academic, career, and life success. One resource you might consider picking up to help is Positive Transitions for Student Athletes.
If you have firsthand experience with sport retirement what advice would you offer to athletes and their families? Are there specific resources you found helpful?
Are you a teacher, counselor, or other helping professional that works with student athletes? If so, check out our popular continuing education course designed to help — learn more here!