Every athlete, regardless of talent level, will eventually retire from playing competitive sports. For most, this decision will be made for them through deselection (being cut from a team). Others will retire from sports due to injury, and some will voluntarily quit. Regardless of how an athlete exits sports, it’s important to accept that all athletes will eventually retire — and that sport retirement often leaves athletes vulnerable to a number of outcomes and consequences that can dramatically effect future human development.
When the cheering stops…
Life can be quite different for athletes once their careers end, and the changes are experienced almost immediately. No longer can the athlete still refer to him- or herself as “athlete,” and many of the previous privileges quickly end. All the attention of being an athlete subsides, and the support system made up of teammates goes away as well. Once adorned by fans, many former athletes transition from living like a celebrity to suddenly being unnoticed. The reality is when a sports career ends, it can almost feel like being fired from a job you love.
When the cheering stops athletes need to quickly re-define who they are, as well as adjust to being regular citizen in society. Athletes also need to re-direct their attention to a new future career, which might include first finishing school. Re-adjusting to life after sports can also be difficult losing all the structure that sports provide — no longer will there be a set schedule, dedicated counselors and advisors, or access to previous facilities. Most athletes find themselves looking on the outside in, and some feel quickly forgotten as a result.
Sport retirement issues at the youth level
Don’t assume that only retiring professional athletes struggle during the sport retirement transition, as many college, high school, and youth-level athletes experience similar problems. Successful athletes, regardless of age, often receive a lot of attention for their success, and are sometimes enabled because of it. When special privileges are afforded to athletes, it creates a sense of entitlement and invincibility, making things even more challenging when sport retirement occurs and those special concessions end. These abrupt changes can lead to questions around personal identity, career planning, and what to do without sports? And, of course, most athletes are left to their own devices when it comes to finding solutions to those questions since they no longer have teammates and coaches for support.
The answer to what happens when the cheering stops is a lot. Loss of fanfare, special privileges, team support, and personal identity are just a few immediate issues athletes experience, while long-term closure issues loom. Athletes who leave sports due to injury, as well as those who assumed they would “make it” to the next level but didn’t are usually the most at-risk for mental health struggles. For help with sport retirement check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes, the first career text designed to provide athletes hands-on help for successfully moving on to a post-sports identity and career.