Why Sport Retirement is So Difficult, Including for Many Kids
It used to be in the old days that only retiring professional athletes struggled with life after sports. Today, however, millions of college, high school, and youth-level athletes face the same challenges when they experience the inevitable sport retirement transition. Interestingly, even though most young athletes who retire from sports were realistic about their long odds for making it to the pros, they still deal with stress, frustration, and confusion relating to their identity when they are no longer in the role of “athlete.” Sport retirement is not easy for athletes, and is often viewed as an unwelcome event — regardless the age of the athlete.
The stressors associated with sport retirement
So what, specifically, are the reasons why athletes experience distress during sport retirement? Below are four common challenges I discuss with athletes at my office that may apply to you (or the athletes you parent or coach):
- Identity. When individuals compete in sports is quite common for an athletic identity to develop over time. What this means is that rather than seeing oneself as multi-talented and interested in a variety of experiences and activities, the focus shifts to only experiencing life through the lens of an “athlete”. Often athletes foreclose on being an athlete (meaning they stop pursuing other aspects of their identity), making it challenging to rebuild their identity and figure out “who am I?” once their sports careers end.
- Support. Having a support system in life has been found to be associated with better life outcomes when individuals experience stressful life situations — and this is true for athletes as well. Unfortunately, when an athlete retires from sports he or she also lose their teammates (who previously served as their support system). It is for this reason that many athletes feel as though they are isolated and on their own when moving on from sports.
- Confidence. When an athlete retires all of his or her previous athletic accolades suddenly don’t feel as important as it doesn’t take long to realize the general public often doesn’t value former athletic achievements once they have passed. Consequently, many former athletes question what their real talents are now their sports are over? When confidence dips, anxiety often increases, resulting in a confused state that sometimes takes a little time to reset without athletics.
- Unmet goals. The number of unmet sport goals (also known as “unfinished business”) has been found to be correlated with life satisfaction post-sports. When athletes have a high number of unmet goals — as in the case of athletes suddenly forced out of sports via injury — it can be frustrating to deal with the fact that the clock has run out of time and those goals will likely never be met.
Sport retirement is a tough transition, and not just for pro athletes. Today, countless numbers of high school and youth-level athletes battle the same concerns around identity, unmet goals, and how to pick up the pieces after their sports careers come to a stop. Remember, many kids playing sports today have played all their lives — and in some cases year-round and with few breaks. It is for these reasons that quitting sports for good can be a really big deal.