What does it really mean for an athlete to “retire”? Does it mean not competing anymore? Does it mean not participating in one’s sport ever again? Can you only retire from something you call an “athletic career” if you’ve been successful at it and/or made financial gains from it? Of course these questions can depend on the sport and competitive level. In any case “retirement” from a sport can be forced (e.g. injury or team cuts) or chosen. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately and how athletes can what I’d prefer to call “transition” successfully, and in stages, for life beyond their sport….Never mind the fact that I’m pushing 40 and starting to move my training and racing goals and little farther down the priority list, or that my college sport psychology class just wrote some fantastic journal entries on athlete transitions, or that I was recently at a social gathering with much joking going on around the subject of athlete retirement.
What follows is a large dose of my personal opinion and a smattering of my interest in and knowledge base of sport psychology. Here are some thoughts on how athletes of any age or level could assess if they are positively set up for an athletic transition, whether forced or chosen:
1. What are you other than a(n) [insert your sport here] athlete? If you haven’t taken time to nurture and invest in other aspects of your identity such as family member, friend, student, mother, father, daughter, son, or any other endless list of interests, hobbies, ways you prefer to spend your time that you identify with etc, then take some time to do so! Recognize that you have many other important aspects of your identity. What other possible sources of achievement and satisfaction do you have in your life if “athlete” were to be taken out of the equation?
2. Don’t wait until your athlete career comes to a halt to think about and ask yourself, what’s next? Always be dabbling in other things to at least explore what else you want and value in life? If you don’t know how you feel about post-secondary education, having a relationship, starting a family, starting a career, or everything else in life that transcends sport by say, right now – then think about it. You can’t set yourself up very well for the things you want most in life if you haven’t at least had a few deep thoughts about where you ideally would like to be 10, 20, 30 years down the road from now.
3. Continually reassess whether you’re continuing in your sport for positive reasons. If you are presently doing your sport simply because you don’t know what else to do, because you feel others (e.g. parents, coaches, teammates) expect you to, or you are scared to experience what might happen to you if you stopped, then refer back to point number 2. Start at least exploring other things, experiences, people, interests, or even other sports and be open to what you might discover.
4. Sport participation has so many positive benefits, but be aware of the line between healthy habits and negative dependency. If you are so dependent on your sport, that a) missing out on your sport disrupts your daily functioning in other areas of you life such as relationships, school, and work, b) that you would do it even when you are injured or sick, or c) that you experience withdrawal symptoms like depression, anxiety, guilt, headaches, loss of sleep or appetite when deprived of your sport then please seek some support to equip you to better handle the possibility of forced time away or even life without your sport. For example, in Canada a program has recently launched for carded athletes called Game Plan with the mission of supporting and empowering high performance athletes to pursue excellence during and beyond their sporting careers.
With all of the above said, it is important to recognize that time away from sport can leave anyone feeling a little lost and down, and that is completely normal. After all, pursuing goals in sport naturally aligns with many positives: structure, discipline, focus, time management, a healthy body, eating and recovering well, camaraderie, persistence, and the highs of overcoming challenges, to name a few. What athletes can fail to realize is that they have developed many skills through athletic pursuits that are transferable to anything else in life. As a reminder, just take a reread of the incredibly popular article from about a year ago on http://www.forbes.com entitled, “Why You Should Fill Your Company With Athletes”