Issues When Ending a Sports Careerby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Frequently, athletes are so caught up in the excitement of their career and on developing the necessary skills and techniques to succeed in their sports career that they don’t anticipate what may occur when their sports career ends. Sports careers are different than many other careers because they frequently end at a much younger age than standard retirement age and often may end unexpectedly. The transition can be made somewhat easier the more the athlete recognizes the issues in ending the career and prepares for life after a sports career.
First, it is critical to recognize that the athlete’s self-identity is typically inseparable from their role as an athlete. Often for many years the major focus in their life is on developing as an athlete and succeeding in their chosen sport. When the sports career ends, it leaves a major hole in the athlete’s life. Whether the career ended as planned or suddenly, the athlete experiences a significant loss that can be as devastating as losing a loved one. The end of the career doesn’t mean just not engaging in the sport anymore. It also changes the athlete’s role: he or she is no longer an “athlete.” In addition, it affects others’ perception of the individual; he or she may no longer get the recognition for their accomplishment. Other changes may include changes in living situation, financial status, and leisure time. Even though change can be for the better, all change involves loss. And whether we want to recognize it or not, all human beings react to loss. For athletes who have suddenly ended their career due to something such as an injury, the loss can be even more profound.
The Kubler-Ross model developed from observations with terminally ill patients has often been used to explain our reactions to different types of loss. The model identifies five stages of grief that individual’s experience: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance. The initial stage of denial can be manifested in different ways for an athlete depending on the circumstances of the career ending. An athlete with a career-ending injury may deny the severity of the injury and insist that she will return to the sport. For athletes with planned endings, we sometimes see them returning to the sport after retirement. The stage of bargaining can be manifested by the athlete trying to negotiate ways to continue in the sports career. Or it could be an injured athlete trying to make a deal with God: “If you cure me, I will devote my life to helping others.” Anger sets in when the athlete realizes that the end of the career is a reality. Sometimes the anger is clearly directed against a target such as someone who caused the injury. Other times it can be more diffuse and be manifested as general irritability and a tendency to get in conflict with others. The anger stage breaks through the last vestiges of denial which causes the full impact of the loss to be felt. The grief process can occur over a few months or a person can become stuck in the grief for years and never resolve it. The final stage of acceptance occurs after the athlete has allowed him or herself to fully experience the emotions related to the loss.
The termination of a sports career can be easier or harder depending upon the athlete’s preparation for termination and how it is handled by those around him or her. If the athlete has engaged in retirement planning which includes developing plans for another career, for future financial stability, and for handling other people’s reactions then the termination of a sports career can occur more smoothly. Although athletes may not want to deal with it, engaging in this process for the potential of something unexpected such as an injury can be very beneficial as well. The coach can make the termination process easier by addressing it as part of an athlete’s training; just as mental skills are becoming more accepted as important to an athlete’s success, planning and goal-setting for the future can also be seen as an integral part of the training. The more the coach makes this clear, the more the athlete will accept it. The coach can have experts on retirement planning talk to the athletes periodically to help with the process. After career termination the coach can be supportive to the athlete by helping him or her understand the grief process and that it is normal to experience it.
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Dr. Monica Frank