With the end of football season approaching, I can’t help but to think about the many athletes who are fortunate to have amazing experiences on the field before suddenly being hit with the harsh reality of transitioning into a completely different world once their season is over. After the fans stop cheering and the television cameras stop rolling, a new game starts. Many athletes face a new challenge that a lot of times they have never prepared for. For some of the few lucky ones, they will be able to prolong the process, continue on with their career in the pros, and fulfill their lifelong dreams. Many others will be faced with having to start a brand new life. This comes with lots of mental and emotional challenges that are not often talked about. Whether it happens in high school, college, or in the pros no one is exempt from the challenges that come with transitioning. The goal of this article is to spark the conversation on how we can improve the scenario for student athletes and people in other areas of life who share the same experience. Here are some of the major reasons why athletes and many others struggle with transition.
Loss of identity
This is the first challenge that you face as a former athlete. For most of us, it is our title or position in life that defines us long before we develop into knowing who we are. Once you take the jersey off for the last time, the biggest challenge becomes rediscovering who you really are, your strengths and weaknesses, your personal and professional preferences, and so much more. Even though you may strive to become a totally new person, many people will always define you as just being an athlete or a former athlete when they look at you. Imagine doing a job interview and trying to communicate your value when most of your resume is comprised of accolades you acquired from the sport you played and the majority of the experience you have is in the weight room and film room. Whether you decide to go into the corporate world or coaching, the years of training, the wins and losses, and the admiration you received from past performances takes a mental toll as you strive to take steps towards beginning your new life. For many athletes there is rarely ever closure when you move on. Your career often ends as a result of injury or someone telling you that you are not good enough. After playing in a major arena full of fans, one of the toughest things is coming back home, having to answer questions like, “What are you doing now?” and being at the crossroads of not knowing how to move forward with your life.
Loss of structure
Another major challenge faced by student athletes is the fact that once you leave your sport, you lose a major part of what made you successful. The routines that you lived by and the environment that enforced those routines are now completely gone. When you are part of a team, every minute is accounted for. You know exactly where you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to be working on from the minute you wake up to the time you go to bed. There is always an agenda, your time is always being controlled, and you are always being evaluated. The average schedule for a collegiate student athlete goes from 8am to 9pm at night. What do you do when the schedules and routines that managed your life become nonexistent? How do you take steps towards recreating this same structure in a positive way? Not only do you lose the structure that helped you become successful, you also lose those who held you accountable. There are no more academic staff, coaches, or any type of support systems that makes sure you are where you need to be.
Loss of Camaraderie
Talk to any former athlete and you will find that its not so much about making plays, winning games, or the notoriety that comes with success. It’s about being apart of something bigger than you. It’s about overcoming challenges with those who you care about. It’s about the bond that is created when you are part of a team. Everything from cracking jokes in the locker room to the little sayings that you have to get everyone fired up before competing. There’s nothing like it. This is a void that is so hard to replace once you’re done. It is almost impossible to recreate this in any other environment. As you are forced into survival mode in order establish your new life, you slowly begin to lose the connections you once had.
Loss of Perceived Value
One of the toughest things you come to realize is that once you take the jersey off for the last time, your perceived value in the eyes of society diminishes drastically. The appeal and name recognition you once had decreases as soon as there is someone else wearing your jersey. The game moves on without you. You were once an intricate part of the team and the outcome of the games were dependent upon your performance. Those who use to scream and shout your name now all of a sudden have a hard time remembering when you even use to play. It’s a hard pill to swallow, especially if you were someone who was defined by external acknowledgments. For a lot of us, our value has been built around getting the pat on the back for making a great play or being recognized by strangers who put us on a God-like pedestal. What happens when the admiration you once received is no longer there? What happens when you can no longer make those plays that made everyone believe you were special? Once we can no longer make plays, a lot of us feel like we have nothing of value left to offer the world. The biggest challenge is discovering how to no longer allow your value as a person to be determined by a jersey or what you did while wearing it.
Lack of Personal Brand
Because student athletes are not allowed to capitalize off of their own name, build their own business, or take advantage of their notoriety, this leaves a major gap in them understanding how to leverage all the years of hard work they have put forth and how to monetize it. Many athletes feel that the only area they can move into once their playing days are over are coaching, commentating, or training. While this may be a passion for some, there are many who miss out on the ability to expand their brand into other industries as a result of not understanding how their intangible skills can transfer into other areas of life. The rigorous schedule you take on as a student athlete prohibits you from truly being able to network, participate in full internships, and take part in activities on campus that will ensure success once you transition.
Lack of Life Skills
Much like many students, by the time student athletes arrive at their time of transition, they have spent way more time working on their craft as opposed to building skills that will help them win the most important game; the game of life. Skills like networking, public speaking, building their brand, proper business etiquette, and many other skills that will help them whether they become successful in sports or not. The unfortunate truth is that there are many coaches who do not feel it is their job to help their student athletes develop necessary life skills and put this portion of their development on the back burner. The belief is that it is their job to recruit and win games. Of course not every school is like this, but there must be more efforts placed towards creating a complete athlete.
I believe the first step towards improving the current situation is to be real with identifying the problems with the current system and for everyone involved to work towards solving them. It’s not enough to get excited about athletes when they are winning and not care about their life once they stop providing entertainment. The individuals you watch on your television screen may be large in size, but the reality is that mentally they are young, immature, and still trying to figure out life. More has to be done to prepare them for their real career, which is when they take that jersey off for the last time.
Rennie Curran is a speaker, personal development coach, and the author of “Free Agent” — Intangible Assets For Overcoming Adversity and Times of Transition.” You can follow him on Twitter @RennieCurran53, Instagram @RennieCurran, or visit his website at www.RennieCurran.com.