What the heck do I do now? A normal question athletes ask themselves when the applause stops and the lights go out. Watching the extreme example of Chris Nilan of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens in the show “Gladiators” recently on TV, and working in the field with active and retiring athletes, I understand the potential missteps and traps for an athlete who dedicates the first part of their working life to elite sports.
It’s not easy throwing yourself into something for years, working hard each day toward your “dream” and then have it taken away. It can dissolve in a variety of ways through injury through lack of success or through retirement after some success.
However it ends – it hurts and it’s not easy.
And, there are dangers, as we hear about everyday – athletes unable to make the jump to the “real world” and struggle to move on. Depression and other mental health issues can be common among retiring athletes.
Athletes have to clearly keep the following realities top of mind…
Your athletic career will end and probably sooner than you think.
The average athletic career (in pro sports) is less than 5 years – very few elite athletes will compete past 30 years old.
There are few guarantees in sports.
The vast majority of athletes will not be financially secure when they retire from sport.
So, what can you as an athlete do to make the successful jump from sports and successfully launch into the next stage of your life? After working with Professional Athletes and Olympians and advising transitioning athletes, here are a few ideas that athletes can consider to successfully make the jump from sports to life after sports.
- Do not wait until you retire to start thinking – “what’s next”. That question must be answered during your athletic career – early preparation for your next steps is critical. Contrary to what you might think, athletes who do consider their lives after sport also tend to be more successful in their sport career.
- Take some time to heal emotionally. Losing a sports career is a loss and should be grieved. This will help you to let go. But, don’t wait too long before starting into a new challenge.
- Always remember that what you do is not who you are. A person is constantly shifting their identity in life and your shift from professional or elite sports is one of your shifts. You are capable of great things in a variety of areas of life – it’s your job to identify your strengths and identify your passions.
- Understand how you can leverage your athletic career moving forward – what keys (lessons, celebrity, behaviors, networks) can you leverage to get a great start in your new challenge?
- Network!!! People provide opportunities in life so it is critical you develop your network while you are competing in professional or elite sports – when fans and others are most interested in your progress. Get everyone’s business card, show interest in what others are doing, involve others in your career and get involved in the community. Create opportunities for yourself while you are competing.
- Create your personal brand. Tell your story and build your brand. Part of your story will be you as the athlete – a compelling part of your life story that will interest many.
- Join a support network with those who can understand your challenge and/or find a mentor who has “been there done that”. The network and mentor will be invaluable for you to test ideas, provide feedback, learn “what’s out there” and empathize with your emotional challenges.
Have a plan, be organized and don’t wait too long to start the process thinking about your next passion. You can’t play forever and there are many opportunities out there for you to leverage great behaviors you have developed in sport and explore new talents.