The Top 10 Challenges of Transition

From the Palace to the Streets. Going from "on-field super star" to "NFL has-been" is brutal. No more autographs, applause, million-dollar contracts, front-page photos, and product endorsements. Retirement is more than the end of a job. It feels like death.

"I know you! Wait... don't tell me... you used to be..."

You were once treated like the royalty of our American culture. Now, after leaving the game, it feels like you've been kicked out of the palace and left with the harsh realities of unfamiliar life on the streets of the "real" world. And it's a challenge to stay out of the gutter of life.

You've faced challenges your entire career: Competition for your position. Surviving training camp. Overcoming and avoiding injuries. Moving up to the next level from high school to college and from college to the pros. Making the team, the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl. Contract negotiations, and more…

When you think about an upcoming season and look at the game schedule, it's not about if you will face these opponents and challenges – it's about when you will face them. It's before you, and there's no getting around it. You have to face it – sooner or later – one way or another. And, the result will be victory or defeat.

The same is true for every athlete when he leaves the game and has to transition into life after football. It's before you and there's no getting around it. You will have to face it --sooner or later, one way or another. And, the result will be either victory or defeat.

It's not a matter of if you will have to face the challenges of a new season of transition and life after football. It's a matter of when you decide you will take on the challenge of transition and face it.

The Top 10 Challenges of Transition:

  1. Denial: Denial is probably the greatest challenge an athlete faces after retirement. You've been trained your entire career to "be tough," "never give up or give in," and to "fight through it." For some, it can take years before the reality of "career death" is self-evident and accepted. Maintaining the image and illusion of "having it all together" or the image of still being "the man" after retirement can be costly. Every athlete must face post career transition, and denial only prolongs the process. Not only can living in denial derail you financially, but it can also derail your marriage – and more.
    If you think you're not challenged by retirement and transition, you haven't been out of the game long enough, or you're LYING to yourself.

  2. Divorce: Of all NFL marriages that fail, 50% fail in the first year after leaving the game. For your entire career you've been trained to be the best player you can be. It's taken most of your focus and time to be one of "the best in the world." You've made sacrifices – denied yourself for the sake of the game – and, in the process, you have neglected your marriage and other relationships. Your career has been all about you. Maybe it needed to be that way. You were in the sport and the sport was in you. But the game has dropped you and, with it, your wife (or girlfriend). Two new identities – like two new people – you will have to find a way to get reacquainted.
    Whether it's your current wife or a new wife – you will need to get "remarried."

  3. Financial Loss and Challenges: The average NFL player's salary is more than 25 times the average US household income. You've enjoyed great vacations, fine restaurants, a plethora of clothes and jewelry, expensive new cars, and maybe even a big house on the golf course. Some players have been generous to family and friends along the way (maybe too generous). But you've worked too hard and too long during your career to lose everything after retiring. Consequently, when the money stops coming in, you'll have to adjust your spending habits or you could lose what you have worked so hard to get. More than one in four players report financial difficulties in the first year after they retire. It's more difficult to earn money in "the real world" than you realize, and it can take a few years to understand this concept.
    It's not how much you make, but how much you're able to keep that counts.

  4. Physical Challenges: 65% of NFL football players leave the game with permanent injuries. You've put your body through hell and back – training, practice, and playing. Now the game is over and it's difficult to admit that you are permanently disabled and must cut back physically. You used to have a reason to work out, but now your motivation is gone, and in the process you've probably gained a few pounds. Maybe your wife has put on a few pounds, as well. You can't physically do the things you used to and recreational activities beat you up.
    Truth: You're not "Ten-feet-tall and bullet-proof" anymore.

  5. Lack of Significance & Purpose: Newsday Newspaper reported in 1997 that more than half of retired players feel they've lost their purpose in life. You were born to play football – now what? Even if you had enough money to retire – and you might – you can't stare at your navel all day. Is it hard to get out of bed in the morning? If you don't have something worth waking up for, it can be a long "rest of your life." Sure you can keep yourself busy fishing and playing golf, but if you're like many retired athletes, it causes more problems at home than it's worth – and besides, after the honeymoon of retirement is over, golf and fishing lose their significance, as well. Because football has encompassed the majority of your life, you want to find the next career – or second career – that, like football, you were "born to do." This can be paralyzing and can keep you in neutral for a long time.
    Truth: Whatever you do after football, will feel like a step down.

  6. Anger, Bitterness, and Jealousy: You probably didn't retire willingly. Instead, the game left you behind. You were injured, cut, too old, or a victim of the salary cap. You were kicked off the train, but it's still rolling down the tracks, and the show must go on. Maybe a coach had it out for you or you didn't get a fair chance to show your stuff. Maybe the fans drove you nuts or the media took unfair shots at you. Maybe your agent didn't do his job. Some guys even blame their wives. Whatever the reason, you were kicked out of the NFL palace, onto the streets of the unfamiliar, and it's hard to stay out of the gutter. It's hard not to be angry. It's difficult not to take your frustrations out on those you care about most. You watch a football game on TV and it's painful. You should be out there. You watch the guy who is playing your position and you know you can do better, but he's the one in the spotlight playing and making big money. Deep down, you hope he fails. Secretly, you hope your old team loses. These are honest feelings, but ones you don't dare share, "because they're not supposed to be there."
    If you don't meet this challenge head on, it will eat you from the inside out for a long time.

  7. Loss or Change of Structure: Playing is a grind: training camp, working on Sundays and holidays, Tuesdays off, regimented practice schedules, and more. Every hour of the week, 24 –7, was planned out to the hour. Maybe you hated it. Now, you miss it– the positive way it made you feel good about yourself and your life. Ah, retirement! The good life. No one telling you where to be and what to do. Yet, it feels unsettling, unsure, and uneventful – like you're floating in space with nothing to grab on to. No direction. No foundation. No structure. It can be unsettling.
    Structure is a love/hate relationship that will take some time to balance during transition.

  8. Isolation: The guys that are still playing are busy with their careers trying to win a world championship, to secure a spot on the team, and build their own personal wealth. But you're alone. If you could only find someone to talk to who understands, but only a player would know – a retired player. But where is he? Isolation is a challenging part of post career transition. It can be devastating, but it doesn't have to be.
    You don't have to go through transition alone – and you shouldn't.

  9. Substance Abuse: Substance abuse can destroy any hope of a successful transition after football. Turning to drinking, illegal or prescription drugs only prolongs the agony of retirement and transition and leaves a wake of destruction behind. You might think you're doing well in this area, but abuse can include pornography, over eating, even spending sprees. Leaving the game is painful, and you will try to find relief – one way or another.
    Truth: The most difficult drug to put behind you is the NFL.

  10. Depression: More than one in five Americans suffer from clinical depression – so, at least 20% of players reading this are clinically depressed. That's a good place to start, but there's more. While little research has been done linking depression with playing football, studies on war veterans indicate that a tour of active duty can alter a soldier's brain chemistry, resulting in a chemical imbalance and clinical depression. It has also been found that men exposed repeatedly to drugs, pornography, and heightened stimulus can trigger the release of endorphins, which cause a similar shift in brain chemistry and can also result in clinical depression. It follows that the warlike mentality and heightened arousal of playing football in front of thousands of screaming fans can likewise alter the brain chemistry of professional athletes. Add to this a lack of purpose and significance, anger, isolation, loss of identity, substance abuse, and other related transitional issues and you find yourself in the middle of a prime breeding ground for depression and related behaviors. Treatment for depression is simple and life changing.
    Clinical depression amongst NFL players is probably more common than you think.

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