Where do players go when the cheering stops and the game leaves them behind?

Every Athlete's Challenge

Going from "on-field stardom" to "sideline 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.

For professional athletes facing transition of life after sports, the source of this transition may play an important role. For example, few professional athletes retire from the game on their own, most are forced to leave because of age, injury, or because intense competition forces them out via a coaches decision. How you leave the sport has a significant impact on how you cope with transition into life after your career.

"The biggest challenge many of our players have is looking ahead for the rest of their lives. They have everything, in a sense. In the NFL, they've achieved their dream of playing at the highest level. They have a lot of money, but it comes to an end quicker than most of them can even imagine."— NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue

When the game is over, players face unexpected and overwhelming challenges:

  1. Denial — One of the greatest challenges players face in transition is the reality that the game is over and life has changed. Keeping the illusion of fame alive is costly.

  2. Drinking & Drugs — Alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs are often abused by athletes during their career and can become a bigger problem in retirement as players turn to these substances for emotional relief.

  3. Divorce — Half of the divorces among NFL players occur in their first year after leaving the game.

  4. Financial Loss and/or Challenges — The average annual NFL player's salary is 25 times greater than that of the average U.S. household income. Athletes used to six- and seven-figure incomes find it difficult to adjust to a new standard of living.

  5. Physical Loss and/or Challenges — 65 percent of NFL players retire with permanent injuries.

  6. Lack of Purpose and Significance — More than half of retired athletes feel they've lost their purpose in life. Only a third of retiring NFL players are college graduates.

  7. Depression

  8. Anger and Bitterness — When a player leaves the game, anger and bitterness are common. Fans, media, coaches, administration, players union, family, and friends often become the brunt of their frustration.

  9. Loss of Structure — Players used to a rigid schedule often find it difficult to plan their own lives and carry out simple tasks.

  10. Isolation — "I'm no longer part of a team – I'm all alone." Few people understand the challenges players face as they look “in” from the "outside"on what used to be their culture.

What is transition?

Face it: Transition is a fact of life – your life. Whether you're willing to admit it or not – transition has been a part of your life in the past, is a part of your life now, and will be a part of your life in the future.

When you went from high school to college and from college to the pros you experienced transition. If you are married, if you were traded or changed teams, if you bought a house – you experienced transitions that are a part of every player's life.

Some transitions are planned, some are unexpected, and some are unpredictable. Some are because of an event happening and some are caused because an event didn't happen.

Regardless of the type of transition, your greatest determining factor for success is your perception of your transition and your attitude during transition.

For example, one athlete might interpret being passed over in the draft as an indicator that he has the opportunity to select the team he believes has the greatest opportunity for success or one that meets other needs or desires. Another, athlete, however, may interpret the same opportunity as an indicator that he is a failure and will never attempt to enter the professional ranks. Perception is everything.

The Bottom Line: You

It's good to understand transition and what it is, but the biggest factor in your transition is you. You make all the difference in the world – regardless of the circumstances. You choose success or failure. You choose action or stagnation. No matter where you are in the process – it's never to late to make good decisions that will change your future – for the better.
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