The general impression of athletes is generally one of larger-than-life success and skill. And in truth, the modern professional athlete is almost a brand unto themselves. They have an entourage of coaches, advisors, and image managers. With that sort of setup, along with the sizable earnings they receive, elite athletes might not need to be overly concerned about their post-retirement chapters.
Even if you never attained the highest level in sports, you might have received a decent amount of money through prizes and endorsements. It probably won’t be enough to maintain a high-flying lifestyle, but it can go far if managed soundly. You could earn passive income through real estate investing or take a more hands-on approach by using it as capital to start a business.
But what if that’s not the case? How do you navigate retirement in your 20s or 30s while other people your age are on an upward trajectory in more traditional careers?
The formative decisions
Being an athlete is undoubtedly a non-standard career path. The dedication required by any sport increases as you climb the ranks. In a semi-professional football league, you might be able to compete with a ‘weekend warrior’ level of training. You could hold down a day job while still being good enough to play in a competitive environment.
But at higher levels of competition, training needs to become even more intense and time-consuming. You’ll be facing opponents who devote each day of the week to getting better; there are no part-time professionals. Survival of the fittest dictates that you won’t cut it without doing the same.
These decisions aren’t easy. And they usually aren’t made all at once, with a lot of research or preparation. Young athletes make these choices all the time. Throughout their school years, they have to decide how they will prioritize studies, socializing with their peers, and training. If they get injured, they might reconsider whether it’s worth continuing down this path.
There are countless such decision points throughout an athlete’s developmental years. Each one represents a chance to drop out early and return to a more traditional career path. Equally, however, it represents a reinforcement of your identity should you choose to continue training.
A twofold problem
The nature of the retirement problem for athletes is twofold. First, much of their life has been consumed by the need to train to compete at progressively higher levels. It detracts from their ability to engage in other pursuits and potentially learn skills that would make them competitive in non-sporting careers.
Second, through this same process of dedication to their sport, athletes often find that their identity becomes intertwined with the game. They live for the sport, embracing the highs and lows of competition as well as the daily grind of training.
Success breeds more success in this sense. For the truly elite athletes, it’s easier to navigate life after retirement. They have more funds; thanks to a team of advisors, they might already have laid out plans for the future.
For everyone else, however, there might not be enough preparation. After retiring, athletes can struggle not only in terms of career and finances but also psychologically. They miss the competition; they aren’t sure of themselves or how they fit in a normal world.
Handling the transition
The good news is that studies have shown several possible methods of addressing these challenges. One of them is the leveraging of transferable skills.
Athletes don’t just spend their days honing the domain-specific coordination and physical skills required to succeed in their sport. They also tend to develop qualities that are not only context-independent but highly prized in other areas.
Such skills can include leadership, tenacity, self-motivation, adaptability, and being able to perform in the face of challenges and pressure. These transferable skills can give athletes an edge in many traditional careers where most employees struggle to develop similar attributes; by comparison, technical skills are more easily learned.
Coaches and advisors often make most decisions for young athletes, particularly in terms of training and competitions. By stepping back and allowing athletes to exercise more autonomy as they grow, they foster personal management skills.
However, making a successful transition from athletic retirement into a new chapter will require more than personal competencies. Athletes also need a healthy support system to help them make the necessary adjustments.
Quitting the game often means leaving behind a team that has also been your social circle for years; having family and friends who support you can ease the transition. Above all, they can help remind you that you are more than your sport or what you’ve accomplished within it or any other career.