What to Do When Approaching Retirement from Sport
In this post, I will share some of the ways you can prepare to transition from professional sport into that looming horizon – life after sport.
Approaching this transitional stage is an exciting, but also totally nerve-wracking. In all honesty, it feels like a strange place of limbo where you’re left questioning who you are, and what you are about – and the million dollar question….what next?
Whether you are a 20-something moving on from varsity sports, a 30 something retiring from professional sports or an athlete who simply wants to take a break from the competition circuit, credit needs to be given to you because this is a journey that is never easy, but is highly rewarding.
It is a challenging time of big unknowns and new beginnings, and the question arises, “Who the hell am I underneath all of this?”
I often hear that to choose athletics is to “delay” or “put aside” other career options. I couldn’t disagree more.
Athletes are not just high-performance athletes. They are high-performance humans. The problem is that we get used to the cacophony of external messaging. It’s time to shake off that messaging from the audience in your life and choose to believe differently.
Stop worrying, and focus on getting things done. It’s not selfish to take time to figure out who you are. It’s necessary, and as an athlete, it’s your time to step into serving yourself, not a sport, not an audience, not anyone else. It’s quiet work. There’s no audience, no cheering. Just you and your own mind. There’s no trophy, but there’s something better: Your happiness and sense of purpose.
I have worked with many professional athletes who have transitioned really well to to incredible, fulfilling careers after sport. What I can say is that a professional sports background is an asset and a catalyst for a highly successful career – if – and I do mean that – if – they take the time to do the internal work.
My message today is that it is totally, 100% possible to begin some foundational work now, in the time between your training, prehab, rehab and practice/competition schedule.
If you are beginning to think about life after sport, you’re looking at the two Ds. Discovering yourself and designingyourself.
I will talk about the first stage today: Discovering yourself.
I’ll start by talking about discovery in the context of varsity athletics, a stage of life (early – mid 20s) when so much discovery, identify formation and development is occurring. It is a great time to begin undertaking internal work at this stage, but let me remind you, its never too late, I’m simply using this as an example. The athletes I work with who make incredible transitions into life after sport took the time to essentially “minor in themselves” while they were in school.
They take strengths assessments (Strengths Finder is a great one and inexpensive) personality inventories, interest inventories and meet with career specialists or coaches. They begin to explore different paths by reading about people who work in different areas, and they undertake personal development with books, podcasts and simply trying out different experiences. They chat with people from different walks of life and aren’t afraid to go for coffee with people. They research on linked in and use occupational profiles to understand more about jobs (O*Net is a great resource.)
And athletes in your 30s? Don’t say you are coming to the game late, or under-prepared. I’ll tell you a secret, everybody else in their 30s is going through the same process as you are. At this point, we’re all taking a moment to reassess who we really are and what we want to do “when we grow up.”
The only difference between us, is that we’ve spent our last 10 years experiencing different jobs – but we’ve all wound up at this sample place. This time when we’re here, googling “what next” and turning inward to ask deeper questions. Questions like “What do I want in this next stage of life, personally and professionally?”
I see the “sports or career” or “sports or academics” message come up all over the place. It’s an insidious message that has done a disservice to athletes. It makes young athletes think that they are not allowed / are not capable of working on other facets of their identity. It is the result of many things; coaches, family, media, society, and culture. And of course, the all-consuming nature of professional sport.
The key to successful transition from sport to life after support is realizing that much of this programming is not your own and it doesn’t serve you to think this way. It’s time to let it go.
The well-meaning messages that you’ve received since you were young, that were intended to get you to a high level of performance, were helpful for a long time, but let’s shift to a different mindset… because this one inhibits athletes when it comes time to switch gears.
Athletes of all levels can leave their sport developed, prepared and excited.
What if I told you that your time as an athlete is the perfect time to develop a multi-faceted identity and come out totally well-developed and well-rounded?
It is something I think about all the time when I am working with athlete clients. They have some downtime and depending on the sport, access to professional coaches, psychologists, and assessment tools. There is absolutely no better time to get a masters degree in yourself, and get excited for the next stage. The help and programming is there now, but it is up to you to take it up.
Truthfully, a lot of athletes don’t, because they haven’t felt the need to, or they feel discouraged and overwhelmed – and on a deeper level, – it’s not something that has been actively encouraged. I’m here to unequivocally encourage and support you in that domain. So are your parents, your friends and your team mates.
So, without further ado, a few action items to get you on your way.
You have rich access to psychologists, professionals and assessment tools – or, if you don’t, hire someone that does.
Cautionary note: I see a lot of athletes accessing assessment tools but then not working with an interpreter or professional coach. The real value in these tools is following up.
On the field, you don’t learn a new skill in the locker room and that’s it… you drill it over and over until it is deeply embedded in your nervous system and muscle memory.
If you undertake an assessment, here’s the deal: Work with a practitioner, have multiple touch points, do the homework and choose to notice the results showing up in your life.
Psychometric assessment tools are a win-win. They will help you become a better athlete and give you a foundation to work from.
They are an amazing starting point when you begin the transition to a post-athletic career. I’ll list my favourites below and why they’ve been so effective. I’ve even experienced their power in my own life.
The MBTI Personality Inventory (who are you?)
I have found the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to be a brilliant starting point for anyone.
At the very least, it provides you with a whole new appreciation for the diversity of personality types out there, and their different approaches to life. It makes you more empathetic and understanding of different view points – essential for career success.
The MBTI reveals how you understand, take in and organize your inner and outer worlds. When I took it, I felt like I finally had a operations manual to my own personality. In my coaching work, it has been an incredible tool for athletes. It helps us to understand talents and abilities that span across sport into all areas of their lives as well as key drivers in their motivation.
We often start by looking at how their type shows up (and excels) in sports, and then we bridge to other areas of life. What is life like working inside of your type preference? When do you excel? What is life like, when you are not working in your domains of preference? What is stress for you? What is disengagement for you? All of these answers come from an interpretive session.
As an ENTP, taking the MBTI made me realize that the way my personality works (inventive, ideas-driven, strategic, creative, analytical) is perfectly aligned to coaching and developing webinars / workshops. Interestingly enough, the ENTP talents have been a part of my life for as long as I could remember, but instead of consciously leveraging it, I always saw it as a weakness (being multi-faceted, interested in everything, easily distracted.) Now that I leverage it, I have gone from good in my career to great in my career.
Life changed when I finally leaned into my personality type and aligned my work with what is the most fulfilling to my personality type. It has profoundly impacted my mental health also, because I now know in advance what conditions stress me out, what conditions re-balance my life, and how to access my own peak performance.
Working with a professional athlete recently, we uncovered a core value and strength in his personality: the development (and maintenance) of team relationships and the deep need to serve others. He jokingly explained it had probably saved him a year of misery in the wrong job for him (working with data in an office.)
The Gallup Strengths Finder (how you will be a game changer)
Though not a psychometric instrument, the Gallup Strengths Finder is immersed in 50 years of research by Gallup. I am a fan of tools that are steeped in practice and provide action items. It shifts the conversation to one of strengths, positive psychology and going from good to great. It is about tapping the explosive potential hidden underneath the surface in the form of talents, and developing them through conscious, intentional work into strengths.
It is a nice shift away from addressing weaknesses and deficits – which we see all too often, and which I believe do not lead to the results we desire if we are in a transitional point in our lives.
I began using the Gallup strengths finder in 2013 with student athletes at University and have found it to be a fantastic tool in helping them bridge from athletic strengths to academic strengths. It is excellent for helping build up their academic identity, rather than looking at the two as separate and incompatible – something I fight to change in higher education. This tool is equally effective in professional sports, helping athletes to bridge from sport to life after sport.
I also find the strengths finder does not begin to settle in and talents are not developed into strengths, unless there are multiple conversations and touch points. This highlights the need to work with a coach, practitioner or other professional at least a few times – make sure you go in with the stated intention to develop over time, not a one-off interpretation and information session. Partnerships are important in development. We are not acquiring knowledge, we are acquiring wisdom, which rests on practice and application.
The Strong Interest Inventory (what interests you.)
I have to confess I do not use the Strong Interest Inventory as much as the MBTI, but once a client has developed a solid foundation of understanding who they are, their personality and their strengths, they may want to go further in terms of actual occupational research and interest areas / industries.
I use this tool to identify topics of interest if a client needs more exploration of industries. Many athletes have not had exposure to a large variety of jobs / positions, with so many of their summers committed to training and development. You can figure out your interests through much trial and error, as most do, or you can skip that process entirely with the right knowledge.
I often explain to athletes that there are two parts to happiness and fulfillment in a career.
1.) The 9-5. There is showing up and doing what you are good at (or at least what you have the potential to thrive in with some skill development.) This is working in a role where the duties are very much suited to your preferences, strengths and personality type.
2.) The Industry. Another thing to look at is, what industry sparks your natural interest and curiosity. We have an inkling of topics and industries that fascinate us based on what we find ourselves reading about, surfing the web on or listening to podcasts about – if further exploration is needed, this is a great tool. There is a part of the report called the basic interest scales (BIS.) The BIS provide a comprehensive list of interest areas and rank your level of interest compared to average members of the general population sample.
I hope these provide you with some starting points. A self-directed class on yourself is perhaps the most interesting and applicable class you will ever take. High performance athletics are a noble pursuit and should be no means be seen as disadvantageous in career preparation and planning.
In fact, the people who access their full potential are those who maintain an interest in personal growth and improvement. You have cultivated this ability through your athletics and continual pursuit of development and improvement in that domain.
High-performance humans are high-performance humans, regardless of what they are wearing – pads, a suit, scrubs or a uniform. The key is identifying talents and leveraging them across all areas of life, as consciously as possible, as soon as possible.
Welcome to the most fascinating stage of your life yet.