Athletes can tie their entire identity to their sporting exploits. PDP contributor & mental performance expert, John Haime shares insight into the challenge for athletes coming to the end of their career, illustrating the importance of developing the person.

The hermit crab lives in a shell.

When it outgrows a shell, it must leave that shell, find another and expose itself to predators. This is an ongoing process for the hermit crab – in order to grow, it must make the choice to leave its shell and start again.

As an athlete transitioning from your athlete shell, you, like the crab, are in a growth period. There is great change in this process. And, also like the crab, you are exposing yourself – to new feelings and a new life.

And, this change isn’t easy.

For much of your life, you have been an athlete. You have put in the great effort and sacrifice to reach heights you dream about from the first time you hit the field, pitch, court, course, pool etc. For a key part of your life, your sport IS your focus and your life.

I have the great privilege of working with professional athletes and Olympians in the transition period from sport to life after sport. And, yes, leaving your sport in the rear view mirror isn’t easy. I made the transition myself from a professional golf career and I know the feelings well. They say that athletes die twice – and most do. Studies have shown that athletes endure stages of grieving similar to the ones people experience during death and dying: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all common feelings after leaving “the game”.

What is Athletic Identity?

Athletic identity can be defined as the degree to which you identify with your sport. It’s how you come to perceive yourself, and how others perceive you, and also serves as a basis for your sense of self-worth. It’s the loss of this identity, developed over years, that makes transition to “real life” such a challenge.

After all, you have many identities in your life. You are a son or daughter, you may be a father or mother, and you may be a student or someone else. But, your athletic identify is powerful – we know ourselves as athletes and others know us as “ Joe or Susie the football player, the hockey player, the golfer, the tennis player, the swimmer, the runner etc.|”. Because we start our sport careers at a young age, these identities are developed from the start and become an indelible part of us.

It is my experience working with professional athletes and Olympians transitioning from sport to a new life that transitioning to a new career is not necessarily the difficulty, it’s the loss of the sport and everything that goes with it … and the loss of that identity that really hurts.

What Do I Do Now?

Because you have focused so much on your sport and given everything you have to be the best athlete you can be, finding something else that gives you a similar challenge can be difficult. Your own self-worth has been connected to that significant time commitment you have given to become elite. For professional athletes and Olympians, the time commitment is year-round and the sacrifices required make it a 24/7 job.

So, what do you do now?

Most athletes are uncertain of where they fit in and how to re-structure their identity.

This is where planning for you is the critical first step in moving to your next “shell”.

Every athlete, whether they want to admit it or not, will have an ending to their career. This will happen for some sooner than others depending on circumstances. While some careers last, others are very short. Notwithstanding where you are in the lifecycle of your athlete career, the first step in building new identities is planning. From my experience, the #1 most important step an athlete can do is to begin, well in advance of leaving sport, to think about what could be next for them. This is an exercise in self-awareness to understand what else may interest you, what skills you might have to offer, understanding your values, having a vision and generally establishing a plan moving forward.

Will this impact your current focus in sport? Should you be worried that this new focus will distract you from your primary focus?

Contrary to what you might think research is showing that athletes who plan for the future are more secure and organized in their sport life and perform better. So, planning for later on during your sports career will not impact performance in any way and help you create peace of mind as your sports career winds down.

Allow Yourself to Grieve

We know a transition from elite sports is not easy. Steps like advanced planning and a few simple ideas below can help you begin creating new identities and move forward with new challenges.

It is important to take some time and allow yourself to grieve the loss of your sport and all the benefits that have gone with it (teammates, purpose, love & praise from fans, enjoyment and other feelings). This period will help you come to terms with the loss – allow you to let go and prevent long-term negative feelings like resentment from emerging later. Leaving your sport and putting your athletic identity aside is a major loss, so allow yourself some time to address the loss. And then move on.

You Will Always Be an Athlete

In my business working with transitioning athletes, I see two extremes in athlete identity that can lead to problems …

  1. Athletes who keep their entire athletic identity when they leave sport and do not want to let go and move on.
  2. Athletes who completely dismiss their athletic careers and discard it in order to move forward.

Both scenarios are not healthy. There must be a balance.

It is important for an athlete to move on and grow – to accept a new identity and embrace it as the next challenge. But, your athletic achievement and experience is a part of your story as a person and an important part of who you are. It should be one of your identities that defines you. It is a chapter in your story. People are interested in others who have achieved extraordinary things – so it must remain a part of the story and leveraged in your growth moving forward.

Remember that transitioning from sport, shifting identities and achieving new heights has been done by many athletes before you. If you embrace the idea that you are capable of many things in this life, and leverage your sport experience to help you build new identities, you too will be successful and make a healthy transition.

Here are a few simple ideas/reminders to help you get started in the right direction in your new life …

1.    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.

2.    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.

3.    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.

4.    Find a mentor or join a support network with those who can understand your challenge.

Find a mentor who has “been there done that”.  A mentor will be invaluable for you to test ideas, provide feedback, learn “what’s out there” and empathize with your emotional challenges. A support network can also provide the opportunity for catharsis.

5.    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?

Image Credits: Deposit Photos

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