My Answer to the Problem That Almost All Former Athletes Experience
It is often said an athlete dies twice, but I’m determined to change that. I wish someone had sat me down before college graduation and said, “Hey Jay, you’re an incredible athlete – you know that. You’ve dedicated your life to your athletic pursuit and excelled. All those skills are super valuable – but you may experience some challenges right out of the gate that are unique to being an ex-athlete. If you aren’t prepared for them it can really knock you off course.”
My ears would have perked right up. What challenges could I possibly face because I’m an athlete? I expected my athletic training to be an asset that future employers would immediately see the value of. I sure as heck would not expect to hear that nearly half of all former athletes experience some level of depression and anxiety upon retiring from sports. But that’s the truth – and we need to talk about it.
Athletes Lose Their Identities When They Graduate
Athletes don’t just rely on their skills and training to achieve success. They also develop an identity as an athlete that feeds their drive to succeed and creates a hunger for big wins. These identities are formed by coaches and the unique cultures of their sport. Athletes adopt specific ways of seeing and visualizing their world in terms of how to play “the game.” All decisions answer the question, “How does this get me to the next big win?”
For most athletes, college graduation marks their separation from the athletic world. Some ex-athlete grads do fine as they transition into their professional lives, but others find this transition surprisingly difficult. The sudden loss of coaches, teammates and sports seasons can leave an athlete feeling estranged and disoriented. It’s like a fish out of water without any pond in sight. Feelings of shame and self-loathing develop over their inability to achieve like they used to. Most ex-athletes don’t understand that these challenges are a normal phase in ending their careers, nor do they have a framework for how to navigate it.
Mind the Gap
I was one of these athletes. I graduated and left football after 16 years of intense dedication to my sport. For years after graduation, I struggled in my professional life and found myself depressed and reliant on substances. I was the fish flopping around on dry land, banging my head against the ground trying to find an answer. I felt like I was stuck in a pit, but in reality I was experiencing the gap between my identity as an athlete and my unformed future identity.
It wasn’t until I began reading the books of successful people and found a mentor, that I began to understand the importance of mindset. It forced me to question my own mindset, which was founded on the belief that I had no purpose off the field. Around this same time, I started a small company and I began to see how entrepreneurship was its own “game of business.” I felt the athlete parts of my brain light up again as I built my business and pushed it to grow. But I was still missing that “big win” component that used to send me soaring on the field.
Then, I sold my business and – BAM – there it was! That “big win” feeling I lived for and hadn’t felt in so long. And better yet, I realized that I could repeat the process – more seasons, more championships. Something in me woke up that I hadn’t felt in years. I had found my new game.
We Need A New Game Plan
Since then, I’ve had many more wins that have contributed to my growth professionally and personally. But I’ve also been consumed with creating a solution to the original problem – navigating the transition between athlete and professional. There has to be a way to bridge this gap so former athletes don’t get stuck trying to figure out who they are off the field.
I’m convinced that ex-athletes need a program that trains them to see business as a game and shows them how to adapt their skills accordingly. They need a coach to help them set goals and strategize wins. Offering a training format similar to their athletic experience will not only actualize their potential, but ease the transition into their new identity. I’ve got some ideas about how this could look and I plan to share them here. If you want to hear more, subscribe to my blog to get notifications about new posts. The future is athlete and our best years are ahead of us.