With the Rio 2016 Olympics upon us, some of the biggest athletic names are back, from Michael Phelps in swimming to Jordan Burroughs in wrestling. But this also begs the question: What happens to athletes once they’ve passed beyond peak performance? It depends almost entirely on the sport – but for some, this happens right after college, while others don’t hit their peak until well into adulthood.
What if You Don’t Go Pro?
There are no guarantees in sports. At least, that’s what athletic advisor John Haime says on Hockeyshot.com, where he publishes tips for athletes of all skill levels. According to Haime, the average athletic career in pro sports lasts less than 5 years, and it’s rare for elite athletes to compete past the age of 30.
Many athletes don’t even make it that far. For young hopefuls attending college on athletic scholarships, the ultimate goal is to form a mutually beneficial contract with a professional sports team. In truth, fewer than 2 percent of college athletes go pro. As a result, the vast majority of college athletes have to contend with the fact that their professional athletic careers are ending – and, further, that they now need to figure out what to do next.
Planning for Transition Matters
Ending your competitive career can be hard – especially when it feels like the world around you wants to define you by your success. Sometimes it can feel like your athletic talents are your only real skills. Sports psychologists have discovered that athletes are often unwilling to make advance plans for their post-athletic lives.
Psychologists have also found that transitioning out of the competitive athletic lifestyle can cause serious depression and other mental health problems – even when the athlete feels happy or satisfied about moving on in life. For many, the adjustment period can feel a lot like grief or a loss of self-esteem.
What Athletes Can Do
Most athletic programs in colleges and beyond don’t incorporate sports-specific services into their mental health practices. While counseling can certainly help athletes ease the emotional struggle, athletes can take a few steps to prepare in their own lives.
- Start preparing early. Don’t wait until your career ends to start thinking about what’s next. Making a plan right now doesn’t mean focusing less on practicing, training and striving to become a better athlete. It just means you’ll be ready when the time comes to move on.
- Nourish your body and your mind. As an athlete, you know what you have to eat to do well, since it differs for every sport. A heavyweight wrestler has to pack in way more calories than a pro swimmer, but both will need to find a happy medium once their careers are over. Eat plenty of whole fibers, a variety of vegetables and fruits, and good fats and proteins to keep you full – and full of energy. If you’re concerned about a major change in your dietary needs, consult a nutritionist.
- Deal with stress as it comes. Stress often rears its ugly head during times of transition. To keep the nerves at bay, practice breathing and relaxation techniques to loosen your mind and body. Don’t forget that ending your professional career doesn’t mean you have to stop exercising altogether. Sports will always be part of you, and it’s now up to you to decide how much time and energy you want to devote to them.
Broaden Your Identity
Above all else, remember that what you do doesn’t define you – and that it’s important to approach all things in life with a sense of balance. For example, instead of defining yourself as a swimmer at the expense of all else, consider yourself a person who swims – and then ask yourself what else you do.
You are made up of many things – don’t forget that.