Reactions to my Retirement

I remember it very distinctly; I was at a driving range with my two oldest daughters trying our best to hit the tractor picking up balls in the fairway. I came across an acquaintance in passing, one I hadn’t seen in many years. The usual banter aside, the topic of my career came up, to which I replied: “I’m retiring.”

His response was somewhat shocking and terrifying, but also fascinating. He grabbed my shoulder and said, “Well, I’m really sorry,” he kind of shook his head and left shortly after.  

I found the exchange particularly interesting because the last thing I felt about the end of my 15-year professional career was sorry.  The impact his response had on me genuinely gave me pause to consider whether I was a being little too optimistic about my future outside of sport.

Following that exchange, I became more aware of very subtle but similar messages which were coming through my social world echoing similarly themed responses, "Oh, no!”. “Don’t say that! You’ve got one more year in ya,” and, “Well, you did well.”

There is no doubt the underlying intention from all these people was meant to be positive, but to the athlete in me, all I heard was: “it was good while it lasted, but the best is behind you, it’s all downhill from here.” Despite a part of me that disagreed and was angered by the responses to my retirement news, I couldn’t help but 'overvalue' and internalize what others were implying about my future, and left me to consider, 'Am I worth anything to anyone anymore?'  

The point of my story is to illustrate how influenced and attentive an athlete can be to the external messages they receive in their environment, and how athletes tend to depend on others to validate them. This article explores the social and relational dynamics that contribute to the development and maintenance of the elite athlete identity, and how such dynamics can impact an athlete’s success or difficulty transitioning out of a sport.      

When considering the establishment of the “athlete identity,” it is important to contemplate the co-constructive interaction between athletes and social structures that facilitate this formation. Watson (2009) describes identity formation as the interplay between an individual’s ‘self-identity’ (their notion of who they are) and their ‘social-identity’ (the notion of that person in external discourses, institutions, and culture). This “give-and-take” process between the athlete and environment mainly comes to dictate how athletes should feel or behave in a given situation (Armitage & Conner, 1999; Charng, Piliavin, & Callero, 1988, as cited in Burns, Jasinski, Dunn, & Fletcher,  2012).

Based on my work with transitioning athletes, one of the most prominent outcomes of this social interaction is a propensity for athletes to become prone to and reliant on external validation and motivation. To succeed the athlete must do what is expected of them. Parents, coaches, trainers, agents, and development specialists all carve this path forward for the athlete (and in the process, tell the athlete what they should do) leaving the athlete return to those sources for validation.

The athlete performs and executes various tasks as assigned and either receive validation for his or her performance or does not. Adding to the underlying reactive dimension of the athlete profile is that athletes are told when and what to eat, when to sleep, when to train and for how long. The athlete merely applies the effort, determination, and athletic brilliance to meet the goals along the way.  However, athletes rarely consider these goals, partially because they are apparent; be the best, win the game, make it to the next level, etc. Granted this is a simplified description of athlete development and the socialization/interaction process, it does demonstrate how this dynamic can foster and support individuals who are much more responsive and reactive than independent and proactive.

Jay Harrison and Matthew Bennett on Dragon's Den

Jay Harrison and Matthew Bennett on Dragon's Den

On many levels, this makes sense and is a very functional adaptation for the athlete; the more responsive, determined, competitive, and ambitious the athlete, the more likely external validation will follow. Unfortunately for the athlete, retirement and transition mark a period where the value and functionality of this relationship changes. Many of the external cues that athletes have learned to respond to direct their determination, drive, and competitive streak disappear. For the athlete, it has been the outside directive (coach, trainer, agent, etc.) that acted as the vehicle to focus and direct these exceptional behaviors. Transition and retirement mark the loss of that directive. The athlete is left with a world class dynamic skill set and a notion of self-competency but may be lacking the underlying behaviors, skills, and mindset to put them in motion beyond their typical context. The behavioral outcome of this is stalling, stress, and frustration.

The messages athletes receive from society during transition mostly change as well. No longer is the athlete perceived as the 'master' and the source of envy from all those who aspire to be like them, but rather, referenced to by what they 'used to be.' Returning to my transition messaging story, one can see how a 'responsive nature' developed through an athletic career can exacerbate one’s consideration of and responsiveness to external cues, especially when they lack in positivity. In the case of the transitioning athlete, the directives are few, and the validation is next to nil. Athletes self-worth, confidence, and motivation can all be negatively impacted if they fail to prepare for the change in how they are socially perceived and validated.

At Game Change we recognize that what made an athlete great today may not directly translate to life after sport. While there are many highly sought after and transferable skills that athletes have to offer, the underlying motivational strategies required to execute and implement those skills likely need refinement.

Using our unique FOCUS methodology, the athlete can be evaluated, assessed, and developed in a way that meets their needs to integrate into the world beyond sport. Specifically, identifying and developing autonomous self-starting behavior and ability to form a long-term strategic vision that relies on internal validation is a crucial outcome of this process. It is not to say that all athletes must be entirely independent in their motivation to transition successfully, but instead, self -regulating and self-directing competencies must be at least somewhat developed and present to transition effectively. It is the development of these intrinsic motivational habits that facilitate the application of the athlete’s ambition, drive, and competitiveness into other realms of their life beyond sport.

Acting proactively is the most ideal means of ensuring that an athlete is armed with the appropriate and necessary competencies to transition successfully out of sport. Reaching athletes at the peak of their athletic success provides a stable and safe platform to seek out the self-awareness exploration and development exercises that are often missed in an athlete’s early development due to the rapid specialization and identification with the athlete role.

Game Change believes that the messages athletes are receiving from society can change as well. Educating about the benefits as well as advocating and serving the global development of athletes is not only the mission, it’s changing the world one athlete at a time.

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.
Jay Harrison