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What do professional athletes do when their sports careers are over?

Super Bowl Football

Yesterday was the sports phenomenon that is the Super Bowl, and while the New England Patriots and their fans are still celebrating their win, it got me thinking about what happens to athletes after their bodies aren’t able to perform at that elite stage anymore. What do they do when they have no choice but to hang up their cleats?

70% of NFL players are between the ages of 22 and 27, and according to the NFL Players Association the average career length is about 3.3 years. These are people who are living their dream and then at the age of 25 – 30 are told – “Dream is over. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?”

Again, we are talking about the average NFL player. There are 53 players on a team’s active roster – and if we are honest only a few of those players are the extreme Tom Bradys of the industry making the $15 million contract deals. The average NFL player is making about $1.9 million a year. Nothing to scoff at, but also if they work for only 3.3 years and make about $6 million is that enough to live off for the rest of their life? Yes if they are smart, don’t live outside their means and invest it well.

More importantly then just the money, though – won’t most want to do something productive with their time over the next 30 years? Studies have shown that unemployment has a direct affect on our mental health and overall well-being. Pro football players also have to deal with the fact that their life expediency is about 20 years less than the average US male. And – what is the psychological impact of being told your dream career is over in your late twenties?

NFL players are not alone – outside of maybe professional golf, most sports have an early retirement age. Then there are the athletes who are never drafted, get injured or have another life circumstance that won’t allow them to play. Athletes who get to the professional level – even the college level – have ate, slept and dreamt their sport. To be that good, they have to do this. It becomes all encompassing. So – what happens when it is no more? What are the Chapter Be stories of athletes?

494993821JP0611_DraftIsaiah Austin is an amazing example of someone who had to realign his dream and make a major life change. He was slated to be the first round NBA draft pick, but instead was told at the age of 21 that he could no longer play at all due to his Marfan syndrome diagnosis. He is still at Baylor University, and he has become one of the basketball team’s managers, is working on his business degree, has started his own foundation and is working on his memoir. Theoretically he had every reason to be bitter, but instead he found ways to take his incredible skills on the court and apply them off the court. At the young age of 21 he was able to re-center himself and used a positive attitude to change his circumstances. I find that even more admirable then being a professional NBA athlete.

michelleroarkMichelle Roark has another amazing professional athlete Chapter Be story. Michelle was a professional skier, who competed on the US Freestyle Ski Team for 16 years. She was awarded numerous titles including Olympian, World Cup Champion, National Champion and World Champion Silver Medalist. During this time she underwent six (!) knee surgeries and also obtained a chemical engineering degree from Colorado School of Mines. She loved to ski, but also recognized that she couldn’t depend on the sport as her only source of being in the world. She eventually put her chemical engineering degree to use by developing a natural fragrance line, Phia Lab, and then opened a beauty salon and spa, Voila, in downtown Denver. All of these accomplishments are admirable in their own right, but Michelle’s mental resilience and positive attitude are the common thread in all of them.

CarrollRUTZIt is also hopeful to read about how Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll is working to try and reshape the NFL culture by including mindfulness in his coaching as much as drills and plays. His approach is to nurture each player’s individual growth, which includes celebrating his or her uniqueness and individuality. “At the core of his philosophy, Carroll believes that everyone—not just a few talented high draft picks—can learn how to tap into their highest potential.” He coaches concepts such as connectedness and mindfulness – skills that his athletes can use once they are no longer football players. It is about supporting the entire human, and not just a cog in the football wheel.

These few stories highlight the importance of not just being a stellar athlete but having the capacity to recognize that they are more then just that. There needs to be an inner awareness that when one dream ends another is still possible. It is about seeing himself or herself as a whole person and allowing more then one major skill to develop even while they are intensely training.

We put professional athletes on pedestals, but don’t necessarily invest in their lives after they are off our screens or no longer a part of our favorite teams. I think it is time that we are just as invested in them as non-athletes as we are in their weekly stats. What will they be like once their sport days are over? Because realistically – that is what they will be doing and being much longer then the few years that they are on the field.

Images via Ben Margot/APJennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty, Rachel Kemble and Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

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