Far too many athletes retire and are left wondering “what comes next?”. Whether you are leaving your sport after the high school, college, or professional ranks, the transition is inevitable. Whether you made millions of dollars and had a tremendous amount of success, or not, there comes a time when you must hang up the spikes for good, even if you don’t want to accept this fact.
So why is there such little effort put into helping us to prepare for life after sport? Furthermore, why are so few athletes proactive in the planning process of their futures?
My husband, who is a sports business professional, is very passionate about this topic, and we have discussed it in detail. He, like myself, is a former athlete and we both have experienced the transition first hand. I have actually experienced what felt like retirement twice. The first time while I was pregnant with my daughter, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back to the sport. The second (and official time) was just recently after competing at my third Olympics Games.
Neither time did I struggle with the oft asked question: “so what do I do next” because I had a plan in place that I began executing years before my actual retirement.
Here are some things that I considered during my track career that set me up for what has been a seamless transition out of competition:
Take the “student” part of student-athlete very seriously
It is very easy to get caught up in the notion that athletics is the only important portion of your identity while in college (or high school), but that degree will definitely mean something one day. This is true even if you’re convinced that you will never use it. The temptation to neglect your studies can be higher when you’re excelling in your sport. Fight the urge. Go to those study hours, attend that tutor session, and prepare for that exam with the same intensity that you have for a competition.
Even if you leave college early to accept that lucrative shoe contract, still endeavor to complete your degree, even if takes you double the time. Trust me when I say that you can be both a world-class athlete and strive for excellence in the classroom simultaneously.
Figure out quickly what your passions/talents are
Do you like to write?
Are you a great at public speaking?
Do you have a product that you sell?
Everyone has something special about them and the sooner you figure out what your unique God-given talents are outside of sports, the quicker you can figure out how to use them. In this digital age, nearly everything can be monetized, and with a little creativity, you can transform a hobby into a side hustle. And who knows, that side hustle may evolve into a full time business or career one day.
It would also be incredibly useful to leverage your current platform as an athlete to build an audience of genuine supporters who may want to stick around even when you’re finished competing. Now in the era of the NCAA allowing athletes to capitalize off of their name, image and likeness (NIL), you can even get paid just for being yourself and building your brand.
Dump the notion that preparing for the future means you’re not living in the present
I once heard someone say “if you’re thinking of a plan b then you must not trust your plan a”. Now, I completely understand the sentiment behind this mindset, because there has to be an element of unwavering self-belief that goes into accomplishing greatness, especially as an athlete. However, that also needs to be balanced with the understanding that sports don’t last forever, and there’s so much more life to live once you retire.
Along those same lines, every athlete has to find their identity outside of sport. Not only will figuring this out contribute to your sanity, but it will also help your longevity in the sport. As we all know, sports can be fickle so placing all your worth into results that can change so quickly can be dangerous. Use this as permission to begin planning for life after sport even while you’re still competing. As someone now on the other side of retirement, I mean it when I say your future self will thank you for it.
Get a good team
I sometimes feel like a broken record when I say that you’re only as good as your team, but it’s a cliché for a reason. How else do you think it was possible for me to train for the Olympics, practice pharmacy during a pandemic, manage my rental property, and still be present for my family? If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it was, and it would have literally been impossible without the people I have in my corner supporting me.
That team is not only there to help free up time that you can commit to other endeavors, but they can also be there to hold you accountable when you need it. Your team can serve as a sounding board when you feel overwhelmed as an athlete, or as you’re transitioning out of the athlete realm. No matter what stage you are on your journey, having a good team is imperative to help you operate at 100%.
Ignore the critics
There will be folks who tell you “you’re doing too much” or that you need to “choose a lane” when you’re simply trying to set yourself up for success. My advice: take what they’re saying with a grain of salt, because normally these people do have your best interests at heart. But, also bear in mind that a lot of people actually project their small mindedness onto you and that can be very limiting to your big goals.
I’ll give you a real life example: I had a person, whom I still respect to this day, tell me that it will be impossible to attend pharmacy school, and train for the Olympics at the same time. In their mind, it had never been done before, and I needed to chill out with these “unrealistic” goals. With all due respect, imagine if I would’ve listened to that person and bailed on my dream. Needless to say, my life would look very different.
As athletes, a lot of times we set goals, and together with our coaches, we map out what the upcoming season will look like. Oftentimes, this is a key part of the preseason prep, and it is usually met with a lot of enthusiasm.
This mapping out approach can be translated to planning for life after sport, and I encourage you to keep that same energy in this area as well. Have a general idea of what you envision your life looking like in retirement, and start to plan for it (even if it’s little by little). As a retired athlete currently reaping the benefits of said planning and preparation, I can tell you that you will be glad you did.