A certain measure of fear hangs over every athlete who loves competing, a fear that rarely if ever gets talked about but is always there—whether the athlete is 18 or 38.
The fear of being done.
Athletes who either do not quite have the ability or have not received the break necessary to play at the next level in their sport often continue to chase the dream in lesser leagues because they want to make it to the top, of course, but perhaps even more because they simply don’t want to face the end of their competitive life.
Players play for love of the game, but also for the feeling of invincibility that comes with it, of being able to stay ahead of the curve.
It’s a chase, and “I may not be winning or producing big stats, but as long as I’m still playing, at least I’m in the pack”—and that feels good.
But even when the greatest athletes in their sport retire, the transition comes with a sense of having lost, of finally get caught from behind. Everyone knows it’s coming at some point, but the corresponding feeling is difficult to anticipate, and even more difficult to process.
Even the Best Can’t Outrun Time
We watch professional athletes come to the end of their run in every sport, every season.
As part of the process, commentators rather flippantly argue that “it’s time for them to step down” because the athletes’ physical game has deteriorated—a fact obvious to anyone who has watched them for years—and everybody already knows “you can’t outrun Father Time.”
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But moving beyond the cold critique of physical output and declining stats, why is it so psychologically challenging for an athlete to stop—even when the body or skill level are saying it’s time?
Why wouldn’t an accomplished professional athlete look forward to the opportunity to get off the court or field, kick back and enjoy the reality of their independent future? Some certainly do, but it’s still worth asking: what is lost besides the act of playing when an athlete retires?
Being constantly hounded by fans may be challenging, and avoiding the masses outside the lines becomes an art out of necessity, but the human heart grows fond of being a hero.
The seduction of being loved and appreciated for wearing a uniform fades slowly if ever, and it’s easy to rely too heavily on the attention generated by the label “athlete.”
Certainly—though it’s not easily summarized here—for an athlete, attention and identity become almost inseparable over time. So once notoriety fades, what becomes of identity?
Every athlete knows intuitively that separation from the uniform means he is no longer being talked about—certainly not with the same frequency—and when this attention has been available since the seventh grade or earlier, it presents an identity problem that isn’t easily solved.
The Elite Competition
Remember watching Brett Favre in Wrangler commercials a few years ago in the months when he bounced back and forth between playing and retiring? He looked like he was having a blast in those commercials, tossing a football in the backyard to guys struggling to catch and run at the same time.
If you’re an athlete, no rush compares to being physically challenged by another human who spends their days training to beat you—then either discovering you are equal to the challenge or having the areas you need to improve on exposed, thereby shaping the next days’ workout.
The athletic psyche stalks challenge, seeks goals that push beyond barriers posed by normal life. Craving this bar-raising lifestyle can become almost addictive—and like other addictions, the grip happens without their knowledge or consent and is hard to get “fixed.”
After decades of playing with elite-level players, kicking around at the local YMCA and retiring to backyard pick-up ball—while easily romanticized—is depressing, and every athlete who sees that future runs from it for as long as possible.
Ask players what they miss most about being a competitive athlete and near the top of every list will be relationships with teammates.
The shared grind of training camp.
Singing whatever’s playing in unison after a win.
The bond formed with a group that works together, travels together, plays together, and shares life together practically twenty-four hours a day is difficult to duplicate outside the team.
Selling jeans and peddling pizzas pales in comparison to trotting the final fifty feet down the ramp before emerging in front of the home crowd with your teammates, or better still, feeling the exhilaration together that accompanies being on the rivals’ homecourt.
The potential level of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connection that happens on a sports team is rare and practically impossible to experience anywhere else once the uniform comes off for good.
Not a word we typically hear, but idolatry engulfs an athlete’s heart the moment all activities in life begin orbiting the sport itself. Remove the idol, and suddenly we’re left with nothing to worship, nothing to organize life around, nothing that offers a fixed point for meaning and purpose.
What do we do when our object of worship gets taken from us? When the thing that at least gave us the façade of life suddenly is no more? Where do we get life from? What will we bow to in its place?
An athlete whose entire life has been bracketed by practices, workouts, nutrition guidelines, and coaches orders finds herself dependent in an unexpected way.
There is a certain comfort that accompanies the boundaries to an athletic lifestyle. This can be replaced but it’s not easy to find or come up with on one’s own.
Retirement represents the death of an entire scheduling, relational, and subcultural lifestyle.
What else does the athlete lose besides attention, competition, camaraderie, an idol, and a routine? What would you add to the list?