This is retirement season—and not just because three icons in their respective sports recently announced the end of their careers.
Thousands of high school and college basketball players, wrestlers, gymnasts, swimmers and hockey players will finish their competitive schedules and hang up the uniform for the last time as the winter sport season and their eligibility comes to an end.
Corwin Anthony has been the AIA Pro Director for seven years. After a brief stint in the NFL with the Rams and Jets, he served as the Miami Dolphins chaplain for 10 years. Having watched hundreds of players exit the league, we asked him for thoughts on how athletes can retire well based on his experience.
Allow yourself to grieve well
Many athletes just suck it up and try to deal with transition the way they've dealt with injury or other setbacks in their sport.
When a career ends, one of the worst things to do is “suck it up” and move on right away. Take some time to grieve the loss. Come to grips with the fact that a major part of your identity has been terminated.
Don’t be afraid to get real help. I'd suggest finding a professional to help you discover and navigate the feelings that sometimes get pushed below the surface. Those feelings will affect your ability to move forward whether you are aware of them or not.
Better to bring them out and deal with them directly. Grieve well and then you can move on.
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Surround yourself with truth tellers
As soon as possible, replace the community of the locker room with a community of trusted friends who love you but are not impressed by you.
Ideally, they need to be people who care more about your walk with the Lord than their own friendship with you. Then meet with them regularly and allow them honest access to your heart, mind, and soul.
God always uses community to shape us. Who you surround yourself with on the other side of the game is just as important—and maybe more—than who you hung with in the locker room.
Take time to celebrate your experiences
Throughout the Bible, God’s people are regularly exhorted to “remember,” to reflect on His goodness to them, to consider their own rebellion and the consequences, to ponder moments in their history that shaped and brought them to this point.
This principle is worth practicing in relationship to your athletic career. Celebrate the experiences—both good and bad—and remember the journey God has had you on.
Reflect on the people, coaches, teammates, hardships and challenges overcome. The people and situations you’ve encountered not only shaped you and brought you to this current moment, but have also prepared you for your future assignments.
Then give thanks. Maybe you even need to make a phone call or two. Appreciation extended toward those who have been part of your story is good for both your soul and theirs.
Learn how to bless others with the platform you still have
You’ve lost a lot. Once the uniform gets hung up, life outside the locker room will never quite be what it was inside it.
Even if you somehow stay around the game by working a job with the team or in some media capacity, you are transitioning into another season of life that barely resembles the one you’ve known.
However, you will always have a platform to make an impact. No matter your last level of competition, you are in a position to use your sports background to influence the next generation.
Become a youth coach. Speak to youth groups. Start a community organization. Take a mission trip and learn how you can help another part of the world. Pay attention to and begin addressing a cause that burdens your heart.
Find ways to maximize your platform to make a positive impact on our world. You'll see that your life was made for something much bigger than your sport and you'll have maximum motivation to keep getting up in the morning.
A final thought: Don’t derive your identity from the hype
I remember traveling with my team when I served as an NFL chaplain years ago.
A fan with his young son in the lobby of our hotel was going embarrassingly overboard as the players walked by, singing the praises of the athletes as they simply rode up the escalator.
Even though I understood the context and had seen it a million times, it was still a sad sight watching him train his son to worship strangers just because of their athletic abilities.
The fan then turned to me, assuming I was a player, and began to express his admiration to me and encouraged his son to do the same.
I don't remember my exact words but I recall telling the guy that he needed to be the hero his son looks up to and not us strangers. I understood the impulse of the fan coming out of the man, but he wasn’t helping his son or the players with his adoration of the wrong thing.
Player, it’s hard to keep your head right in the midst of this kind of attention.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with people affirming you or expressing appreciation for the talent you've displayed, the subtle dependence on attention makes keeping your head now and walking away from the game later that much harder.
Affirmation and praise from fans can feel more like worship—which is dangerous to the soul. Once your identity gets wrapped tightly inside this attention, knowing who you are apart from it becomes difficult if not impossible.
Of course, man was neither meant nor designed to be worshiped—only God can handle it because only He is worthy of it. When humans receive worship we inevitably become corrupt.
Excessive attention tends to distort and even destroy our spiritual, emotional, psychological, mental, and physical state of being.
So work hard not to let the hype sink into your soul. Work to develop an identity based on what Christ says is true of you and not others.
To keep your head out of the clouds and feet on the ground, instead of basking in the praise you receive, learn to affirm and appreciate others and to practice deflecting attention off of yourself and onto other people.
Develop a lifestyle that includes regularly affirming other people for a job well done and intentionally make a conscious effort to encourage people around you.
And be sure to do this with people who can do nothing for you in return.
There’s no reason to wait until you hang it up to begin making these practices a part of your life. The transition out of the game is made much easier if you’re already practicing these things while still playing.