Prepare Ahead The Decline Phase I recently had a conversation with a professional athlete who was nearing the end of his sporting career and sought my advice on what to do next to continue his earnings. It’s always a tough conversation to have because he was essentially out of contracts, but hadn’t yet figured out the next step. So daunting was the prospect that he considered lengthening his career in hopes of “buying time”. This scenario was all too familiar. This is a common conversation I’ve had with numerous athletes over the years. Irrespective of the level at which they play or the heights they reach, most face a similar quandary once the lights go dim on the pitch. Essentially, they’re unprepared for retirement or surprisingly, hadn’t given it much thought. The tough question of what to do next career-wise is actually a small part of the equation. Walking away from a sport that has defined them for the larger part of their lives does take a huge hit psychologically. Most elite athletes define themselves directly in relation to their sporting performances and cannot see themselves doing anything else outside of the sport. Socially, the negative effects are numerous. The transition from the bright lights of the stadium, the excitement of the fans, the intensity of the game, and the extensive global travel is difficult. You wake up one day, slower, weaker, and sometimes aching from the many knocks and demands of athletic life, and you go off into the sunset from the sublime and spectacular to the ordinary and commonplace. I urge all athletes to prepare for retirement even during their best playing years. The ministry of sports and sports-governing bodies should also consider providing support for athletes nearing retirement and walk them through what changes are likely and what options are available. Families should also be cautious about placing significant financial demands on the retired athlete during those difficult transitional months. In cases where depression is evident, counselling is always a viable consideration. I urge all athletes to explore earning options before retirement to ensure a seamless transition. Once you have another purpose identified, it makes the retirement decision that much easier because you are pulled by the possibilities for the future rather than pushed by the physical decline. Next week, I’ll provide some alternative career solutions for the retired athlete. One Love. Social changes aside, there is also the physical-decline phase right before retirement that challenges even the greatest of athletes. It is quite prevalent for them to decide on retirement only after noticing a drastic dip in their physical performance or being eclipsed by the competition. That decline phase takes a hit on one’s self-esteem. Most athletes place a high value on peak performance and intense training and thus struggle to adapt to the lack of intensity required in normal, everyday life. The bodily changes of weight gain, loss of muscle mass, and the bodily aches and pain that typically come with years of playing professional sports can negatively impact their body image and feelings of self-worth as well. Families should be keen to take note of any changes as depression is a likely result. The depression that many athletes face as retirement nears is largely related to the financial changes as well. The harsh reality of the financial shortfall brought on by retirement is often instantaneous. Except for those with long-term endorsement deals, most athletes stop earning altogether immediately, as they stop playing, swimming or running. The mortgage, car note, family expenses, school fees and extended family demands are usually structured around whatever salary they earned while playing the sport. There is no job to walk into the next day that will match those immense earnings that sports can bring across cricket, football, track and field, and the like. The immediate drop-off in athletes’ earnings is hard to plan for or adjust to for a 35-40-year-old, some 30 years before the rest of the population will have to grapple with retirement.