Navigating the Transition after an Athletics Career

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Atomic Taco

The hype and excitement for the FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament was truly spectacular this year. People from around the world gathered to watch the best female soccer players represent their countries to compete for the Cup.  For soccer fans, it was an opportunity to watch the beautiful game of football played at the highest level. For devoted citizens, it was a time to cheer proudly for their country. For sports fanatics, it was a chance to watch intense competition between talented athletes. For young female soccer players, it was an opportunity to watch their role models and dream of being in their shoes. Now, a similar enthusiasm is mounting for the upcoming US Open Tennis Tournament, which takes place at the end of August in Queens, New York.

Womens World Cup 2015

For formerly competitive athletes, however, watching the World Cup or US Open can be a bittersweet experience, tinged with nostalgia. After all, every competitive athlete, including Lauren Cheney and Shannon Boxx from the women’s national soccer team, must at some point end their storied career. Of course, many players go on to play for fun either in organized leagues or recreational pick-up. Yet the rigorous training, frequent practices and long season of games are over. At this moment, the athlete loses something elusive, but important – perhaps it’s the competition, the commitment, the team camaraderie, or the physical exertion?

Transitioning from an elite athletics career (which brings its own challenges) to the next phase of life is not always seamless. There are many aspects to being on a competitive team that can be hard to replicate. But there are strategies to help ease your way into your next career or life chapter. Here a just a few:

  • Find other channels of exercise. Elite athletes should give themselves credit for being so disciplined and committed to exercising throughout their career. This is a skill to capitalize on. After all, just because you don’t have practice every day or tournaments on the weekends doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to be active. Getting outside or to the gym to exercise in any way is commendable. Take advantage of the opportunity to try something new, while drawing upon the old. If you reveled in teamwork, a fun co-ed softball or flag football team could be worth a try. If you loved  how your sport brought you in contact with nature, try biking around town, running home from work, planning a hiking trip. There are also ways to conceptualize exercise that may be different from your previous ideas about it, but helpful; for example, think of exercise as a healthy stress-reliever or a mood-booster.
  • Apply the strengths that you developed as an athlete to new endeavors. There are so many qualities that athletes acquire being on a competitive team that translate well to the work environment. Athletes are hard-working, team-oriented, disciplined, and driven. Many employers look for these characteristics when hiring; some individuals also put these aspects of their character to work by launching a new business or start-up venture.
  • Keep in touch with teammates and coaches. Although athletic careers focus a lot around winning and losing, the memories you make with teammates and the friendships that are formed will last forever. It is always nice to say you won a championship, but at the end of the day, it is the friends and family that are important. Former teammates and coaches can share some of their own experience of transition, and can be a unique source of psychological support as you navigate your own. The people that knew you best in a team setting can also advocate for your skills and traits as an athlete and a person.
  • Know your resilience. There is no athlete that wins everything; losing is an innate part of being a competitor. Although losing doesn’t feel good in the moment, it does play a role in making you a stronger, more resilient person. Remember the times that you were able to get yourself to practice the day after a big loss? Showing up paved the way for you to work harder and improve your game. This resilience can come in handy as you create your post-competition life and self-image. Life can bring its challenges in many forms, but you have the tools to stay strong and persevere.

The World Cup and the US Open may be nostalgic for some former athletes, but hopefully it can be an inspiring reminder as well. It’s important to remember that even though your athletic career comes to an end, but there are skills, qualities, and important relationships that you will bring with you into your future.  Once an athlete, always an athlete! But now, you have an opportunity to define yourself in new and exciting ways as well…

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