Mental Xs & Os: Moving on From The ‘Athletic Identity’

“What’s next?” President Josiah Bartlett, The West Wing

I retired from gymnastics at age 18, after 15 years of training (10 competing). My body was tired and I knew that my academic major (athletic training) would preclude me from competing in college – it’s hard to be at one sport’s practice if you have to be at your own practice at the same time. I like to say that I “retired” rather than “quit” because I didn’t just give up – I deliberately chose to move on to the next phase in my life. It may be semantics, but it’s an important distinction to me. My freshman year in college was a bit of a mess (though, tbh, isn’t everyone’s?) because I felt very lost. If I wasn’t a gymnast anymore, what was I? I had spent hours and hours in the gym every week since I was three years old, so now what do I do? I have always been competitive, so working out just for fitness was a bizarre concept to me. It was, frankly, an existential crisis.

We are at the point in the NFL season when players are deciding if it’s time to hang up their cleats. The draft has come and gone, a new class of players will dominate the news cycle, free agency action has trailed off.  Major players like Carson Palmer and Joe Thomas have already announced the end of their football careers, as have Danny Woodhead, Devin Hester, and Dwight Freeny (among others), and everyone is looking askance at Larry Fitzgerald.

When it is up to you, the decision to walk away from something you love, or something you have never lived without, can be challenging on the best of days. The ideal scenario is to have a successful career, win a Super Bowl, and ride off into the sunset on a Papa John’s pizza franchise, but that level of achievement and circumstance is pretty much only reserved for Peyton Manning. Another positive scenario is when you can decide to leave in order to move in a different direction like trading the NFL for a PhD àla John Urschel (now a spokesperson for Texas Instruments!). For most players, however, their career just ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Some players have a harder time letting go, moving to another team trying to keep the dream alive (see: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Frank Gore), and I would be remiss to leave Marshawn Lynch or Jay Cutler out of the discussion given their recent un-retirements. Still others have retirement unceremoniously handed to them through injury, lack of interest by GMs, or owners colluding to keep you from playing even though you had a higher QB rating than Cam Newton. But I digress.

Being a full time athlete is brutal. Everything hurts all of the time. It is a singular devotion requiring all decisions – what to eat, how much to sleep, when to train – to be considered with the end goal of “champion athlete” in mind. So why is retiring so hard? The concept of an “athletic identity” was formally examined by researchers at Springfield College in the early 90’s (Brewer, Van Raalte & Linder). The general idea is the intensity to which different aspects of your life (social, cognitive, affective, behavioral) are associated with one’s role as an athlete. Athletes who have a stronger athletic identity (AI) are naturally more committed to their sport, and often more successful.  AI is a bit of a double edged sword, as you might suspect. On the one hand, in order to achieve to goal of being an elite athlete you have to have this specific focus, which means not a lot of other areas in your life get developed. On the other hand when you don’t have (m)any other interests, you don’t have much to fall back on. This has been supported by research (Webb, Nasco, Riley, & Headrick, 1998), that shows the stronger the AI, the greater the risk of psychological distress after retirement.

Wippert and Wippert (2008) investigated the effects of retirement on world class skiers. They found that the career termination process has a significant effect on the athletes experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress. Athletes who experienced a “disintegrative termination” (i.e., they learned of their dismissal by chance or through a third party) had more intrusive thoughts, greater efforts to avoid negative emotions, increased sleep disturbance, increased alcohol usage, and greater negative event appraisal than those athletes who experienced a “supportive termination process” (i.e., a personal conversation explaining their dismissal from the national team). This supports previous work that indicates how an athlete’s career ends is fundamental to their emotional adjustment post-sport. NFL organizations should absolutely take this work into consideration to ensure a player has the opportunity for a face-to-face (or even a face-to-facetime) with the GM, and be careful that the athlete doesn’t find out through their agent or, worse, social media.

Part of the issue particular to team sports is that retirement from sport comes with an associated dissolution of the player’s social network. Because most of an athlete’s social support comes from their teammates, this social disintegration can exacerbate feelings of stress and isolation. Furthermore, an athlete’s daily structure is dictated to them –  where to go, when to be there, what to do while you are there, curfew enforcement, even what to wear or eat are all decisions that are made for them. Expectations are laid out for you. When this structure disappears it can be truly disorienting.

Some, like ex-Ravens running back Jamal Lewis find new communities in church or business and do everything they can to fill their daily calendar in order to “keep moving forward”; sliding backwards is the the terrifying alternative.  Calvin Johnson has talked about how being on Dancing With the Stars was really great for him early in his retirement.  “DWTS also provided a good transition for me. I had pretty much just retired, and the show allowed me to still have something I could practice and work towards — competition that I had to physically and emotionally prepare for in a way that was similar to what I did playing football. In a way, it gave me confidence when facing the uncertainty of retirement.” (Also worth noting the success of former NFL-ers on DWTS. Footwork is footwork.)

George Koonce, Jr is a former linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. He also has a PhD from Marquette University where he wrote his dissertation on the experience of football players retiring from the NFL. It is the only study I have found that looks at this specific group of athletes in relation to retirement. If you don’t want read all 90 pages of excerpts that were published in the Marquette Sports Law Review (Vol. 23, Issue 2), you can see the Cliff’s Notes version here.

In his paper, Dr. Koonce works from the framework of athletic role-engulfment, a similar concept to athletic identity (though used more commonly in sport sociology rather than sport psychology), developed by Adler and Adler (1991). Koonce discusses the difficulties faced by athletes who leave the structure of sport and have to learn to be self-motivated, make spontaneous decisions, and adjust to flexibility in day-to-day scheduling. There is no playbook. There are no pre-set routines. There is no coach calling the plays. It’s as if you had an exoskeleton that suddenly disappeared and now you have to learn how to grow bones. He describes role engulfment as characterized by a denial of certain aspects of the self – it’s not that these players don’t want to do other jobs when they retire from football “it’s just that they have not had a chance to develop any other skill sets.”

One of the over-arching challenges for those of us who want to help these athletes successfully transition is that there is little published data on professional athletes (in any league) – most research done on athletes is conducted on college athletes (which makes sense given that most researchers are college professors) or national team members; and while college and national team athletes are certainly considered to be “elite”, they cannot necessarily be considered “professional.” Most professional organizations in the US are pretty tightly closed cultures, and generally do not give outsiders access.

More research is being conducted with retired pro athletes, but it is severely lacking in current players. When conducting my database search, the term “professional football” yielded results almost entirely from European soccer clubs. This lack of access to professional athletes (in any league) as research subjects leaves a significant gap in our knowledge, which then makes it difficult to design and implement best-practices that would most effectively support the athletes. Given the amount of money these teams invest in their players, this closed-door approach is pretty short-sighted.

One thing that does seem helpful for athletes to consider while they are still athletes (gasp!) is how else they view themselves. Hickey & Rodrick (2017) discuss the idea of “possible selves” in Premier League soccer players, and that how we think of ourselves in the future can influence how we behave in the present. Fun exercise – ask an athlete to complete the sentence “I am…” and see how many different things they can come up with (and what they answer first). The more strongly a person sees themselves in a given role (and this is true for everyone- not just athletes) the fewer descriptors they will be able to list for themselves. Career transition research has shown that the more prepared an athlete is for the change, the less disruptive the process will be.

Now, some might argue that athletes *must* be single-minded in their pursuit, and anything less shows a lack of commitment to football. For a recent example see the confusion by NFL scouts over UCLA QB Josh Rosen’s desire to have goals that include life post-NFL.  Kansas City Chiefs starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, MD has also discussed teams questioning his commitment during the draft process.

I would argue that this underestimates the capacity athletes have to succeed. These are talented, driven people who are already parents, siblings, spokes-people, businessmen, role models, advocates, and any number of other “selves”, whether they realize it or not.  Thinking about the future does not indicate limited dedication to the present. No one would argue that saving for college means you don’t care about your kid’s success in elementary school.

With an average NFL playing career of just over three years, athletes should be given credit for thinking about life after football, not derided for it.  In fact, Hickey and Rodrick’s work shows us that athletes’ identities are often a combination of multiple socially constructed selves- and these selves are already recognized by the athletes even if they don’t label them as such. They also remind us researchers that we are just as guilty of prioritizing the athlete-self in our work, thus contributing to the athletic-identity discourse; our failure to acknowledge these various selves is to their detriment.

The Chiefs have shown that with support of the coach and the organization it can be done, so maybe we can drop this “football commitment” talking point? Coach Reid set the example by asking Duvernay-Tardif about his med school progress in end-of-season exit interviews. And given Reid’s success as a coach (second-winningest active coach behind Bill Belichick and 9th winningest coach of all time), it’s hard to argue his approach with his players. The reluctance on the part of scouts around players like Rosen and Duvernay-Tardif is honestly baffling to me. Don’t you want smart people who can memorize and apply the hundreds of possible plays in an NFL playbook?

What is also interesting is that the vast majority of research focuses on the negative outcomes of career transition. While no one would argue that these aren’t real and valid experiences and emotions, the field of positive psychology introduces us to the idea of “flourishing” in a 2016 review of research on end-of-career transitions. As Knights, et al, explains, flourishing is the other end of the mental health spectrum.  We forget sometimes that many of the attributes and skills that made them successful athletes (resilience, focus, goal setting, etc.) can be used to help them post-retirement.  Dr. Koonce reiterates this: “[I]f they would…lean on everything they learned to get to the elite level of playing in the [NFL], there is nothing they couldn’t accomplish in corporate America. That journey to the NFL is like no other when it comes to preparation, mental toughness, physical strength, communication, perseverance, problem-solving, memory recall, team-building and leadership skills.” Moreover ,we can help athletes reframe or redefine their athletic career as something to be built upon, rather than a life left behind.

The NFLPA has many resources, including ones focused on mental health, for retired players. Players who are released should be encouraged to reach out to the NFLPA – even if they don’t think they need it. It’s awesome that the NFLPA offers these opportunities as well as individual organizations’ Player Development Programs, though I haven’t been able to find any numbers on how many players take advantage of them. In my perfect world where I am in charge of everything, every player would go through some sort of in-person debriefing process at the end of their NFL career and – even better- they would all be given the opportunity to think about their next phase in life while they are playing. The information on career planning is found under the “Active Player” section of the NFLPA website, and clearly I am advocating for this advanced planning, but player development directors should also be able to follow former players as they transition out of football. This would also help in mitigating some of the structural loss experienced by former players. We need to help players recognize their agency in engineering the direction of their lives and support them in the construction of their future selves, but also continue supporting them as they move forward.

The NFL can be an unpredictable business – the players spend all of their lives trying to get there, and then do everything they can to stay there. It’s not always under their control when they leave. What we can control is how prepared we are for the day it arrives, whenever that is. Players talk about “controlling the controllables” or “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” all the time as athletes. Now’s the time to apply the same lessons to life outside of football.

I think this is the thing that most of us former athletes forget. Because we were often young when we first learned our sport we forgot that it was awkward and hard. We got used to being not just proficient, but exceptional and now we feel stupid and embarrassed when learning something new (oh, hello performance anxiety!). In 2011, Dr. Atul Gawande asked the question in his essay, “Personal Best” – if professional athletes have coaches to help them be the best they can be, why can’t other professions? So he enlisted a former colleague to observe him. His surgeries became more efficient, and his complication rate decreased. Maybe if we think about post-retirement simply as an extension of performance, then finding mentors, or the idea of practicing new skills (writing, speaking, sales, cold-calling, etc.) or learning new jargon will seem less intimidating. Who we are hasn’t actually changed – just our environment, and just because there isn’t an official playbook, doesn’t mean you can’t write one for yourself.