How to find success in retirement after a career in sports

March 25, 2019 Kara Hawking

The regimented life of a professional athlete often includes a minute-by-minute schedule packed with training, team meetings, pre-planned meals and snacks, and recovery.

Every minute of every day is dedicated to one thing — staying at the top of their game. But what happens when it’s time to retire? While the freedom sounds nice, the transition to retirement can have its challenges.

For Hannibal Navies, former NFL linebacker and director of engagement and outreach for The Trust powered by the NFL Players Association, adjusting to retirement took time. “The Trust wasn’t around when I retired, so the first couple of years my body went a little haywire,” he says. “I was going through a lot of changes because I didn’t really understand how to take care of myself, how to eat to stay healthy after football, or where to go to figure out what came next.”

The bottom line: While becoming a professional athlete is always a dream come true, it’s rarely a lifelong career. The average NFL career lasts just 3.3 years, rookie position players in the MLB last about 5.6 years, and NBA careers clock in at about 4.9 years. Here’s how to make a healthy transition from the pros to everyday life.

Retired athletes should adjust their training to focus on functional movement, increasing flexibility, and strategies to reduce pain.

Instead of training to be the strongest, fastest, and most fit to play a sport, retired athletes are training to live a quality life.

Train to live

After working to achieve perfection for years or even decades, athletes like Navies sometimes have a hard time understanding the need to retrain their bodies for everyday health. Workouts that used to include multiple sets of heavy weights, sprints, and agility drills should now focus on functional movement, increasing flexibility, and strategies to reduce pain.

“For some retired athletes, training is a scary word because they think about the level of workouts they did to reach peak performance,” explains Katie Douglas, who as vice president of operations at EXOS works directly with the NFLPA to help retired players become engaged with programs offered by The Trust. During retirement, athletes are forced to adjust their mindset to training for everyday life. It’s no longer about squatting with a max load on their back. Instead, they’re squatting to get into a car or pick up their kids.

“You’ve heard people say, ‘eat to live.’ We’re training to live,” says Navies. “Instead of training to be the strongest, fastest, and most fit to play a sport, we’re training to live a quality life, and that’s a big adjustment for some guys to make.”

Navies recommends staying involved with former teammates by engaging with alumni and former players associations.

The adjustment can also be physically painful, especially for players with a history of injury. For former NFL players, that’s where the Breakfast Club and Intensive Restoration Training programs come in. Offered to retired players through The Trust, these programs provide the motivation and camaraderie many former players are missing from their playing days.

“The thing I love most about the Intensive Restoration Training and Breakfast Club programs is that players learn tangible things they can use in everyday life,” says Navies. “It’s actually educating former players on how their bodies work and providing a personalized plan for a healthier life, from training to nutrition and mindset.”

With the right guidance, former athletes can adjust their nutrition game plan to lead a healthy life.

The same characteristics that make athletes successful on the field can be harnessed to help them succeed in life off the field.

Find success off the field

With youthful retirement common in the pros, a second career is very much an option (and sometimes a necessity). The challenge is that those talented enough for the big leagues often go pro well before they graduate, according to 2017 NCAA stats that found just 48 percent of men’s basketball and 63 percent of men’s football student athletes graduated. So, for some, the first stop may be the classroom. And those who choose this path will be in good company with the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Troy Polamalu all hitting the books post-retirement.

Navies stresses that while the venue may be different, the same characteristics that make athletes successful on the field can be harnessed to help them succeed in life off the field. “I apply the same passion and work ethic to the corporate world. I’m part of a corporate team instead of a football team, but we’re all working toward the same goals and we all have to succeed as individuals to succeed as a team.”

Many athletes leave college before graduating, making time in the classroom a necessity once they've retired from the pros.

Fuel for life

What some athletes may not expect is the toll retirement can take on their bodies. It takes time to make the adjustment from eating for peak performance on the field to eating for a healthy everyday life, but nutrition education and guidance from dietitians can help players get going in the right direction.

“At EXOS, we educate retired athletes on their daily nutritional needs and help them fuel their bodies to enjoy a high quality of life off the field,” says Douglas. This includes evaluating their current nutrition game plan, finding areas for improvement, and helping athletes understand how making small changes can lead to improved health and more energy.

“I gained about 20 pounds in my first year-and-a-half working in the corporate world,” says Navies. “All the holiday parties, working lunches, events, and constant travel made it hard for me to eat healthy. It took me some time to put the things I learned at EXOS to use, but with small wins I saw my health, wellness, and eating habits improve over time.”

Keep moving forward

Making the decision to retire can be a rollercoaster of emotions, from deciding when it’s the right time to finding the words to tell teammates, coaches, family, and friends that the wild ride is over. But once the decision is made, it’s time to put a plan in place for life after sport.

That’s where alumni and retired players associations such as the NFLPA, MLB Players Alumni Association, and National Basketball Retired Players Association come in. Each of these associations is designed specifically to help former players find the resources they need after their career has come to an end. From physical therapy and nutrition guidance to career services, how to train an aging or injured body, and building a community for support, retired players who lean on these programs have access to the resources they need to succeed.

While each retired athlete’s experience will be different, Navies emphasizes the importance of sticking to a schedule and staying involved with friends, family, and former teammates. “You have to keep moving,” he says. “Keep your mind and body moving forward, because when you sit still – even for a moment – you’re taking steps back. You may not know what you want to do or the path you’ll take to get there, but you have to keep moving.”

About the Author

Kara Hawking

Kara Hawking is a Phoenix-based freelance writer.

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