How Do Retired Athletes Transition to the World of Work?

Compared to most other vocations, professional athletics has a relatively short career span. Some sports, like soccer, offer a shorter career span than others. After years of dedication to their chosen sport, there comes a point where the professional competitor’s performance starts to decline. And an unexpected injury can cut a career short at any time.

Deciding when to bow out is an incredibly difficult decision. As soon as an athlete makes the choice to end their professional career, another equally pressing issue arises. With the average professional athlete retiring at the age of 33, when most individuals are just halfway through their careers, what on earth will they do with the rest of their lives?

Here are some tips for professional or competitive athletes making the transition to the working world.

Treat Leaving Athletics as a Loss and Grieve Appropriately

As English Premier League soccer player Clarke Carlisle explains, everything in a competitive athlete’s life is structured. When they retire, that structure suddenly gets taken away. Professional sportsmen and women are defined by their job title. When they leave it behind, they lose their sense of identity and belonging.

Clark Carlisle suffered significant mental health issues after retiring from professional sport. He is not alone. According to one study by the World’s Footballers’ Association, 39 percent of players experience mental health issues after retirement, with 32 percent becoming reliant on alcohol, and many others developing gambling problems.

Professional athletes who are retiring from their sport should make sure they have robust support systems-family, friends, and professional connections-in place to help them get through the transition. They should also be proactive about seeking the assistance of mental health professionals to help them manage their emotional and psychological response to such a massive life change. It may not be possible to retire from athletics one day and wake up a successful entrepreneur the next.

Consider Whether You Want a Related Career or Something Different

Some former athletes use their extensive knowledge and experience of a particular sport to train others, passing on their skills to the next generation. Some take roles as referees or commentators. Others launch new careers in a different sport. When Rio Ferdinand retired from soccer, he started a new career in boxing.

Other retired athletes relish the opportunity to try something new. It is a long-awaited opportunity to escape the spotlight and enjoy a ‘normal’ life without constant intrusions and media speculation. Former basketballer Bill Bradley and ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko both leveraged their status to start new careers in the world of politics.

George Foreman, on the other hand, retired from boxing to promote the George Foreman Grill, selling his commercial rights in the business in 1999 for a reported $138 million. Many former sports players use their status as a springboard, propelling them into lucrative second careers. Be it appearing in television commercials, or acting as spokesperson for a particular brand, fame makes individuals branching out into new arenas eminently more saleable.

Consider Continuing to Pursue Your Education

In order to succeed, professional athletes have to dedicate themselves to their sport from a young age. Many college athletes leave without their degrees after being recruited by professional teams. However, that sacrifice does not need to be permanent. Retired athletes can bring the same focus and determination they brought to their sport and pick up their educational journey of where they left off.

Following an illustrious career in basketball, Michael Jordan returned to university, finishing his bachelor’s degree in geography. Michelle Kwan returned to college after earning two Olympic medals to earn two degrees in international studies, which led her to a career as an ambassador for the State Department. Shaquille O’Neal, who left Louisiana State University without a degree to play for the NBA, not only returned to school for a bachelor’s degree, he went on to earn a doctorate in education.

Remember You Have Many Transferable Skills

Professional sports requires numerous competencies that are also highly desirable in the business world. Examples include teamwork, motivation, discipline, leadership, ambition, resilience, goal-orientation, decision-making skills, and the ability to perform under pressure.

Dr. Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sports Psychology, identified nine mental skills of successful athletes. These are adopting and maintaining a positive attitude; maintaining self-motivation; setting high but realistic goals; working efficiently with other people; using positive mental imagery; managing anxiety; using positive self talk; managing emotions; and maintaining concentration.

All of these skills are deeply embedded in an athlete’s psyche. These skills are equally valuable in the business world, which is also performance-orientated, hinging on the ability to hit targets, get results, and succeed.

Originally published at on April 22, 2021.

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