Seattle defensive tackle Kevin Williams will consider retiring after the big game on Sunday, reports azcentral. With 12 NFL seasons under his belt, the 34-year-old is quite literally an old pro now. But retiring from the NFL, or any high performance sport, isn’t easy. A lot of obstacles can come up as players transition into "normal life" — a life they’ve technically never had.
Missing the game, the identity
NFL players take huge risks simply by playing. Because of the hits they suffer, retirees who start playing tackle football before the age of 12 have a higher risk of developing memory and thinking problems later in life, according to a study of 42 NFL players published yesterday in Neurology. NFL players also show signs of arthritis far earlier than the average male. These issues tend to pop up later in life, however — long after they’ve moved on from the NFL. In the meantime, they’ve had to adapt to living like a "regular person," and that transition doesn’t always happen smoothly. After all, building a whole new identify for yourself can get really weird, really fast.
"The only times I got the ‘energy’ that I wanted to play — to be involved or be on the field — was during a big Monday night game versus a rivalry, or a big playoff game," says Earnest Byner, a former NFL player and coach who caught a touchdown pass for Washington in the 1992 Super Bowl championship game.
When Byner stopped playing football in 1997, he was relieved. But after a few months, he started to miss it. Seeing players doing what he once did so well made him feel "nervous," he says. But that feeling quickly dissipated; coaching was enough. He thinks he’s different from a lot of other players, however, and he considers himself lucky. "I guess I’m blessed to be able to have the mentality that I have," Byner says, "being able to adjust and move on to the next life."
"There are a few things to keep in mind with high performance athletes," says Matt Johnson, a sports psychologist who has worked with college football players and NFL athletes. The first is whether or not leaving the sport was the player’s own decision. Did they get cut from the team? Did an injury get in the way? Did they make it to the Super Bowl? If they achieved their goals and then left, that can make the transition a lot easier, Johnson says. When a player gets cut because of an injury, or simply because they’re aren’t playing the way they once did, that can have big implications for a player’s mental health. "I work with several professional athletes who retired after an injury," says Anne Smith, a psychologist and a former Wimbledon tennis champion, "and what I hear mostly from them is that it's hard to be at home all the time."
"If they are leaving by force, then a sense of control is being taken away from them," Johnson says. And losing control often leads to frustration, anger, and depression.
But even the decision to leave isn’t as important to an athlete’s transition as the strength of their "player Identity," says Nicole Detling, a sports psychologist at the University of Utah who worked with Olympic athletes. "'Who am I once that I am no longer a football player?’ is hard question to answer for many players." If all they’ve ever experienced is the athlete’s identity, leaving that life behind can be unsettling, says Mustafa Sarkar, a sports psychologist at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK who has studied perseverance in Olympic athletes. "So my recommendation from a psychology perspective is for them to have multiple identities, not purely about their sport."
"Once they have an identity away from the field — whether it’s ‘I’m a dad,’ ‘I’m a businessperson,’ or ‘I’m a husband’ — that’s when they can start to understand that they still value away from the field," Detling says. But even then, it’s hard to find fulfillment somewhere else, Smith says. "When athletes are playing in front of hundred of thousands of people… You can’t replace that feeling — it's difficult."
Depression and anxiety isn’t just a problem for NFL players, of course; anxiety disorders can arise in all professional sports. Combine that with the fact that intensive exercise is very addictive, and you end up with a population that’s likely to experience any number of mental health issues once they leave sports. And when these issues arise, some retired athletes seek out substances that can replace the "high" they used to get from physical activity.
"A lot of retired athletes report fairly significant mental health concerns and an increased level of substance dependence," Frances Quirk, co-editor-in-chief of the journal Performance Enhancement & Health, told Bloomberg in 2012.
Isolation and overeating
Even the most well-rounded retired athletes — those who already know who they are outside of sports — can feel isolated. "A lot of NFL teams really emphasize the idea of the team as the family, and that’s not something you will do in a cubicle," Detling says. So if a player moves to the corporate world, they might start to wonder about who will have their back. Building a support system outside of football can make a huge difference, Sarkar says, but athletes "really struggle to come to terms with losing that kind of friendship or bond with teammates."
Many players also have to deal with chronic pain. "If you look at a lot of the research, NFL player’s bodies are so broken down after the sport," that many need to take pain medication and undergo surgery, Detling says. So even those who want to remain active don’t always have the luxury of doing so.
Money can also be a huge source of concern. The average NFL player makes $1.9 million a year, but players don’t always have a plan for what to do with the amounts they’ve amassed after the NFL. Those who aren’t financially savvy, or those who aren’t sure what to do with their lives after football, can run into trouble, which adds to their stress.
Some problems are less obvious, however. "The thing that has been the challenge is trying to eat right," Byner says. "I kept eating and I would go back and forth. My weight would fluctuate." This problem is pretty typical, Detling says. Many players are so used to consuming large amounts of calories on a daily basis that they have trouble figuring out what’s a reasonable amount as they become less active. "They can get really unhealthy and blow up" because they’re still eating the way they did when they were working out all day, or because they’re stress eating, she says. When that happens, players are on their own; they have to learn how to live without coaches who are constantly telling them what to do and eat.
"I had to become more disciplined [with food]," Byner says. "It’s a challenge even though I was working out."
Every player is different, however, so it’s anybody guess as to how Williams will fare after his retirement — whenever that may be. "Some players go through the transition really well," Detling says. It just depends on how well they’ve prepared. Educating athletes and managing their expectations around that is crucial, Sarkar says. Some will still find retirement difficult, but understanding what they might go through and why can go a long way. "So when they do come across those situations," Sarkar says, "it’s not so impactful as if they didn’t know anything at all about the potential negative effects of retiring from their sport."