Alexa Efraimson, Dietitian Student Intern
Reviewed by Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN, CSSD
Being an athlete encompasses more than just the exercise one does every day; it expands to the lifestyle and identity of an individual beyond a traditional career. When an athlete retires from their respective sport, there is a transition period that involves many changing facets, including identity, body, lifestyle, and habit changes. A 'successful' transition to retirement also depends on various factors: reason for retirement, personal development and value from an individual's sport, career achievement, social support, and education. The impact of this transformation and transition isn’t reserved solely for professional athletes. It ripples through the lives of every collegiate athlete graduating and even resonates with the high school athletes choosing a path that doesn’t lead to college competition.
Most notably, continued athletic identity negatively correlates with retirement outcomes.1 Continued athletic identity occurs when individuals perceive themselves as ‘athletes’ after retirement, which affects self-perception, beliefs, qualities, and values.
I was a professional runner for eight years; I signed a professional contract with Nike when I was 17. Despite the privilege of calling time on my career at my discretion, I (still) struggled with the retirement transition, better defined as a retirement process. The athlete identity goes beyond how we describe ourselves; it includes our day-to-day routines and habits, values, body image, goals, and an unwavering drive.
Many months after I had retired, I had the passing thought of “I’m not an athlete anymore”. It wasn’t sad or depressing; it was just a realization I hadn’t yet made. However, this fleeting thought allowed me to reevaluate deeply ingrained beliefs: the standard I held for how my body looks, my expectations for my exercise routine, and the goals I set for myself.
When an athlete moves on from their sport, depending on the level of the athlete, they suddenly are, in a way, alone. The camaraderie of a team and the guidance and direction from a coach in planning goals and writing training plans - all vanish. The prescribed way of eating and fueling no longer dictates their choices.
For each factor described above, an athlete must evaluate and adapt upon retirement. While being an athlete provides many qualities and characteristics that are very proactive and admirable beyond sport, these qualities must redirect to fit what the athlete wants to do in the next phase of life. Sports provide athletes opportunities to practice resilience, mental strength and stamina, determination and motivation, confidence, and belief. How an athlete redirects these invaluable characteristics and lessons after retirement is up to them and will directly impact their life’s successes beyond their sport.
The transition process after retirement can be a journey laden with daunting uncertainty, occasional doubts, and even a tinge of melancholy. However, it is also an untapped opportunity to chase passions that have been sidelined, foster a healthy relationship with their mind, body, food, and exercise, and savor a momentary pause. Athletes, often driven and relentlessly goal-oriented, seldom spare the time or energy to halt and appreciate the incredible journey their mind and body have undertaken.
We’ll dive into the most important and influential aspects that change when an athlete retires on January 29 for the “So You Moved on from Your Sport... Now What?” workshop. We’ll cover body transitions, Intuitive Eating, mindset changes, and new ways to approach exercise. This workshop will provide retired (and current!) athletes with valuable insights and practical tools to navigate the challenging transition from a sports-focused lifestyle to a more diversified, holistic, and balanced well-being. If you are unable to catch the live class, there will be an opportunity to watch the replay and join the DDN Insiders community for continued discussion.