Death. Taxes. Athletes retiring.
Although we all know it’s coming, it still manages to surprise us whenever—and however it happens.
I don’t know how it will end for you. It could be a career-ending injury. Maybe it was the Coronavirus. Maybe time will finally catch up with you and force you to call it quits, or a diminishing skill level will prevent you from advancing to your next career goal. Whether you choose to hang up the cleats or it is somehow chosen for you, one day you will no longer be a competitive athlete. And that will probably be difficult to come to terms with.
Many of us struggle with the finality of our athletic career coming to a close. So, we continue to chase after ways to keep it alive, often at lower levels of competition. Is there still the desire to make it to pinnacle of success in our sport? There could be that. But the more likely reality is we don’t want to be done competing—period. The reality is, retirement is inevitable for every athlete. We all know the day is approaching, but it’s hard to anticipate and process the feelings that come with our competing in a sport coming to an end.
“As tough as college was, no one warned me about an even greater challenge ahead: saying goodbye to the sport I love and making that transition into the ‘real world.’ The mental and emotional toll of this transition was a shock to my system,” said Prim Siripipat, a former collegiate tennis player.
But that quote could just as well be attributed to anyone who has ever played competitive sports.
Dr. Henry Cloud points out in his book, How People Grow, that “One of the most important processes in life is grief. God has designed grief to help us get over things.”
And make no mistake about it, moving on from your athletic career can be a grieving process. If done correctly, however, you will move through it in a way that honors God.
A 2007 study found that the transition is often difficult because of the sudden cessation of intense demands of elite athletic performance, compounded by the sudden loss of the athlete’s intense devotion to professional athletic competition and its attendant rewards.
What does all of that mean? Understanding the process can help us transition from our sport to whatever God has in store for us next.
What are we leaving behind?
The hype (rewards)
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously said, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring. There is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” While many of you will not be able to resonate with the feeling that comes from being a world champion and having millions of fans cheer you on, all athletes are in a unique position in culture to claim that at least some people have cheered for them. It’s one of the rewards we desire most: the approval of others. You have no doubt experienced the hype leading up to a big competition and subsequently the hype of the contest itself. Even if you were not the center of the attention, you were still a part of the action. You played a role in the hype. And the hype is addictive.
For many of you, your new normal will not include crowds of people affirming you when you do your job well. The rewards for a job well done will look different. If you get an A on a test, maybe your family will pat you on the back. If you do well in your job, your affirmation may take the form of a bigger paycheck, but it definitely won’t include everyone carrying you on their shoulders out of the office. The question that will—and should—haunt you in your next stage of life is: For who am I ultimately doing this?
Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Our motivation, whether in sports or school or work or relationships should be to serve Jesus, not ourselves. Adjusting to life after the hype will be challenging, but it may be the very adjustment that helps you realign your motivation for the rest of your life.
The competition (elite athletic performance)
Athletes are in a unique position to experience frequent highs and lows. Who else can ride the roller coaster of emotions on such a regular basis where it almost becomes normal? Maybe day traders. And parents. For some, the drama that comes with sports will not be missed. But for others, the addictive rush is hard to give up. Dr. Ed Uszynski writes,
“If you’re an athlete, no rush compares to being physically challenged by another human who spends their days training to beat you—then either discovering you are equal to the challenge or having the areas you need to improve on exposed, thereby shaping the next day’s workout. The athletic psyche stalks challenge and seeks goals that push beyond barriers posed by normal life. Craving this bar-raising lifestyle can become addictive—and like other addictions, the grip happens without their knowledge or consent and is hard to get ‘fixed.’ After decades of playing with elite-level players, kicking around at the local YMCA and retiring to backyard pick-up ball—while easily romanticized—is depressing, and every athlete who sees that future runs from it for as long as possible.”
The ups and downs set a standard that could make the next stage of our life feel comparatively dull.
The rhythms (sudden cessation of intense demands)
Dr. Uszynski explains the challenge: “There is a certain comfort that accompanies the boundaries to an athletic lifestyle. This can be replaced but it’s not easy to find or come up with on one’s own. Retirement represents the death of an entire scheduling, relational, and subcultural lifestyle.”
At first, you will love the freedom that comes with being done with your sport. You get to sleep past 7 a.m. You get to eat more freely. You get to choose when and where you want to work out—or if you want to work out at all. But you will eventually miss the structure and the accountability within that structure. You will miss the rhythms of being a competitive athlete.
One might imagine that loosening the knot around the rigid structure would feel liberating, but often that is not the case. Athletes usually enjoy the free schedule at the beginning before ending up feeling lost without having to do things related to their sport. And for good reason. When your entire life is categorized by practices, workouts, nutrition guidelines, rest/recovery phases, and the orders of coaches and trainers, you are at high risk for becoming dependent on those structured systems to thrive.
Matt Perman, the author of What’s Best Next, helps us understand why we thrive under structure. “Systems trump intentions. You can have great intentions, but if your life is set up in a way that is not in alignment with them, you will be frustrated. The structure of your life will win out every time.”
Did you catch that last sentence? Structure matters. You will be tempted to binge watch Netflix and sleep until it’s time to eat lunch. Don’t. Your athletic career may be over, but God’s calling on your life to be productive with your day still demands a response. Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The intense demands and structure of your sport may be done, but don’t use that as an excuse to become lazy. Glorify God by moving your disciplined structure of living into a new passion or hobby that serves others and makes much of Jesus.
The sense of purpose (intense devotion)
Our purpose will always flow from our identity. How we view ourselves determines what we do—and being an athlete is usually a huge part of a person’s self-concept. Even in this book, I have addressed you as an athlete. The implications of this can be damning. The following thoughts from Dr. Monica Frank should resonate:
“It is critical to recognize that the athlete’s self-identity is typically inseparable from their role as an athlete. Often for many years the major focus in their life is on developing as an athlete and succeeding in their chosen sport. When the sports career ends, it leaves a major hole in the athlete’s life. Whether the career ended as planned or suddenly, the athlete experiences a significant loss that can be as devastating as losing a loved one. The end of the career doesn’t mean just not engaging in the sport anymore. It also changes the athlete’s role: he or she is no longer an ‘athlete.'”
If God graciously allowed you to experience his love and grace through sports, while glorifying him through your athletic career, that’s awesome. But whether you identify as an athlete, father, mother, friend, accountant, janitor, husband or wife, your ultimate purpose never changes. Christian, you exist on this earth to glorify God through loving him and serving others. Your purpose does not change—only the vehicle that drives you there.
Your permanent purpose is glorifying God by loving God and loving others. You used to spend much of your time and energy attempting to do this through your sport. Now that sports are in the rearview mirror, you need a new vehicle to drive you toward this purpose.
Preparation will always make transitions easier. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend point out that “We must have something good in hand to be able to let go of something bad. It is a little like be a trapeze artist—you can only let go of one trapeze if another is in view.”
The easiest way to move on from sports is to replace the role that sports played with something else. Here is the reality: when your sport ends, you will have space in your life that did not exist before. You will have time. And that time needs to be stewarded well. The remainder of this chapter could be filled with jab after jab about ideas and strategies to cope with the transition and move forward. But I want to give you a right hook. I want to give you one big, God-glorifying way to transition out of your athletic career wisely.
Ready? I want to challenge you to get involved in the local church.
I know some of you may cringe at that statement. Some of you may have had a bad experience with a church before or may have avoided going or getting involved for various other reasons. Let me say this as gently as I can: get over it. The church is God’s primary vehicle to reach the world.
Francis Chan doesn’t mince words when talking about the importance of the church: “We can’t claim to follow Jesus if we neglect the church he created, the church he died for, the church he entrusted his mission to. The church is God’s strategy for reaching the world.”
You no longer have the excuse of competing and traveling on the weekends. You no longer can leverage your coach’s early Sunday morning workouts as a way out. For some of you, these may have been the excuses you needed to get you out of being more involved in a church. For others, they were legitimate and to some extent unavoidable for a season of life. To some degree, every athlete’s church involvement is negatively affected by the demands of their sport.
If the church being the primary way that God has chosen to reach the world with his love is not motivation enough to get involved, there is another factor that may capture your attention. Some of the same things you came to love and enjoy through sports can be experienced at an even deeper level through involvement with the local church. The dangling carrot of contentment you so desperately sought through sports can be obtained through the local church. Let me explain by working back through some of the same benefits of sports that you will be leaving behind.
The hype (rewards)
Can anything compare with achieving an athletic goal and having teammates, coaches, and fans affirm the accomplishment? Absolutely. If you have ever played a role in helping someone grow in their faith and see God transform their life, you know firsthand that no athletic performance will ever compare. Transformation always wins out over trophies.
As God’s primary strategy to reach a lost world, the church stands on the front lines. By linking arms with the church, you are putting yourself in prime position to see God transform the lives of men and women in your community, country, and the world. If you are looking to set high goals and willing to rely on and God and trust him to come through for you, you will not find many better options than getting involved with the local church.
The competition (elite athletic performance)
We love to associate athletic talent as being a gift from God. It certainly is, but when the Bible speaks of gifts from the Lord, it is not talking about genetic dispositions, but spiritual additions. For too long you have been led to believe that the “gifts” God has given to you are primarily your athletic skill set. It is time to learn that God has given you a different set of gifts. A gift set to be stewarded not for your own glory or the benefit of screaming fans, but for the good of God’s people. Romans 12:6-8 encourages us to use our spiritual gifts for the benefit of others:
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Each of us, if we have been reconciled to God through belief in the gospel, have been given spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of his people. One of the best settings to learn what spiritual gifts you have is within the context of a local church, where you can walk in community with other Christ-followers and grow together.
The rhythms (sudden cessation of intense demands)
Your life—and schedule—used to be centered around the demands of your sport. Check out what 1 Timothy 4:8 says: “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Your structured way of living around sports produced some value. What if your new structure involved significant involvement and blocks of time given to the church? First Timothy 4:8 clearly shows that a pursuit of godliness has both present value as well as eternal value. The church provides a rhythmic structure to help you in this area. Commit to attending church weekly and finding a place to serve there. Get plugged into a weekly small group. Ask where the church has a need and be willing to help.
The sense of purpose (intense devotion)
If you are a Christian, the calling on your life will continue to flow from the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. In these verses, Jesus instructs ALL his followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
John Piper boldly lays out our three options in response to this: “There are three possibilities with the Great Commission. You can go. You can send. Or you can be disobedient. Ignoring the cause is not a Christian option.”
You can help fulfill the Great Commission through the avenue of sports. The purpose of the church is to love God and neighbor, while working to see the Great Commission fulfilled. The church’s mission focuses on this goal. Against the backdrop of eternity, knowing God and doing his will, including sharing the good news with others, easily trumps any other goal you could strive toward. If you are feeling lost and confused in the midst of your retirement, why not join the greatest mission in the history of the world? The church is waiting for you.
This quote from J. Campbell White says it well:
“Most men are not satisfied with the permanent output of their lives. Nothing can wholly satisfy the life of Christ within his followers except the adoption of Christ’s purpose toward the world he came to redeem. Fame, pleasure, and riches are but husks and ashes in contrast with the boundless and abiding joy of working with God for the fulfillment of his eternal plans. The men who are putting everything into Christ’s undertaking are getting out of life its sweetest and most priceless rewards.”
Athlete—I mean, Christian—mourn the loss of your sport. But mourn quickly. Lift your head and direct your time, talents, and energy into church involvement—and be a part of the greatest mission this world has ever known.