Separating Identity from Athletics - Creating an Exit Strategy
I was having a great chat with one of my former, supremely successful athletes a couple of months ago. Just reminiscing on the fun times, how proud I was of him and most importantly, how great it was to see him leave the sport under his own terms, with no regrets and nothing but fond memories of a close to 20-year career at the highest level.
With more discussion, it really helped to illustrate to me the following. I have really been seeing in ALL levels and ages of sport is how closely an individual’s self-worth is inherently tied to their success as an athlete. We have seen so many cases in loads of professional sports, of athletes hanging on TOO long as they really struggle with moving on to the next phase of their lives. It can be a time of confusion and doubt. Being an athlete is all they have known, and to suddenly be out of the limelight, their culture and their LIFE can be crushing.
Of course, we are only talking about PRO athletes here, but the thing is, it effects athletes of all ages. From youth all the way thru. And it can sometimes stem from coaches and parents putting so much pressure and ownership onto the athlete that it is hard for younger and maturing athletes to adequately separate WHO THEY ARE FROM WHAT THEY DO!
I have had to approach this in my own career on countless occasions. From dealing with career ending injuries, to the choice of continuing competing vs going to college, and also when some of my riders had to choose between different sports, or between athletics and career. Clearly life changing decisions!
There are many things we can do as coaches and parents to do this, which have been discussed before such as life lessons vs success, character vs win at all costs, teaching a lifelong love of a sport vs the narrow sphere of winning. But what has also helped me greatly is to create an ATHLETE EXIT STRATEGY for all those you are fortunate to share athletics with. The strategy should include the coaches and athletes’ input, and of course the parents.
What are some of the things you should include in an exit strategy?
Career critical times in the athlete’s career to discuss options e.g. End of school, End of middle school with multi-sport athletes, major injury, Descending results of older athletes.
Honest evaluation of the progression of the athlete
Life opportunities vs Career opportunities
What is best for the PERSONAL growth of the athlete?
Investment vs Realistic Goals.
Honesty, with both the athlete AND the parent is the best way to go. Sometimes, the parent will have a harder reaction than your athlete will.
When it’s all said and done, as coaches we MUST ALWAYS put the person first and the athlete second. We are blessed to work with these kids, and at the end of the day we want to see them as happy, functioning people that take away a love of a sport that has been such a critical part of their upbringing and childhood. As a coach, you play an important role in the overall development of the kid.
Having an exit strategy is just another part of making sure that an athlete has an identity as the person they are. It is very hard in elite athletics, and with the stress that youth sports can place on our kids, for our charges not to see their success as an athlete intrinsic to their success as a person. The funny thing is that kids get into sports as a compliment to their lives, and for some, it’s a respite from another part of their life that might not be going as well.
So creating a situation where the kid sees themselves as a success or failure based on competition results hardly makes good sense! Sure, celebrate the competitive successes, but celebrate the kid first. They are going to have to be comfortable in their own skin way after their competitive careers are done.