Life After The Whistle Blows
A second factor plays a major role in the depression of athletes: Retirement, either voluntary or forced because of injury. Many retired pro athletes are simply not prepared for life after sports and find it difficult to adjust to staying home. Diapers have replaced dumbbells, dogs are their new receivers, and their wives call the plays. These aren’t things that many would consider depression triggers, but for someone used to being in the spotlight it gets awfully dark when the lights go out for the final time.
“There’s a natural depression that happens after retirement,” says Sean Tufts, a former linebacker for the Carolina Panthers. “I can think of a handful of players at each level, college or pro, that didn’t know how to cope with being done with football. Making a leap from the biggest stage in the world to having no direct path is often times too much for people to take.”
Tufts knew seven football players that committed suicide after they were done playing. He wants more programs for players exiting the league and educating them on how to deal with the void that follows. “My wife calls them the lost years,” he says. “Trying to find what can replace the biggest stage in the world. You can’t go straight to a cube…even broadcasting or coaching can’t replace the fix the NFL creates.”
Dr. Cristina Versari, sports psychologist and Director of Sports Psychology Program at San Diego University for Integrative Studies, has studied the psychology of athletes for more than 20 years and says every athlete goes through some level of depression after they retire and it usually takes four to eight years for them to get used to life without sports. Players who prepare for the day they retire usually have a smoother transition, but most players don’t.
“To stay in the game, they have to focus on the game and not on what they’re going to do next,” says Versari. “It’s almost like a defense mechanism, they have to stay focused on the game and they have to deny the reality that their career is going to end.”
The problems waiting for players who don’t prepare can come from all angles and without a support system to help them get through these obstacles depression is inevitable. Weight gain is common and divorce rates rise 50 percent after retirement, according to Versari.
“Now they’re home and they want to have a role in that family, but they’ve been gone for 10 years. Now they struggle to find a place for themselves and there’s a lot of conflict with their wife,” she says.
The bond between teammates is also something that seems to change overnight after retirement. Former players tend to move back to their hometown and become isolated from the people they were used to seeing every day. “Active players don’t want anything to do with them because it reminds them of the reality that their career is also going to end and they don’t want to deal with that,” Versari says.
SDUIS is the only university in the country that has a sports psychology program out of the psychology department, and Versari thinks there needs to be more sports psychologists with proper training available for athletes as they retire. The NBA and NFL both have player development programs, but many of the people working on those programs are former players. Versari likes the idea of having former players work with players because they can understand what they’re going through, but stresses that they need proper training in order to counsel them properly.