Jul 15, 2021

As Czech novelist Milan Kundera famously put it, “The Greek word for ‘return’ is ‘nostos’. ‘Algos’ means ‘suffering’. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” This feeling of nostalgia, this longing to return, can find itself married to our wish to have never left where we were in the first place. We cling to where we have felt most free, be it childhood, high school, or, if we are most lucky, a career.

The career of an athlete bears the life cycle of a hurricane, erratically announced, and usually brief. And like all of mother nature’s impressive storms, every athlete broadcasts his or her name to the world. While the chants of Gianlugi Buffon and Tom Brady reverb off the seats of sold out stadiums for the better part of 3 decades, most athletes aren’t nearly as lucky.  Though ephemeral in nature, and fleeting by design, the length of an athlete's career says very little with respect to the difficulty of retiring. From the poised professional to the aspiring amateur, every athlete dreads the day he/she is forced to walk away.  

Deciding to retire is less so a call to action, but more so a negation of it. Athletes spend their whole careers hard wired to exercise the virtue of “excess”: one more set, one more rep, one more game, one more play, one more minute to make a monument of your mane. Asking an athlete to retire is asking them to betray their behavior, the same behavior that granted them access to the spoils of sports to begin with. Emmy Award winning TV host and best selling author Kurt David highlights this contradiction in, “Why It’s So Hard for Retiring Athletes to Just Let it Go”. He writes, “Letting go is counter intuitive for high caliber athletes, as we are ingrained with tenacity, never giving up, fighting through adversity, and similar attributes that make us absolute warriors within the field of competition and in real life.”

The reality of retiring can only begin to take shape after an athlete is done dancing with denial. Competitors will talk themselves into playing more years than they probably should. While some athletes can inoffensively watch their careers come to a close behind the barricade of a bench, others find it more difficult. Some professionals develop “Brett Favre” syndrome. In 2007, after playing Quarterback for the Green Bay Packers for nearly two decades, Brett Favre announced his retirement from pro-football…only to announce he was coming out of retirement a year later to sign with the New York Jets. He played one year in New York and finished the season with an 8-8 record accompanied by a torn bicep tendon. The Jets missed the playoffs that year and Farve announced his retirement again in the following offseason…only to un-retire AGAIN in the middle of the 2009 preseason.

Brett signed for the Minnesota Vikings where he actually played some of his best football, leading them just one win away from the Super Bowl. In typically Favre fashion, however, he threw a costly interception that sent the game to overtime. The Vikings would then lose to the Saints on the ensuing possession ending their season in heartbreak. Brett ultimately announced his third and final retirement shortly after. Though undoubtedly one of the greatest football players the sport has ever seen, Favre’s dysfunctional relationship with retirement is as much a part of his legacy as his iconic number 4. Favre’s on again off again retirement announcements were turned into memes and has made him the poster boy for retirement banter across sports media. Kurt David leaves us with a poignant reflection on the difficulty Favre, and countless other athletes, face in their careers, “In my opinion, this is no doubt the most difficult part of a professional athlete's transition from sports and an early step that must occur in order to answer this question is getting through any denial. Denial that says, ‘I can still play,’ denial that says, ‘I will get picked up,’ denial that says, ‘I miss the game and want to make a comeback two years after I initially retired.’

This relentlessness, of course,  is not exclusive to the emperors of pop culture’s public palace. Brett Favre didn’t create this conflict of commitment, he was simply brave enough to tackle it in front of the world. Athletes from all levels of competition face similar struggles and their stories are equally as integral to the problem at hand. Former collegiate hockey player turned businessman Robert Sovik, 30, offered his story as a testament to reality facing athletes all over the world. He details the primal attitude athletes adopt to succeed along with the potential for growth once a career is over. “I was willing to die or risk my own health to win games and in a way, I was a different person when on the ice and when in the classroom, a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde situation. This also underwent an evolution and I am in a way better position today after being away from competitive hockey for about 5 years.” Having played hockey for almost all his life, Sovik had aspirations to play professionally after college. He curiously found himself being pulled towards other passions and skills as graduation year came closer, eventually deciding to pursue a career in business.

Robert founded USA Sport & Study, a professional development organization dedicated to finding student athletes from around the world and helping them enroll and succeed in American Universities. Despite his career plan, Robert, like almost all athletes, voyaged on this new venture with an air of apprehension. He recalls his trepidation,  “I knew that I was entering a new phase which made me both excited but also scared of what is next and whether I have made the right decision”. 

Five years, dozens of international scholarships secured, and countless lifelong connections made later, it would appear Robert made the right decision. Because that’s what it is: a decision. A decision that begins by deconstructing a cliché. The use of the term “career change” , for example, can more often than not be a mistake. It might sound like we’re playing semantic games here, but the term lacks specificity. Anything can change: the tides, the weather, and the wind. What matters more is the direction in which the change occurs. Is it a positive change we speak of, or negative? Does a “career change” imply a metamorphosis of Kafkan nature or rather a glacial gesturing towards growth? 

For our purposes, the term “career evolution” is less ambiguous. To evolve is to adapt, and like any great coach will tell you: adapting is all about accepting that what worked once before will not work again. And whether it’s Michael Vick and the mobile quarterback or Barcelona and the priority of possessional play, sports has demonstrated that evolution comes with time. We all can’t be Tony Romo and jump from the football field to the broadcast booth the second we retire. But athletes can start by acknowledging that their careers have more than likely given them all the tools they need to succeed moving forward. ESPN commentator and former tennis player Prim Siripipat writes extensively on this transition in her article “Moving on from sports: A college athlete's greatest challenge”. She cites,

‘"You are far more prepared to tackle the real world than you think you are," says Carey Goodman, former Duke women's soccer player and assistant director of athletics development at William & Mary. "You already have all of the skills to conquer the working world: time management, effective communication, work ethic, teamwork. Be confident in yourself. Follow your passion, even if it leads you down an unconventional path."’

While the yearning to return can be a source of suffering, the greatest misery will always be found in those on the receiving end of a particular kind of regret: the regret of not fulfilling who you could become from the inability to let go of who you were. Your identity is as malleable as language, and like the words that comprise them, the definitions of “success” are limitless. Athletes can inspire us to endure, overcome and achieve, but they are equally as capable of teaching themselves how to restart, regroup and react. After all, retiring from sports doesn’t signify the end of glory, it simply signifies the start of another game. 

By Andrew Carlier