What Can a Wounded Warrior Teach Athletes About Life After Sports?

Transitions are hard. Moving from the known to the unknown is scary. Yet the stats show that only 6% of high school athletes will play in college. Fewer than 0.5% of high school athletes will become professional athletes. Even if they do go pro, every athlete has to transition to life after sports one day. In working with Wounded Warriors over the years, I’ve learned that athletes can learn a lot from these resilient individuals.

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If the term Wounded Warriors is new to you it refers to wounded, ill, and injured military service members and veterans. Allow me to introduce you to one in particular – Christy Gardner.

You can watch the ESPN SC Featured special on Christy and her dog Moxy here:

Showing Toughness in Transition

Christy Gardner was a dual sport scholarship athlete in lacrosse and field hockey before joining the Army in 2005.

One life-threatening incident changed her life forever. Twenty-two surgeries and two below the knee amputations later, Christy found herself in a dark place. Not only had she lost her career and her ability to walk, she had lost her independence.

While in treatment, Christy recalled the doctors going through a “3 page list of things I would never do again.”

She was no longer an athlete, no longer a Soldier, and no longer self-sufficient. In her mind, she’d lost everything. She was “at the bottom of the barrel.”

Then something happened. With a little help, Christy began to look through the windshield rather than the rearview mirror of her life.

When athletes face the end of their careers in sport they must do the same thing – focus on what’s ahead, not what they’re leaving behind.

3 Lessons for Successful Transitions

Athletes transition out of sports for countless reasons. Some are forced out by injury. Some no longer make the cut. Others simply choose a different path. Either way, the process of transitioning into life after sports can be a difficult challenge.

As we look to Christy Gardner’s story, here are 3 lessons coaches can share with athletes transitioning to life after sports in order to help them succeed.

1. Embrace What’s Ahead

With the help of a Vietnam veteran named Neil Williams, Christy was able to refocus on her abilities rather than her limitations. He helped her focus on what she could do, not what she couldn’t.

Transitioning athletes may often struggle with what they’re leaving behind as an athlete. For years their identity has been wrapped up in being an athlete. They mourn the loss of a clear purpose, close relationship with teammates, the familiar rigors of training, and the tempo of the season.

While these losses are real and may be painful, it is more productive to focus their energy on what lies ahead. What goals is she pursuing? What difference does he want to make in the world? Help your athletes to see what they have to offer to their employers, teams, and communities because of their athletic experience.

2. Identify Your Team

Like Gardner, athletes often draw motivation, inspiration, and drive from their teammates. She said, “I thrive on the energy of a team.”

As an athlete, this was true for me. Athletes transitioning into life after sports need to identify their new teams. Who will they draw their energy and purpose from? Who can they lean on and count on to have their backs?

Encourage them to use their sport experience to build teams and make their new teams better.

3. Leverage Your Competitive Spirit

Neil and her service dog, Moxy, helped bring out Christy’s dormant personality. She had lost the passion and determination that defined her – that helped her be a successful athlete and Soldier.

The competitive spirit is what gives prior athletes a leg up in the job market. Some organizations choose to hire athletes over non-athletes because of their work ethic, teamwork, and drive to win.

Challenge your athletes to channel their competitive juices toward the hurdles ahead of them. Get competitive about out-working your competition in the job market, boardroom, or sales team. The mindset that has afforded an athlete success on the court will benefit her in the workplace and community.

Empower Your Athletes To Transition Well

Successfully transitioning to life after sports is all about adapting. Help your athletes to adapt the skills that helped them be successful on the competition surface to their new roles in workplaces and communities around the globe. Show them how to look in through the windshield of life rather than the rearview mirror.

Question: What other challenges do athletes face when transitioning to life after sports? 

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.