Posted on Jun 25, 2002

On a rookie's first day as a Minnesota Viking, he is told to keep this thought in his head: There's going to be a last day and he'd better be ready for it.

“The minute players enter the league, we want them thinking about how they're going to transition out of football,” says Leo Lewis, the team's director of player development. A former Vikings star, he compares his role to that of a school guidance counselor.

Few of us start a job and focus on the day we'll leave it or lose it. But if we're looking for sports role models, we'd be smart to emulate the clear-eyed jocks who plan for what some call “the afterlife.” Sooner or later, like them, all of us will find it's time to go.

Pro sports leagues are getting better at preparing athletes for retirement and second careers, with formal efforts like the NFL's Player Development Program. And this weekend in San Diego, the U.S. Olympic Committee will host its first-ever “summit” for winter Olympians, titled “Taking Charge of Your Transition.” All 211 Olympians were invited; 43 are attending. They'll be counseled on how to apply their athletic intensity to the work world, how to describe their nonathletic “gifts” in job interviews and on resumes, and how to grieve the inevitable loss of their sports careers.

There's a painful void in the lives of retired Olympians, says Paul Wylie, the 1992 silver medalist in figure skating. “Some athletes can never admit the truth: that the void can't be filled.” Sure, they can move on to new chapters and challenges, but they'll never return to the medal platform. Retirement, says Mr. Wylie, is about savoring victories and accepting realities: “You became an Olympian. You did it. And it's OK that you'll never do it again.”

There are analogies here for many hard-driving people who leave jobs that can't be replicated. You must get comfortable with the finality of what was. As a pro skater, Mr. Wylie often toured 60 cities in a row. Then in 1998, at age 32, he retired and enrolled in Harvard Business School. “I went from skating in a different town every other day, to sitting in the same seat, morning until night, for a semester. For me, that was the only way to do it, to have an abrupt end and throw myself into another intense experience.” He's now a marketing executive for Walt Disney Co.

At this weekend's summit, he'll serve on a panel with Olympic legends including speedskater Bonnie Blair Cruikshank and gymnast Peter Vidmar. Mr. Vidmar will talk of how most Olympic victories are won by the smallest of margins — a fraction of a second, a fraction of an inch. In the workplace, tiny margins also make a difference. But those margins aren't conquered by solitary hours spent practicing on a stretch of ice. In the world beyond sports, these athletes must now think in terms of education, networking, interviewing skills and office dynamics.

The summit's limited enrollment suggests that some athletes aren't ready for such challenges. In planning the all-expenses-paid event, organizer Mary Klever predicted some Olympians wouldn't attend. “They won't come if they don't want to buckle down and do some work,” she said.

Even before skier Nikki Stone won Olympic gold in 1998, she worried about leaving the sport. To help her cope, while attending Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., she wrote a thesis on how elite female athletes manage retirement. Interviewing hundreds of women, she learned about “the social death” that follows retirement. “You lose your social circle, because all your friends are in the sport, and you're not,” she says.

That explains why Mr. Lewis encourages NFL players to make friends outside football. They'll eventually need them. He also advises players to prepare their families for the day they leave football. Many players' paychecks support extended families living the good life. But the average NFL career is just 3.8 years, and most players earn less than the average NFL salary of $900,000. “Families need a reality check,” says Mr. Lewis. “They think money will keep coming in, but 90% of players have to work after their careers are over.” Mr. Lewis also encourages players to find an identity beyond football, to cultivate new passions. They can't spend the rest of their lives saying “I was.” They'll also need to say “I am.”

This advice applies to nonathletes, too. You need friends outside work, and loved ones who understand how your transition will affect them.

Many athletes, like baseball's Cal Ripkin Jr., segue into retirement by announcing it early. That lets them bid farewell to fans in a final tour of stadiums. Many do it not for fans, but to get one last adulation fix, says Eric Weintraub, a University of Maryland psychiatrist who has worked with baseball players at career twilight.

Should the rest of us announce our retirements in advance? “It depends on your personality,” says Dr. Weintraub. “If you want to get a party and be the center of attention, do it. If you just want to disappear, then don't.”

However you go, make the break. Some of the saddest ex-athletes are the ones desperate to return to their sport. Mr. Wylie skates on his lunch hour, but just for fun. Then he returns to his job as a Disney marketer. “I'm still in transition,” he says. “But I think I'm at peace.”