Laura M Miele Ph.D.

The Whole Athlete

The Psychological Transition From College to Pro Sports

Why do some falter while others thrive?

Posted Jun 30, 2015

Marianne O’Leary/Flickr
Source: Marianne O’Leary/Flickr

With the NBA draft recently coming to a close, excitement about the influx of new talented athletes is high. However, for these athletes, many mental roadblocks come with the transition from college to professional sports that are often neglected by both the athletes and coaches. This transition can have a profound psychological effect on players, and it is not always positive. This condition is particularly evident within highly publicized sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL and MLB.

So why do some falter in this transition while others thrive?

A few common factors separate successful professional athletes from those who go down the wrong path, and the first and probably most important characteristic is balance. For many athletes, especially those who come from humble beginnings, being suddenly given more money than they know what to do with can be a recipe for disaster. Their ability to keep a clear head and remain grounded under such circumstances can be extremely challenged. This is when having a stable support system is most crucial.

First, it is imperative to have a financial advisor. Many athletes go bankrupt within a few years of retiring because they do not know how to properly manage the sudden rush of income. Antoine Walker is a prime example, as he went bankrupt only two years after retiring despite the fact that he made $110 million during his career

Keith Allison/Flickr
Source: Keith Allison/Flickr

Sadly, this is not an uncommon story within the world of professional sports. As reported in a Sports Illustrated article, around 60% of former NBA players are broke within five years of retirement, and the stats are even worse for NFL athletes, with a staggering 78% of former players reportedly bankrupt or struggling financially within two years of retirement.

Not only is it important for athletes to have a financial consultant who can help guide them through intelligent financial decisions, but it is also important to have a sport psychology consultant throughout the entire process. A support system with no personal stakes or ulterior motives is essential to an athlete’s success.

Psychological implications that come from such an instantaneous and overwhelming lifestyle can destroy any athlete if not handled properly. Even the most mentally tough athletes cannot hold up to the pressure and stress that an unwanted media storm can bring. This is another instance where having an objective sport psychology consultant to confide in can be particularly helpful.

A support system can assist an athlete set goals and standards to remain grounded and successful. Athletes need to give considerable thought to the standards by which they want to live their lives and follow them, particularly once their athletic careers are over. This type of forward thinking can be easy to ignore in the prime of an athlete’s successful career, when it is hard to imagine a life void of the spotlight and an enormous amount of money, but it remains central to their future well being.

On the other side of the spectrum are athletes who go from being superstars on their high school and college teams to being small fish in a big pond at the professional level. These athletes are used to receiving constant praise and positive reinforcement for their exceptional skills. It can be a very difficult adjustment at the professional level when their skills are no longer considered exceptional, but average. This blow to their self-confidence can have a negative impact on their athletic performance. Keeping a positive outlook and remaining grounded can improve their perspective. Other mental strategies that can help are visualization and positive self-talk.

Ultimately, it seems as though athletes who lead more balanced lives and do not let sports define and dictate their identities make the most successful transitions. It is common for athletes to become completely engulfed in their respective sports, and an athlete who does not examine the big picture will often experience detrimental and devastating consequences in the long term.

For more information on coaching strategies and development, make sure to check out the Ohio University Coaching Education program and Mind Over Body Athletics, LLC.

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