Chris Golic: What comes next after career-ending injury?

NFL Health Playbook will feature a guest columnist every week, each with a different viewpoint of player health and safety from the youth level to pro football.

By Chris Golic, NFL Health Playbook columnist

Sports are wonderful for our young people to participate in as they grow up. While playing sports, athletes learn so much about selflessness, teamwork, setting goals and becoming strong, confident individuals. Many young people also tend to identify themselves through the sports they play. They proudly call themselves soccer players, swimmers or football players. The longer they play the sport, the more it becomes part of their identity. It's what they love to do and, naturally, they often spend much of their time outside of the sport with their teammates.

Lately, I've been thinking about athletes who sustain a level of injury which prevents them from playing their favorite sports. We all can agree that it is physically in their best interest for athletes to stop competing when they are injured, but I often think about the emotional side of being forced out of a sport. What happens to those kids? There is a lot of dialogue about the pro players transitioning after their career, but I am focusing on those athletes from middle school through college: How we can help them cope and fill a void that is suddenly present in their lives?

When a player is hurt -- even for a short time -- they get a taste of what it feels like to be detached from their team. Many speak of how they couldn't wait to return and how hard and isolating an injury can be. Taking it a step further, there are times when high school or college athletes are told you must stop playing, altogether. It seems to me that those young men and women tend to be simply cut loose and left to figure out on their own what comes next. What a lonely, overwhelming feeling that must be. How do you bounce back from losing something you have loved doing for so long?

As a parent, I have watched this happen to more than a few young people and I've often wondered how they coped, and who was helping them. I decided to contact a recent college graduate who went through this experience to ask her about the transition from athlete to former athlete, and I was not surprised with what she said.

This woman was an NCAA Division I soccer player who was forced to stop playing after her second ACL tear. For the purposes of this column, we will call her Jane. Jane said the hardest part of the transition was that her identity abruptly changed. When she was playing, people saw her as a soccer player and so did she. Jane was suddenly frightened about the uncertainty of who she would be and who her friends would be. She had always considered herself a pretty adaptable, outgoing person, but admitted she struggled for a while after she stopped playing. The university she graduated from was terrific about attending to her physical rehabilitation but offered nothing really in terms of mental support.

Fortunately for Jane, she had her parents to lean on and they became her outlet for everything. She was lucky she had a strong family support system, but I worry about the young people who do not. Who do they turn to? Will they cope with the changes by making good decisions or bad ones? I have seen it go both ways, and that's what got me thinking about this part of the sports experience.

Occasionally, athletes who've suffered a career ending injury stay part of the team in one capacity or another. Still, that sort of opportunity is not extended to everyone who leaves because of injury, and some, perhaps, probably would find it too difficult to remain with the team. So what is the answer?

Helping athletes in this situation find their new normal is a tough task. Parents are typically the first line of support, but, in the case of college athletes, distance can create problems. Some parents simply might not know quite what to do to help.

It seems like there should be someone that works with these young men and woman as they find their new direction. Someone who checks in on them and talks to them regularly about how things are going seems like a necessary and valuable piece to the puzzle.

Everyone's athletic career will eventually come to an end and more often than not circumstances dictate the way the story ends. As adults, we need to make sure that young men and women know that there is a whole big world out there waiting for them. The end of one chapter in their life doesn't mean there isn't something bigger and better on the horizon.

How we help former athletes through this transition might be the difference in how that next chapter goes. We need to realize the loss they feel is real and often can determine whether their athletic experience will prove to be a positive or negative influence on the rest of their life.

Have you gone through this with your children? How did the process go for them? I would love to hear your experiences and what it taught all of you. Feel free to share your stories with me at christinegolic@comcast.net.

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