When did you start planning for your retirement?
Maybe it was the first time you faced down years of student loan payments. Or when you opened that Roth IRA. Or perhaps when you looked into your company’s 401(k).
We spend more years planning for retirement than actually being retired from our careers. Except for professional athletes. They’re not thinking about building a career that’ll last past their 30s — they can’t, really, if they want to be among that top 0.00001% of their sport good enough to make a living playing it.
So the harsh truth is that the majority don’t make it or don’t make it long. And then they have to enter the real world, starting from scratch — so they think. They’re behind their peers in their generation, some believe. But it’s easy to focus on what athletes may lack, better to reframe by accounting for the unique advantages they have, the experience they get, and the skills they develop. This is what Dr. Caleb Mezzy is working to do and we recently discussed his research, findings, insights, and recommendations.
“You are an athlete for a period of time…,” said Mezzy of the opportunity-laden window of notoriety athletes have during their playing careers. “When you’re an athlete, you have this open door to just say, ‘Hey, I’m a player on this team, I’m gonna be in this town, would you like to meet?’ And you can meet any professional in the world…
“Maybe you can get 7 or 8AM coffee with some high-ranking CEOs in California or in Arizona or Las Vegas, whatever it may be. Those are strategies that we can put into place.”
It’s also about skills — “transferable skills,” says Mezzy, who is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management and Business at Neumann University — skills are appealing on a resume and go beyond reading a Cover 2 defense (but there are analytical thinking skills evident in doing that, too!).
“Transferable skills are such a huge part of athletes going into the workforce…,” Mezzy explained. “Because they work so hard to get here [and] they don’t know how to articulate the skills that they’ve acquired into a different [occupation]…
“Bridge that gap, tell that story, I think that’s the beauty there…Look at what transferable skills can we bring to the table because of what we did, because of who we were, and now where we’re going?”
Social media changed the game, too. And as generations of athletes with more social media savvy and propensity enter — and leave, whether by their choice or not — their pro sports career, social media can be a key lever to pull. No matter what an athlete may want to do after their playing career, an audience has value. And if athletes play their cards right during that special window of time, they can accrue a lot of capital.
“I think that their digital presence plays a role. I think that the ability to network and find other people, other careers, kind of like the exploratory phase of career development could really help them in their next phase in life,” said Mezzy, who also runs an athlete transition practice, Grit and Glue.
“[Retirement] is an ongoing process because the minute you get drafted or signed and you’re on a team, it’s inevitable that you are going to retire…
“So at that point, when you know it’s an ongoing process, there are different things that you could be doing along the way. A lot of that could be digital-focused. You build up this audience so that when you do retire that you have an audience that you could [activate].”
There’s a phrase that entered the lexicon in recent years, a phrase that Mezzy and I talked about — more than an athlete. When you think others see you only as a pro athlete, it’s natural to get wrapped up in that identity. Many of us non-athletes can relate, too — to the point where it’s difficult to separate one’s identity from their job — but most of our jobs don’t have such an early expiration date. So it’s up to athletes to appreciate and work to cultivate their own ‘more than.’
“They don’t lead with [being a former athlete], and I think that’s the thing,” said Mezzy, talking about how ex-athletes represent themselves in their more white-collar post-playing careers. “Because we always talk about identity and it’s what you do, not who you are. I think if you don’t lead with it and you’re like, ‘This is the value I bring here,’ that’s great.
“I’m thinking of all these different players as we’re talking about it, because that player I’m talking [about that works in] financial and wealth management, is gonna be posting about how to manage your taxes for the upcoming season. Or ‘if you’re an MLB player who just got drafted, this is what you should do with your first paycheck.’ So he’s looking at it from both lenses — ‘I manage wealth and finances, but I also come at it from I was a former baseball player.'”
All this is moot if athletes don’t buy in. If they keep that tunnel vision — which helped them reach that elite level — at the expense of an uncertain career and future. And they have to be willing to ask and answer the tough questions, about what care about or want to put time into after their playing days are through. Because, as Mezzy said, “The minute you get drafted or signed and you’re on a team, it’s inevitable that you are going to retire.” There’s an identity, a skillset, and strengths that transcend the court or playing field. There’s a fully formed person beyond a name, number, and roster listing.
“When I talk to these baseball players and I say this stuff, they get to a point where like, ‘All I know is baseball,’ and that’s not true,” Mezzy said, with conviction. “That’s all you think you know, because that’s what you’ve done, but what can we talk about things that you’ve learned during baseball that will spread it and then we could open them up or dive into those little pieces of fabric to really find out who you are as a person?”
Athletes may not be able to play their sport forever. But if they play their cards right, they can set themselves up for life.