RETIRING PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES CAN USE MENTORS

A major league baseball player’s talented bat and glove contributed greatly to his team’s winning seasons. But most of his multi-million dollar contract earnings went up his nose or into his veins. His drug troubles, time-outs for rehab, legal fees, fines and conflicts with teammates left him unemployed, bankrupt and living in a friend’s basement apartment.

Devastated by painful injuries that occurred week after week for 9 years and making it almost impossible for him to get out of bed, a star National Football League player decided to retire and start his own business with the substantial earnings he made playing a game he loved. But retirement led to isolation, loneliness, and depression. Mood swings, minimal business experience, and an altered lifestyle that no longer included a giant salary, public adoration, or teammate camaraderie led to several failed businesses, significant alcohol use, and divorce.

After many years of being a scoring leader, a top National Basketball Association player planned to retire, write a book on the game, coach youngsters, and use his salary savings to fund community projects. Less than a year after retirement he was in jail, convicted of spousal abuse.

One of football’s best running backs who appeared to have established a successful post-play career is arrested and tried for a double homicide.

Stories such as these appear with much more frequency in major newspapers. Athletes from virtually all professional sports are with increasing regularity involved in activities that are disturbing, personally debilitating, and highly contradictory to the spirit of sport and their own vision of their future. The thrill of competition, the high-salary lifestyle, media attention, and fan adoration, while intoxicating during their careers, are suddenly missing during retirement. And prior to their professional careers, most athletes never considered having or preparing for a “plan B.”

Making a successful transition from active player to retirement has become a major, yet hidden, problem for many professional athletes. Post-play life is of little concern to team owners and league officials. Although they know significant problems exist, they don’t want to bring a focus on these issues for fear that it will upset the public’s image of the athlete/hero.

Current players have minimal sympathy or time for their retired colleagues and their own fear of retirement typically results in derisive comments about the former stars. Problems that were hidden by agents, ignored by coaches, or suppressed with money during a high-profile sports career are often magnified during retirement.

Described as one of the best defensive linemen ever to play professional football, Jerry Sherk had dedicated his current career to finding ways to help athletes achieve a successful and spiritually-rewarding life during retirement. After a 12-year career with the Cleveland Browns, Sherk returned to graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in counseling.

During his graduate work, Sherk studied what psychology calls, “Athletic Transition,” the difficult but rarely discussed move from public to private life. Sherk also researched mythology, and he found the “hero’s journey” and the pro athlete’s experience to be one and the same. He points out, “As an athlete you move from an ordinary world to a special world, but in the end, the task is to return back to the ordinary world, and to be able to function and be happy there.” Sherk goes on to say, “As with any type of hero, for the athlete there are two things that can help you return successfully. One is to let go of the past–to let it die, and the second is to give back to others. Mentoring is a great way to give back to the next generation.”

Sherk has put that learning into practice through creating opportunities for mentoring and leading an organization called Mentor Management Systems (www.mentorms.com). Sherk’s understanding of the challenges that active and retiring players experience combined with the knowledge he has gained about dealing with transitions has enabled him to have greater insight and sensitivity to assisting other players.

Mentoring, according to Sherk, is a way to bring together players who have made a successful retirement transition with current players prior to their retirement. By sharing their wisdom and assisting current players to articulate and plan for their vision of a post-play life, mentors can provide the support and guidance necessary to help players approach post-play life challenges with the same talent, fervor, determination and skill they used on the playing field.

Locating ready-made mentors is not an easy task. Although there are many professional athletes who have successful and productive post-play careers and lives, finding athletes who are both motivated to help and clear about the boundaries of mentoring is more difficult. Sherk has created a training program to help mentors stay focused and not become immersed in the perks typically associated with today’s player contracts and lifestyles. In addition to providing mentoring skills, Sherk’s training program enables the mentors to be clear about their expectations, learn how to share their experiences without preaching, and facilitate in-depth discussions about the future without telling others what to do.

Sherk believes that such mentoring connections are suitable for athletes from every professional sport and that the same principles and practices of mentoring ought to be available to college and high school athletes. From his office near San Diego, Sherk has been a leader in California for youth mentoring and has helped hundreds of organizations create effective mentoring programs.

For more information about what Jerry Sherk is doing to assist athletes, contact him at Mentor Management Systems, 1819 Bel Air Terrace Encinitas, CA 92024; Tel: (760) 633-1807 Fax: (760) 633-1517; email: sherk@mentorms.com.

“Aging has produced pleasures never imagined in youth: twirling a cotton swab in your ear, keeping regular, and remembering the ages of your grandchildren.”

~ Grey Owl ~

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