Money Smart Athlete Blog

The Athlete’s Career: Knowing when to retire from field play

Mar 18, 2020 | Financial Psychology

By Demetris Constantinou, Contributor

An athletic career in professional sports entails taking important decisions that affect both your professional career, as well as your personal life. One of the most crucial decisions an athlete has to make is to decide at what point in their career they’re ready to retire. While for some of us retirement is at a government-mandated age, for others a personal preference, athletes don’t have that luxury, given that it’s driven by age and the ability to respond to aging, while knowing when and how to retire is very crucial in many aspects. There are no regulations forcing athletes to retire at a certain age, nor any obligations for them to play until they reach a certain amount of active years. This creates one big question: when should an athlete stop and retire? In this article, we will not give you a plain answer simply because there is no right answer to this question. What we seek to achieve is to provide you with the tools and insights needed to make a better decision that will lead to a better and more successful future.

Knowing when to retire is not possible without knowing what causes an athlete to retire. An athlete’s retirement is predominantly based on four factors that, combined or separately and amongst other factors, allow an athlete to make a calculated decision on when to retire. The primary and most important factor is physical health: simply put, an athlete cannot keep on performing in the field if their body does not permit them to do so. If the athlete is not able to keep up with the physical requirements of the sport it is neither possible, nor advisable for the athlete to continue pushing to a level they cannot achieve. To put things into perspective, physical health is the primary reason behind the low average professional life of NFL players. American football is a very physical game and always requires extreme conditioning and extraordinary physique. This causes most professional NFL players to give their best performance within three to four years and retire when their bodies are unable to keep up with the game requirements. A sub-component to physical health is the athlete’s position in the field. Different positions require different physical conditions which may force an athlete to retire earlier or allow an athlete to play longer, based on the needs of their specific position. Ronaldinho, the former Barcelona soccer superstar was able to excel and perform incredibly well mainly due to his speed and agility that allowed him to dribble through the field and excite the masses. Despite being such a great player, he was highly dependent on his agility to perform his best and unfortunately, agility gets lost as one grows older. This was one of the main reasons Ronaldinho retired at a rather early age of 31 compared to other professional soccer players who play in different positions and utilize different skills in their playing style.

While physical health is crucial towards determining the right time to retire, athletes need to make sure there is a place for them in a pro league and that they have the ability to secure a contract for the remaining of their career. Being willing and able to play, is different from being able to secure a contract from a team. One can be in a position to physically perform in the field but without any team being willing to provide a contract, the athlete is essentially forced into involuntary retirement. Simply put, when thinking about when to retire and whether the time has come, athletes must make sure that there’s still room for them to play and that they’d be offered a contract before announcing that they’re willing and able to keep on going.

Equally important to securing a contract is the athlete’s assessment of their financial position. Before settling into retirement, the athlete must make sure that they’re financially independent and are able to live a financially secure life. To do so, the athlete needs to consult their financial planner and ensure that with the existing resources, and accounting for current and future investments, the athlete will never be at the risk of money shortage or even declaring bankruptcy. An athlete should never seek to retire if they believe that they’re not financially ready to do so. Being financially ready does not necessarily mean having saved a specific amount of money but rather having planned out the rest of your life, based on your wants and needs, using the resources that you’ve secured through playing in a professional league.  

So far, we’ve discussed the importance of physical health, ability to secure a contract and capacity to live financially independent as being crucial towards deciding when an athlete should retire. The fourth factor is very different from the other three in that it’s much broader and can damage the athlete’s reputation if not taken into consideration. This could not be other than the expectations set by the fanbase, who at the end of the day determine whether an athlete is successful or not. Athletes who do not wish to retire but are expected to do so by their fanbase take the risk of damaging the hardly built image that they’ve created throughout their careers. Fans’ opinions are very powerful, and athletes should consider them when deciding at what point in their career to retire. If nothing else, players should always remember that fans also expect them to perform to a certain level and also reach levels of performance that are at least similar, or slightly below, previous years’ performance. It would be ill-advised for any athlete to continue on with their career, while being unable to produce at least respectable results and outcomes.

Having said that, we would never advise an athlete to blindly follow the fans’ wants and expectations as they can usually be irrational or driven by blind emotions. Nevertheless, the athlete should always grasp the vibe of their fanbase and observe if either retiring early, or not retiring when expected, could damage the athlete’s legacy. Andrew Luck, the now retired NFL quarterback decided to retire earlier than his fanbase expected him to do so and was faced with harsh criticism and booing from his fans during his final appearance. Despite being amongst the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL, Luck made his retirement decision without prioritizing the expectations of the masses and has jeopardized his athletic legacy.

Having discussed some of the most important factors that should be considered by an athlete when considering retirement, it’s important to note that these are by no means the sole drivers of such an important decision. After all, there is no such thing as retiring early or late, there’s what we call “retiring at the right time” which only the individual athlete can decide after considering a plethora of factors.