After the Ticker Tape Parade

Athletic performance and substance use

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Guest Post by Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD

Retirement is a major life transition for most people, but for the professional athlete, it can be cataclysmic. Most retired athletes have been competitors since childhood. With that in mind, many feel like their entire identity is gone when their professional sports life ends. Whether retirement comes even earlier than expected due to an injury or according to the norm for his/her sport, it can be overwhelming and fraught with depression, anxiety, and grief.

Retired NY Jets safety, Erik Coleman shares:

“Once my NFL career had ended, I faced a tough reality. I felt that I had been stripped of my identity and I struggled to figure out where I stood in the real world.  I had spent my whole life as Erik Coleman, the football player and suddenly it was all over. I fell into a depression, I was lost and ashamed that I was no longer a star.  This is the reality for many professional athletes and this can be a dangerous situation, especially if the player is not prepared for their next phase in life. For some, who have trouble asking for help, start to self-medicate.  Many players cope with the injuries and disappointment by leaning on drugs, alcohol and partying and compound their depression. The NFL and the NFL Players Association have taken steps to ease this transition for the players and I know for myself, it was a key component in my transition.”

I felt that I had been stripped of my identity and I struggled to figure out where I stood in the real world.  I had spent my whole life as Erik Coleman, the football player and suddenly it was all over. I fell into a depression, I was lost and ashamed that I was no longer a star. 

So it is not shocking that a percentage of professional athletes attempt to manage their overwhelming feelings by masking them with drugs and/or alcohol.  Particularly vulnerable are those athletes who were taking prescribed pain killers to play through injuries, making it easy to justify the continuance.

A recent study from Washington University in St. Louis found 52% of their sample of retired NFL players used the prescription pain killers oxycodone, codeine and Vicodin during their careers. Of those, 68% admitted they got these opioids from sources other than a medical doctor; including other players, coaches, or “The Black Market.” The study also found that 15% abused those pills after retirement, for drug abuse during the professional years can predispose the athlete to continue that abuse post-retirement.  While many who struggle with addictions feel shame, the retiring professional athlete, who may be struggling with becoming a “mere mortal” again, can find pills or other substances an extremely convenient coping mechanism for managing any physical or psychological pain. This can make it extremely difficult to seek help, compounded by the fear of having their All American image besmirched by being “outted” as an addict.  The good news is that in light of our nation’s rampant opiate crisis for those suffering from chronic pain, there’s  a growing list of less potent, non-addictive options that are now readily available to them.

Other factors frequently contribute to retired athlete depression and substance or alcohol abuse. Not only may the athlete be grieving a lost identity, as Erik Coleman shared, but also the rigorous structure of training and the “highs” from the adrenaline rush.  Further, athletes from team sports may miss that “family” and camaraderie. The uniform, the team colors, and the franchise brand become part of the psyche.  Further still, the constant attention, adulation from millions, perks of fame, the applause, “worship”, and ego reinforcement can end abruptly, leaving the retired athlete a prime candidate for depression and at a high risk for addictions.  Reinvention can be challenging for anyone, but for a celebrity athlete who has broken records, defied odds and attained performance heights, anything less can feel anticlimactic. Many feel they’ve peaked at 30, 35 years old, as if their lives are “over.”  This kind of depression can leave the athlete vulnerable to drug abuse and other unhealthy behaviors.

Reinvention can be challenging for anyone, but for a celebrity athlete who has broken records, defied odds and attained performance heights, anything less can feel anticlimactic. Many feel they’ve peaked at 30, 35 years old, as if their lives are “over.”  This kind of depression can leave the athlete vulnerable to drug abuse and other unhealthy behaviors.

Additionally, many professional athletes may feel financial pressure. Depending on how long their careers were, and how well their money was managed, many are not left with as much money as some may think. Some are taken advantage of by relatives they never knew until they were rich and famous.  They may have always felt that that their “worth” was in their ability to perform, as their contracts reflect that, and when they are replaced by a younger, “hotter” talent, their disposability can be excruciating.  They may question their value, their purpose, their future. For some, their sport is virtually all they’ve every known or done. If unable to find an ancillary position in the world of sports or another passion or purpose, some are left feeling depressed, lost, frustrated, angry, and seek escape from these unpleasant feelings.

Getting back in the game of life can be a new challenge.  Most professional athletes have refined their sense of focus and resiliency, assets that can serve them well in recovery.  Whether with an addictions specialist, rehabilitation facility, 12-step program, trauma resolution work, individual and/or family therapy, groups, holistic treatments, non-addictive pain medications, and more, recovery is always possible.

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Author Name: Dr. Nancy Irwin

Author Bio: Dr. Nancy Irwin is co-author of “Breaking Through, Stories of Hope and Recovery” and a Primary Therapist at Seasons in Malibu World Class Addiction and Mental Health Treatment Center.

Photo by Stephen Baker on Unsplash


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