sports psychologist & clinical psychology

For top-tier athletes, it’s not easy opting to retire

Rocky Mountain News – Aaron J. Lopez – Oct. 5, 2008 – Avalanche captain Joe Sakic labored over his decision on whether to return for his 20th season beginning this year. “There were some nights when you wake up and you can’t sleep and you start thinking,â€? he said. “There were a few of those. It was a tough decision, too. It was one where I didn’t know.â€?

Avalanche captain Joe Sakic labored over his decision on whether to return for his 20th season beginning this year. “There were some nights when you wake up and you can’t sleep and you start thinking,â€? he said. “There were a few of those. It was a tough decision, too. It was one where I didn’t know.â€?
Choose your words

In pro sports, retirement means never having to say you won’t change your mind. Here are some famous last words from familiar athletes who have “retired” during the past 15 years – and one fitting quote from Avs captain Joe Sakic.

MICHAEL JORDAN

* Oct. 6, 1993: “I love the game of basketball and always will. But at this particular time, I’ve reached the pinnacle of my career. And I don’t feel like I have anything left to prove.”

* March 18, 1995: “I’m back.”

* Jan. 13, 1999: “Mentally, I am exhausted. . . . Right now, I don’t have the mental challenges that I have had in the past to proceed as a basketball player.”

* Sept. 10, 2001: “I’m doing it for the love of the game. Nothing else. For the love of the game.”

LANCE ARMSTRONG

* July 23, 2005: “There’s no reason to continue. I don’t need more.”

* Sept. 24, 2008: “It’s not very often that someone gets a chance to spend three or four years away from something and then say to themselves, ‘I miss that.’ ”

BRETT FAVRE

* March 6, 2008: “I know I can play, but I don’t think I want to. As hard as that is for me to say, it’s over.”

* July 15, 2008: “I didn’t think I’d play again and still may not. I was giving an honest answer at that time. (The Packers) didn’t make me give that answer. They asked if they could have that answer before free agency and the draft. And I did.”

JOE SAKIC

*Sept. 19, 2008: “There’s no point in talking about it if you don’t know. The whole idea is to make sure you make your decision and what you think is the right decision. There’s no need to be talking about that.”
More Colorado Avalanche

In the weeks after his 18th NHL season, Patrick Roy began asking himself the question that can play mind games with the greatest of pro athletes.

Should I stay or should I go?

Roy, 37 years old at the time, remained near the top of his game. His 35 wins and 2.18 goals-against average were a testament to that.

In search of guidance, he turned to former Avalanche teammate Ray Bourque, who retired shortly after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in his 22-year career.

“I remember placing a call to Ray Bourque and asking him, ‘Ray, when do you know it’s time?’ ” Roy recalled during a telephone interview last week. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll know when it’s going to be time.’ ”

Based on the un-retirements that have been going on for decades, it’s not always that simple.

From Michael Jordan and George Foreman to Brett Favre and Lance Armstrong, pro athletes across the sporting spectrum have had difficulty staying away after their initial farewell.

Roy, like Bourque, never looked back after filing his retirement papers in 2003, and Avalanche fans nearly lost another franchise icon this summer when longtime captain Joe Sakic considered hanging up his skates.

After leaving his fans, teammates and employer on the edge for more than three months, the 39-year-old Sakic opted to return for his 20th NHL season.

“It was the first time in my career that I’ve had that decision and had that thought process,” Sakic said. “It was tough – tougher than I thought.”

In typical Sakic fashion, the announcement was made with little fanfare – a news release and a short news conference at a charity golf tournament. It was a direct contrast to the Favre soap opera that played out on the Internet, in newspapers, magazines, and even on Fox News, for the better part of the summer.

The return of a Hall of Fame hockey player and a Hall of Fame quarterback did have one thing in common. It raised a simple question. Why is it so darn hard to say goodbye?

From perennial All-Stars to career benchwarmers, the answer typically revolves around the same factors: fame, fortune, friendships and familiarity.

“You’ve done it your whole life,” Sakic said. “It’s the competitive nature. That’s it. You love doing it.”

Building a foundation

Sakic and Roy, like most Canadian boys, began playing competitive hockey while in elementary school. Andre Agassi was trading groundstrokes with tennis pros at the age of 5. Tiger Woods took his golf swing to national television as a toddler.

Identifying and cultivating young talent is a North American tradition that, remarkably, predates Ryan Seacrest. Once they start down the path to the pros, the most promising athletes almost become defined by their sport of choice.

Days, months, years, sometimes decades, are spent sweating in the gym, competing in front of sellout crowds and enjoying multimillion-dollar salaries that only a fraction of the Earth’s population ever will experience.

“In our huge country, to be able to make it as a professional athlete is almost rarer than wining the lottery,” said Dr. John F. Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla. “To be able to succeed in such a competitive milieu, it’s almost impossible.”

The great ones such as Roy, Sakic, Favre, Jordan and Armstrong didn’t just beat the odds. They pulverized them, marinated them and served them on a shish kebab skewer. When the end of a career nears, it makes it that much more difficult to accept sporting mortality.

“It’s like a death,” Murray said. “Your whole life is essentially your sport. To give that up is a loss of unquestionable magnitude. It’s like grieving a death in the family, if not worse.”

Favre used the same analogy during his emotional news conference announcing his retirement seven months ago. Watching the numerous tributes to his career was like attending his own funeral.

“I actually broke down and watched some of the footage. How could you not?” Favre told the packed interview room. “As I’m watching TV last night, I said, ‘This is what it’s like when you die.’ ”

For Favre, the grieving process didn’t last long. Within a few weeks, there were indications he was contemplating a comeback, and he made it official in the days leading up to training camp.

In retrospect, Favre admitted to being “guilty of retiring early” but said the Green Bay Packers forced him to make a decision before he was ready. Had the Avs taken the same approach with Sakic in May, they likely would have pushed their longtime captain out the door.

“If I would have had to make my decision back in June, I wouldn’t be here,” Sakic said. “I wanted to give myself a chance. The organization said, ‘Take your time and see, start training and see if you want to do it,’ and I got the itch and fire back.”

Doing it the right way

Sakic, whose public persona is about as vanilla as they come, hardly is the type to draw attention to himself, and his summer of contemplation was no different.

After the Avalanche was eliminated from the playoffs, he told reporters, teammates and the front office the same thing: He would take some time off before reaching a decision.

“I didn’t even think about it really too much in June. I wasn’t ready to make my decision,” he said. “I took it easy. I wanted to start training and see if I thought I could and if I wanted to play again.”

Hernia surgery that kept Sakic sidelined for 38 games sapped some of his enthusiasm for playing, but as the summer went along, he began feeling good about his health and desire to return.

There were, though, short periods of disrupted sleep as the decision weighed on him.

“There were some nights when you wake up and you can’t sleep and you start thinking,” he said. “There were a few of those. It was a tough decision, too. It was one where I didn’t know.”

Blurred vision

Few athletes are able to see a clear answer.

Jordan, citing a lack of desire, retired before the 1993-94 NBA season but found renewed motivation after whiffing his way through a brief minor league baseball career.

Foreman twice won the heavyweight title, once at age 24 and again at 46. In the years between, he became an ordained minister, peddled Meineke mufflers and made millions of dollars selling the fat-reducing grill bearing his name.

The latest big-name comeback was produced by Armstrong, who seemed content to cycle into the sunset after winning his seventh straight Tour de France title in 2005.

After three years away from competition, Armstrong found a renewed enthusiasm while racing through the Rockies in the Leadville Trail 100 on Aug. 9.

While Armstrong joined the long list of athletes who exercised the right to change their minds, his motivations hardly are self-centered. By returning to competition, he hopes to raise awareness and money for cancer research.

Armstrong, of course, is a cancer survivor, and his Livestrong foundation has raised more than $180 million worldwide since 1997.

“Of course I want to win an eighth Tour de France, but the most important issue is taking the global epidemic of cancer to a much bigger stage,” reads a statement by Armstrong on his livestrong.org Web site. “That is the first priority here.”

Combating boredom

Armstrong’s continued crusade against cancer, on and off the bike, is a noble example of how former athletes can stay active once their careers are finished.

Other retirement plans are more conventional as players stay involved through coaching or working in the front office.

“If I didn’t have a B-plan, something to do, I’m sure it would have been extremely tough,” said Roy, who is the coach, general manager and co-owner of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“You just can’t go from being active like we all are as players and then all of a sudden be retired and not doing anything. You want to be competitive. Playing golf all year long, it sounds interesting when you’re doing it in the summer, but after a while you want to do something else.”

Former Blake Street Bomber Vinny Castilla has no idea what he would be doing had the Rockies not added him to the coaching staff when bad knees forced him to retire after the 2006 season.

“I love this game and I love to be around these guys,” said Castilla, 41. “I’m not at home and miserable. I still come to the ballpark and enjoy being around the game.

“I don’t play golf, I don’t hunt, I don’t fish. I’d probably be going crazy. My wife might kick me out after a month.”

To further fill the void, Castilla played a limited schedule in the Mexican Winter League last year and might make a return again this winter.

“I still got the adrenaline, man,” he said. “I know I cannot be here in the big leagues, but I think I can play at that (winter league) level for 25 or 30 games.”

Body breakdown

While Castilla happily returns to Mexico, former Avalanche forward Peter Forsberg recently has made a ritual of retreating to Sweden to figure out if he still has a future in the NHL.

Forsberg, bothered continually by foot and groin problems the past several years, looked to be retired last season but returned to the Avalanche for the final two months of the season. After playing nine of a possible 17 regular-season games and seven of 10 playoff games, the 35-year-old Forsberg ended the season in uncertainty.

“It’s getting to a point where even if I want to play with a (foot) problem, I can’t play with it because it (leads to) too many injuries,” he said after his final game last spring. “If it doesn’t get solved, that will be it, but we’ll see what happens.”

Forsberg reportedly was optimistic while skating in Sweden this summer, but he remains a total wild card as the NHL season kicks off in earnest this week.

Priceless commodity

Though the spotlight shines brightest at kickoff, faceoff, tipoff and first pitch, most of a pro athlete’s time is spent behind the scenes: in the locker room and weight room, on charter flights and in luxury hotels.

This is where the greatest bonds are formed as players of varying cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities come together as teammates.

“(The camaraderie is) everything,” Sakic said. “You definitely don’t have the locker-room humor in other things. It’s a special group.”

When an athlete retires, he no longer is an active member of the fraternity. The reminders come in the form of voice mails, text messages and e-mails from former teammates still living the dream.

“All of a sudden you’re trying to figure out ‘Where do I go now?’ ” said Avalanche coach Tony Granato, who played 13 NHL seasons before retiring in 2001. “That’s your identity. That’s your character and who you’ve been your entire life, and that’s a tremendous adjustment.

“You think it’s easy going into it: ‘Oh, I’m prepared. I’ll spend more time with my family. I’ll be able to do all these wonderful things.’ It sounds easy. It sounds great. It’s extremely difficult.”

Preparing for the end

At 36, Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Tony Clark is nearing the end of a respectable major league career.

He has played 14 seasons. The past six have ended with Clark wondering whether he will find work the subsequent spring.

“Inevitably, the phone just won’t ring,” Clark said before a game at Coors Field last month. “You try to prepare as best you can, but it’s difficult.

“Your entire life, you’ve worked toward being at the pinnacle of your profession and reaching the top. Inevitably, there comes a time where the page is going to have to be turned and a new chapter written.”

Clark is interested in staying in baseball as a coach and already has received interest from some teams. His retirement likely will not receive much attention nationally, perhaps a few short paragraphs in a wire story.

Just as they have for thousands of others who have retired before Clark, the words will read like an obituary.

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