Always an Athlete

Always an Athlete

by Jenne Blackburn
Always an Athlete

Always an Athlete

by Jenne Blackburn


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Always an Athlete is a comprehensive study of the ways in which athletes climb what author Jenné Blackburn terms “The Mountain”—the journey from youth sports, through high school and college sports, to, finally, professional, and Olympic sports. This steady climb and success over a long period of time, however, sets up athletes for an inevitable fall off “The Cliff” upon their retirement from competition.
            To help athletes in transition, Blackburn identifies “Three Pillars of the Cliff”—Mental Health, Physical Health, and Athlete Identity—and describes the issues that athletes have in each of these areas after they retire. After training, sacrificing, and devoting years, even decades, to a sport, athletes at every level will struggle within these three pillars. Blackburn believes that athletes must evolve from a competition mindset to a wellness mindset and match their new lifestyles in order to soften this transition into the real world. Fortunately, the “Inner Athlete” honed over many years of training and competition can show up as a “Parachute” as athletics recede, and other priorities rise to the forefront of their new life.
            Ultimately, Blackburn proposes cycling as a foundation and universal tool to help retired athletes resolve a lingering loss of identity, mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and complications due to unchanged diet and exercise habits when they transition out of a performance-purposed existence. She advocates for fun community bike rides adjacent to sporting events and franchises to bring sports communities together around this critical yet overlooked topic for all athletes: life after competitive sports.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781621908593
Publisher: University of Tennessee Press
Publication date: 10/13/2023
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jenné Blackburn is a graduate of Baylor University, where she competed on the Women’s Indoor Volleyball team. She was awarded the Student Life Achievement Award, Baylor’s highest honor for a student, for her work pioneering programs in the sports department and other international initiatives. Her research interests include women’s empowerment and the intersection of sport and community development.

Read an Excerpt

Jackie Robinson once famously quipped that every athlete dies twice. The second death is the same that all mortals face. But the first comes sooner and often more surprisingly than the second. The high school track star faces this first death after his last senior meet. The mid-major basketball player faces this first death after his team gets knocked out of the Big Dance in March. The professional baseball player faces this first death after his last at-bat in the majors. The Olympian faces this first death at the podium of her final Games. At some point, every athlete faces this first death. The crowds go home. The lights go out. Lockers are emptied. And the athlete leaves the stadium for the last time. They go to sleep that night on the life they built over years and potentially even decades.
            And then the sun rises the next morning.
            Few people in the sports industry talk about what happens that next morning, and the next, and the next, and the thousands of mornings after that. Some people do not realize that this silence and the unanswered questions around the transition can be a problem. The questions that can pepper the back of our minds: “what now?” “what is next?” “who will help?” “am I on the right path?” “do I go back to school?” “do I need to see a therapist?” “why do I feel so detached?” “will I be able to do———?” “how do you know where to start?” . . . the questions can be endless . . . and without really even realizing that the athlete is in the thick of the transition, many start to face significant questions and problems—alone -without the athletic community that once was so daily present and active in their lives before. The issue is this: athletes lose a significant portion of themselves and their lifestyles after competition ends. The simple fact is that every athlete retires from sports. For most, retirement comes after youth sports or high school. For some, retirement comes after college. And for the few lucky enough to play at the top of the professional ranks or the Olympics, retirement is still on the horizon far sooner than it is for the rest of America. The average retirement age for the American workforce is 63 and rising.2 The average retirement age for top level athletes in the United States is 33 and dropping.3 And like most Americans, athletes define themselves, at least in part, by their careers and their ability to compete, whether individually or as a team. For many, competing in sport is a huge part of their story. And the sports ecosystem is where they found themselves growing up, coming of age and finding not only what their body could achieve, but many times their voice in the world.
            As the law is for attorneys, medicine is for doctors, and the Gospel is for preachers, sports is not just what athletes do. It is a defining characteristic. Being competitive is inextricably linked to their psyche and their spirit. It is a fundamental piece of who they are, what they enjoy doing, and the path that and journey that they have been climbing. For years and decades, they eat, sleep and drink the ability to play, to compete and to win. It becomes their passion. They hone their skills and their mindset to compete with excellence. But unlike attorneys, doctors and preachers—who may find themselves retiring from their life’s work in the twilight of their years—athletes always find themselves retiring from their passion in their teens, 20’s, 30’s, and maybe 40’s if they are ranked among the best of the best. And waking up one morning only to realize that you have to start at the beginning of a new life and a new career just to survive the next twenty, forty, sixty years? Without the support systems in place, this transition is not just daunting- it can seem demoralizing. For some, it can seem impossible. And too often this major transition is only the beginning of a journey of loss of self, transition and recovery.
            Athletes trade in coaches for bosses. Huddles are replaced with water cooler talk. Agents hock real estate—not endorsement deals. Teammates wear ties instead of warm-ups. And achievement is measured in quarterly sales instead of scoreboards. And perhaps to add insult to injury, the last decade of the athlete’s life—the late practices, lean meals, hours spent in the weight room, studying playbooks and breaking down game film, injuries and recoveries, sacrifices by family—is summed up by the new people in their lives as quick anecdotes, stories and quick identifiers. “This is my new work buddy. He played in the Final Four,” a co-worker tells the barkeeper hoping to grab free drinks off your reputation. “Man, you guys got us really good in that bowl game,” the boss says before concluding the job interview. And this is understandable, because sports are a connection point to gain common ground.
            You—the athlete—are asked to join the water-cooling and sports-barring masses. The transition from elite athlete to average citizen . . . one of the first times that I really felt this was when I went into my old gym. I was now in the stands, with no access to the back hallways I once roamed freely. Now, I was showing my ticket and seat to the usher to watch the team that I was once a part of.
            It’s hard to imagine, but this is a reality, in some form, for all athletes after years of focusing on the next play, the next point, the next game to win.
We can all agree, and it has been proven, that the same attributes that made the athlete a great player will translate into making them a great leader in their next career. In this book we will refer to those qualities as the Inner Athlete. Transitioning from being an active competitive athlete to joining in on the discussion surrounding sports as a spectator can be isolating and it is at minimum . . . odd.
            Few people in the American sports industries acknowledge that most athletes lose a huge part of themselves and their daily routine after they retire. Some influencers have studied and discussed the lifestyles of athletes post-retirement. For instance, much discussion and even regulatory action has been made about the financial difficulties that professional athletes face upon retirement. Sports Illustrated published a 2009 cover feature titled How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke. ESPN followed that up with a 30 For 30 documentary on the same subject. Other studies have focused on catastrophic injuries of retired athletes, the most famous being the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among former NFL football players. However, few influencers in American sports are investigating and raising questions about the challenges that all athletes, specifically younger athletes, uniquely and commonly face after retirement unrelated to the extremes of catastrophic injury, financial meltdown or other tragedy. Even fewer influencers have explored innovative solutions to those problems or provided discussion points.
            The greatest obstacle athletes face is mindset: the fallacy that all youth fall victim to, which is that tomorrow never comes. No athlete in any sport begins their career believing their sport will ever be done with them, let alone that it will be done with them before they are done with their sport. They all have high hopes that they will be in that elite group of athletes which includes Tom Brady, Gordie Howe, Nolan Ryan, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among the handful of others who have made 20-year careers.4
            This idea that the athlete’s career will take them into their mid-life is perpetuated not just by the athlete him or herself, but by friends and family, coaches and administrators, and the public at large. And this is the real “why” of this book: that we need to change the mindset not just of athletes, but also friends, family, coaches, administrators, the sports media and the sports-going public.
            Let’s kickstart the conversation and start an ever-building movement that prioritizes our athletes health (mind, body and spirit) and forever connects them to the athletic community in their second life chapter. Let’s create energizing events and programming that can unite us in our similarities and highlight resources to our families for those athletes who may be struggling.
            We as a society should leave NO ATHLETE BEHIND. (No matter how long they played and competed in their sport). Each of our athletic journeys should not have an expiration date because life is a team sport. In short, we all need to keep our bodies moving and our hearts and minds moving forward. Let's do it together.
            So, who is this book for? It’s for every person who has ever had sports play a significant role in their lives, either on the field or on the sideline. There is no other language on the planet that brings our global community together like sports. Sports are an integral part of the fabric of the world, so I propose this thesis and book to the world of sports that touches the hearts and minds of all people who partake and enjoy sports.

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