Managing Depression When First Transitioning From The League

Tip written by: Aaron Kampman, former NFL player and CEO of Align

F-14’s flying overhead on a crisp Sunday afternoon as the national anthem crescendos to a close. A stadium full of fans erupts in anticipation for the upcoming battle. Adrenaline is high, and emotions are stirred. It is time to go to work. The feelings associated with the above description churn memories deep inside each former NFL player. Those memories and experiences create a visceral response that touch the emotions of each former player in powerful and unique ways. It is truly an occupation unlike any other.

But that is just the thing, it is an occupation, and as such, it cannot last forever. Every job has an ending, including playing football in the NFL. So how do we transition? How do we move on? How do we deal with not being able to so fully give ourselves to the all-encompassing pursuit of excellence and achievement that the occupation of the NFL afforded?

This is the challenge that faces each and every one of us as former players. We each have to face the reality of transitioning away from playing the game that we have devoted so much of our lives to. I will tell you up front that I don’t have all the answers or claim to have the “silver bullet” for successfully transitioning. What I will tell you is that after experiencing my own transition and partnering with many other former players in their transitions, I have gained some insights that I would like to share with you.

It seems the two major opponents we former players initially face in transition are loss of purpose and loss of structure. These opponents form a vicious combination, as each one seems to compete daily for the prize of making us feel depressed about our current state. The mental gymnastics go something like this, “if I can just figure out my new routine, I will begin to feel fulfilled” or “if I can just decide what my new purpose is supposed to be, I can structure my time accordingly.” The reality is that both purpose and structure are intricately connected, especially for highly trained and focused former football players. The unsettling feeling comes from no longer having a life centered on high pressure performance with such high rewards for achievement.

The Difficulty of Transition

So, when that occupation is gone, what do we do? First, we have to have the courage to admit that transitioning is hard. The level of difficulty will be different for each one, but NO ONE is unaffected by this deeply emotional transition. Just like you can’t suddenly shift from being right handed to left handed, moving on from professional football takes time and intentionality.

Let me practically expand on what I mean by admitting that transitioning is hard. I would encourage you to find someone who you trust (spouse, family member, friend, mentor) and verbally tell him or her what it feels like to be in this new place. Expressing these emotions with someone trusted can create a safe place to be authentic with the struggle of this change. Until we chose to admit that transitioning is hard, we will be stuck in the quagmire of uncertainty and confusion.

This may sound too touchy-feely, I didn’t say the work would be easy. Having the courage to express the feelings associated with transition can make us feel weak and vulnerable. However, the best way to get rid of an aliment is to take the medicine. So, I would encourage you to do the work and put in the effort. It is necessary. If you don’t let the internal dialogue about what you are feeling out in a healthy way, it WILL come out in unhealthy ways. No one wants that. Inform your trusted person that you don’t necessarily need him or her to give you any advice. Rather explain that you would just like them to listen to you and be aware that this transition is not easy for you. Understand that this will not be a one-time thing. I would encourage you to set up regular conversations, or meetings, (at least weekly to start) to discuss these feelings together.

Evaluate & Process

The next thing I would ask you to consider is to take the pressure off feeling like you need to immediately find your new chapter. You don’t need the extra pressure of trying to prove yourself to everyone else about your next grand plan. Most great things in life take time, effort, and intentionality to build. Understand that taking time to evaluate and process this transition can be extremely beneficial. I am reminded of an Abraham Lincoln quote which says, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Use this transition time to grow in the virtue of patience.

However, know that while you are trying to embrace this suggestion, there are some land mines out there to throw you off track. In my experience with former players, this one question seems to initially trouble most guys: ‘So, what are you doing now?’ I know when I first got out of the league, I couldn’t stand that question. It put me in an uncomfortable position because I didn’t know how to respond to it. If I didn’t have something I felt was important to say, I felt inadequate and judged.

As former players, we are used to having everyone know exactly what we did and how we did it. However, now that you are done playing, people in your family, your kid’s school, and your community want to know what’s next. Don’t succumb to the pressure to have a great answer all lined up. If you don’t have something specific to share you can simply say, ‘I haven’t landed on any one thing YET, but I am passionate about …’ and proceed to share what you care about. Who knows, it may lead to an amazing opportunity. Turn the ‘dreaded question’ into a chance to share what you are passionate about with the world.

Try New Things

Finally, it is completely acceptable to try new things. This will help you figure out what will give you the purpose and structure in life that we all need. When I was in junior high, I participated in four different sports - football, basketball, baseball, and track. When I started these sports activities, I was still growing and didn’t fully know which one I liked the best. I needed to experience them and find out how my strengths and weaknesses fit into them. I needed to see ‘the inside’ of each activity. I needed to experience what each had to offer and how my skillset was utilized with each.

No one thought that was odd as a young person. In fact, it made total sense. So why not take that same approach to finding your new chapter now? Discovering your values, strengths, and passions can lead you on an exciting journey if you change your mindset to understand the transition this way. Don’t believe the lie that your best days are behind you. Begin to believe that your best day is the one you are living today. You can still grow. You can still be part of a team. You can still be part of seeing great things happen.

Time is the greatest gift we all have each day. Don’t throw that gift away by only looking backwards, but instead choose to look forward.

Aaron Kampman transitioned from the NFL in 2012 and has a passion for helping others become their best. He is CEO of Align, a personal and professional coaching business. To learn more, visit thealignprocess.com.

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