Will More Athletes Retire Early To Protect Their Mental Health?

As someone who is super into football, it was a shock to hear that quarterback Andrew Luck retired early at age 29. After 7 years as a pro player, Luck said he was worn down by pain, injuries, rehab, and setbacks.

Andrew Luck isn’t alone. Many athletes retired early in different fields. From Brandon Roy in basketball, who retired at 29 after persistent knee issues, to Bjorn Borg in tennis, who retired at 26 due to mental burnout.

Professional athletes endure a lot of injuries. Recovering from injuries takes time, even when you have the best medical doctors at your time. There are things that money just can’t buy. The pressure to play again before the injury is feeling healed increases the risk for re-injury.

Every injury takes it’s toll, mentally and physically. Knowing that this injury might be the one you won’t be able to recover from, that it can have a permanent effect on your body. Fearing that the next injury will set you back further or even leave you disabled, unable to take care of your family and yourself. Add to that the fear and anxiety about losing their job – their source of income. When you make a living off your body, the pressure of keeping it safe is big.

Furthermore, the injuries they endure don’t just get in the way of playing sports – they get in the way of life. One of Luck’s injuries was a kidney laceration – which could cause leaking of urine into the abdominal cavity.

The reasons these pro athletes cite for their early retirement isn’t just physical. The injuries alone aren’t enough to make someone want to retire, to walk away from playing a sport they love while getting paid for it. It’s the burnout that comes with them and with being a professional athlete in general. This points to a general trend of different priorities. It is becoming less acceptable to sacrifice one’s mental, emotional and physical health for fame and material wealth. This is a monumental step for mental health awareness.

To take such a major decision – to step away from millions of dollars in potential earnings, as well as the security of a job that one knows he is good at and valued for – isn’t easy. It sends out a clear message, and it starts a dialogue about mental health and self-care.

Mental health awareness isn’t just for people who are already struggling with mental health disorders – it’s for everybody. Just like you don’t have to be diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes to start eating healthier. The same goes for mental and emotional wellbeing.

Having professional athletes, celebrities and other people who are in the spotlight talk about mental health and self-care is huge. It starts a conversation and has an effect on all of society.

Sure, most people are not going to be able to retire at 30 – not by a long shot. But we can look at the choices we make in our everyday lives and how they impact our mental health. From choosing a job that offers less pay but maybe more satisfaction, to how we are spending our free time. It’s a reminder that we need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. It’s our own responsibility to talk to our loved ones about our needs, boundaries, and difficulties.

I believe that as this conversation expands, we will see more professional athletes choose to retire early. Andrew Luck and others are a positive example and show that it’s possible to thrive out of the limelight. Taking responsibility for his mental health shows others that it can be done. I’m sure that many other athletes are burning out from the stress but are keeping quiet about it.

Dealing with a lot of media attention – many of which could be negative – might scare off several athletes who might be thinking of retiring. Inevitably though, the media will show less interest as more athletes make the choice. What is shocking the first few dozen times will eventually become accepted, and perhaps even applauded.

In addition, as we live in an era of technology, social media, and “side gigs”, many athletes no longer have to rely on sports as their sole income. It is easier than ever for a retired athlete to dip their feet into another industry and try their hand at something else.

Check out my video in which I discuss Andrew Luck’s early retirement and self-care.


Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended or recommended for patients or other lay persons or as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Patients must always consult a qualified health care professional regarding their diagnosis and treatment. Mental health conditions are complex, people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions and treatments are best evaluated by a physical examination and consultation with a qualified clinician.

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