As an athlete and/or sports fan, you’re probably hard-wired to zero your attention right in on the kinds of examples that your favorite playing icons set for how top athletes should conduct their lives off the court or field. That’s understandable too, since everybody seems to love focusing on the biggest stars.
But guys like former NBA sub Stephen Howard may just have more to teach you about how to transition from playing professional basketball to a mainstream career than Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, or even Ray Allen can.
Sure, those veteran master basketball superstars have proven their staying power in the NBA. But they’re also used to being among the most important players on their teams, which means that they’ve never had to worry about losing their jobs as much as players do who are lower on the pecking order. And for some of them, that status may translate more easily into front office, broadcasting, or even unrelated entrepreneurial opportunities later on because of the recognizability of their names.
Lesser-known players, however, can never allow themselves the luxury of getting comfortable on a player roster. Because of the extreme lack of job stability for pro athletes everywhere, players who aren’t in a team’s regular rotation have a more urgent need than superstars do to prepare themselves for post-athletic careers.
Of course, every player on a pro roster has dedicated years of physical and emotional sacrifice to don one of the official uniforms of his or her sport. So whether the player is the team MVP or the last one off the bench, the ritual-dependent warrior life of a professional athlete is so physically and emotionally taxing that making the transition to another career after one’s playing days are over can be a hugely traumatic life change.
According to Howard, who is an entrepreneur, as well as a studio analyst for the NBA’s OKC Thunder and a college basketball analyst for ESPN, “I think most players don’t realize the true depth of that transition [from playing pro basketball to another career] and what it will entail once they get done playing. So that’s really what makes it so difficult when they leave the sport. It’s a definite process that you have to go through. It’s almost like a death, and you’re mourning it. You’ve been doing that work for so long.”
Howard spent 15 years playing professional basketball internationally and domestically, including three seasons with the Utah Jazz, one season with the Seattle SuperSonics, and a brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs, between 1992 and 1998. He retired from playing oversees about five years ago.
Even though Howard was never an NBA starter, and played the remainder of his 15-year pro basketball career overseas after 1998, he explained that the rigid ritualistic behavior patterns and constant competitive focus needed by pro athletes are so unique, that any career that follows it is likely to be experienced by the athlete as culture shock.
“I even see it with myself,” said Howard, referring to the feeling of loss that accompanied his retirement. “I’m still transitioning after five years to not playing. For more than 15 years, I was playing basketball, and then for 15 years I was doing it professionally. So literally I could set my clock on what I was doing at any certain time of the year, month, or day. It was a routine. When you lose that routine, then you basically have to develop a whole new routine later on in life. And that’s a very difficult transition, mentally, to go through.”
Recalling the factors that helped to prepare him for accepting the challenge of transitioning into a whole different way of earning a living, Howard explained, “Playing 15 years on a 1-year contract, I didn’t have any years where I could just rest and kind of chill. I was auditioning every day, every month, every shot, and every game for my next team that I would play for in the next year.
“People really don’t realize the difficult nature of being a professional athlete. But I think just as difficult as it is to become a professional athlete, it’s more difficult to leave that profession because, literally you’re living in a world that’s totally different from the real world just because of the money that you’re making, access that you have, and the different things that you do.”
So What’s a Retired Pro Baller to Do?
Given the intense and regimented nature of a pro athlete’s life, leaving your mournful feelings about the end of your playing career unresolved isn’t an option. Howard offers the following four tips to help pro athletes move through the inevitable mourning stages without falling into a debilitating depression.
- Adjust your personal definition of success to make it fit what you’ll be doing next.
- Make failure your teacher instead of your enemy.
- Start building post-retirement skills while you’re still playing.
- Start cultivating a support network of people who are successful at what you’ll be doing next.
Adjusting your personal definition of success may not seem significant at first, but it will definitely make your emotional transition to a new career a whole lot easier. That’s primarily because doing so will get you back to feeling like you’re in control of your own life again. And as all athletes know, acting with confidence makes a huge difference in one’s performance.
Regarding the definition of success, Howard said, “it really has to be defined by each individual. For me, it was starting as a freshman on the varsity basketball team, and playing in a top level Division I program. And then playing in the NBA and on ESPN. But those were goals and success as I envisioned it.
“It wasn’t success that people defined for me because the one thing in life that you have to do for yourself is define your path in life and your goals; because if you don’t define it, somebody else will define it for you. And for the most part, you’re not going to like their definition of your success or you won’t be happy in that field. So I really think that’s a personal journey and a personal definition.”
Howard’s perspective on the transformative value of failure is both refreshing and profoundly powerful. He told Access Athletes, “one of the biggest differences between successful people and unsuccessful people is the ability to overcome failure and to realize that failure is just part of the process. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying.
“When people look at professional athletes or doctors, or anyone that’s successful, they just look at the way they are right then. They say, ‘Wow, I would love to do that!’” But what they don’t see, he said, is the journey that brought the successful people to where they are at the time when they’re being admired. “People don’t realize that there’s no straight line to success, and you just don’t go right from point A to point B.
“And I think people just really appreciate seeing that [winding journey through the athlete’s eyes], because there isn’t anybody that at some point in time doesn’t experience failing or dealing with adversity. So hearing it from someone that you may or may not look up to; hearing that honesty, I just think helps everyone.”
Once the athlete’s mind is ready to embrace these new perspectives on success and failure and move forward into new and different life adventures, the necessary next step is to select the next career and then build a new set of related skills. Said Howard, “I think it’s really good to diversify yourself, because you never know what’s going to stick. You look at the successful people in life, and they’re always just throwing things up against the wall, seeing if something is going to stick. And if it doesn’t stick, they just move on to the next one. And I think that’s really just a smart thing to do.
“Even if you’re doing something that’s successful, it’s not always going to be successful, and there’s going to be challenges. That’s why when I see professional athletes that while they’re playing, they’re also branching out and finishing up their degree, or interning with a company, using the access that they have at that time to diversify their potential and to help their transition as an athlete; I’m all for it.
“Playing’s not going to last forever. There’s really nothing in life that will last forever, so it’s always smart to get ready for your next challenge.”
Last but not least is the matter of plugging into a new support network that can provide new career opportunities for you to showcase your new skills. In Howard’s words, “I don’t think you can go on any journey without a strong support network.
“You’re only as strong as your personal network and the network that you choose to hang out with, because throughout life, you see that people that are successful hang around successful people. People that aren’t always getting trouble—those are the people they hang out with. So there’s no journey that you can take that’s more important than that life journey, and if you want to be successful, you have to surround yourself with the right people.
“So I really do think it all revolves around the network of people that you hang out with, and the people that you lean on for support. Like I said earlier, there’s going to be failure, there’s going to be adversity, and your support system really is what’s going to help you through the various difficult times throughout your life.”
Take it from a pro who has dedicated his life to beating the odds against retired pro ballers.
You can learn more about Stephen Howard by visiting stephenhoward.com or following him on twitter, @Stephen_Speaks.