At the time of their retirement, professional athletes have probably been playing their competitive sport for decades. With long sports seasons (i.e. 46 weeks in soccer), players spend 9/10ths of their year conditioning and strength training six days a week. They must adjust to a new reality when they hang up their cleats, pads and helmets.
Many pro athletes cut out training cold turkey after retirement. It becomes drudgery after a while, and they are enjoying the free time to pursue other interests. While the act of stopping doesn’t cause any harm, problems arise when athletes want to jump back in to activity after some down time. They expect more of themselves than their non-athlete peers and think they hop into a pick-up game or an athletic charity event no problem. Retired athletes should not expect to come off the bench and right back to their previous levels of performance.
In addition to a lack of regular training, retired athletes are also susceptible to injuries of age, just as non-pros are. Older players suffer more muscle strains and tendon sprains, and their injuries are nagging as they’re slower to recover. Some moves that they completed effortlessly when younger, such as quick directional changes, can cause serious injury in an older or retired athlete.
The smartest thing to do after retirement is to maintain some reasonable amount of fitness, both strength and conditioning. Also eliminate at-risk sports that may heighten the chance of injury.
It is a bit of shock to the system to go from training every day for that amount of time to not being required to train. My recommendation, in understanding the aging athlete, is to maintain an adequate level of fitness. Don’t struggle to get back what you lost. Take time to rest, but still train to suit whatever activities in your leisure time you’ll want to participate in once you don’t have the responsibility of a professional appointment.
Dr. Riley J. Williams III is a specialist in the field of shoulder, knee and elbow surgery at Hospital for Special Surgery Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service. He is the Director of the Institute for Cartilage Repair at Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Williams has worked with the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Mets and the New York Giants. In addition, he is the head team physician for the New York Red Bulls professional soccer team and the Iona College Department of Athletics.