The REAL Reason Why Athletes Retire (And Maybe Why You Should)

In Discipline
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I stopped playing basketball, cold turkey in 2015 after a 9-year professional career, thousands of pickup games and tens of thousands of hours of solo, no-cameras-watching training. I was 33 years of age at the time.

The last basketball game of any type that I played in was a cash-prize tournament, which my team won. The only thing I’ve done on a basketball court since is shoot around for fun, and that happens only 2-3 times per month, if that. My body had the normal nicks and bruises that come from years of athletic participation, but I was (and still am) relatively healthy. I was lucky enough to never suffer a major injury, and my knees are in great shape compared to those of many former basketball players.

I wasn’t forced out of the game — I walked out on my own. But, why walk away?

I was at a pro basketball game a few years ago with a colleague, who asked me if I missed being out there, playing in the games.

Hell yes!

Well then, if I missed playing in the game so much, why walk away at age 33 while still healthy and capable of playing?

I’ll explain why I did — and why most do — and what it means for you in your profession, even if it’s not sports.

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An athlete leaves a sport for one of only three reasons.

  1. Physical breakdown: despite how much they love the game and want to compete and win, the athlete’s body just can’t do it anymore. Maybe they’ve suffered a serious injury; perhaps it’s buildup of problem areas that accumulated over time. Kobe Bryant himself said, “… my heart can take the pounding, my mind can handle the grind, but my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
  2. Lack of opportunity: despite what you see on TV and online, most athlete’s careers don’t end like Kobe’s, with a farewell tour and the one final shining-moment game that everyone’s talking about the next day. Most players go out like former NBA player Steve Blake, who said, “sometimes, you don’t realize you are retired until you don’t have a job.” Unlike Kobe, the clear signs that your career is over may be when the phone stops ringing and the inbox isn’t lighting up anymore.
  3. The Third Day. The majority of a professional athlete’s life happens away from the cameras. The fans hear about it, but never see it. It’s the twice-per-day, closed-door practices we had in Montenegro when the games were only once per week. It’s the offseasons of training and staying in game-ready shape when you don’t even know if you’re going to have a job the following season. It’s the everyday, unseen grind that you must submit to just to be eligible for becoming or remaining a pro — the stuff that makes what we do in the games look so easy — that drives many an athlete out of the game.

Basically, we’ve decided that we no longer want to do the work. At that point, the game is over.

The Third Day is both an event and a mental approach.

The event is any moment or situation when you’re feeling less-than-excellent, but there’s a lot of work on your plate that you can’t pass off to anyone else.

The mental approach is your decision on how you’re going to handle that work. Will you find a way to bring your best effort, or half-ass your way through it?

Many of us are skilled or talented enough to half-ass our way through the work and trick people into believing that we’re giving more effort than we actually are. When you cheat the game, though, it always catches up to you.

The Third Day happens on a day-to-day basis in any job — and it’s the easiest way to discern the true pros from the amateurs. The Third Day is the principle of discipline that is the foundation of maximizing your resources in anything you do.

I once asked a retired NBA player when he knew it was time to retire.

“Dre, I was coming to the training facility two hours before practice just to get treatment that allowed me to be able to practice. That’s when I told myself, ‘this is my last season.’”

In professional sports, where your every performance is observed by thousands of people, a performer’s decline is hard to hide. While that decline shows itself during the performance, it never starts there: it’s what that player is doing in the dark, on their Third Days — offseason training, the practice session that no one wants to be at, how they’re taking care of their bodies (or not) in between games — that shows itself in the light.

Your relationship to The Third Day won’t be obvious until it’s obvious.

In the business world, or in any job where your performances may not be headline news like that of the pro athlete, maybe you can get away with Third Day slippage for a bit longer. But remember —

  1. If you’re not willing to find a way to bring your best effort on the days when you don’t feel your best, you might be in the wrong profession — or, you may be doing it for the wrong reasons.
  2. The people who notice your game falling off may not be so willing to let you know about it, especially if you’re in a position of authority. You must be honest with yourself about how you’re approaching your work, or find someone who will be.
  3. The Third Day has no such qualms about showing you the truth and making you uncomfortable. Your relationship to The Third Day won’t be obvious until it’s obvious — and by then, it may be too late for you to repair the relationship.
  4. Have an honest conversation with yourself: do you really want to continue doing the unseen work in the dark that allows you shine in the light? If not, you owe it to yourself, your company and your industry to step aside and make room for someone who wants to embrace the grind. Because the grind is part of being a professional.

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