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From hero to human, athletes struggle with transition when playing career ends

At some point, every athlete has to stop lacing up their skates, pinning on their race number or strapping on their skis. Deidra Dionne's day was sudden and she wasn't prepared for it.

'When I left sport, it wasn't on my terms'

Former NBA MVP Allen Iverson infamously struggled with financial issues and bankruptcy, despite making millions in his professional career. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Life after sport is a reality. At some point, every athlete has to stop lacing up their skates, pinning on their race number or strapping on their skis. The end happens, regardless of the sport and regardless of the net income derived from playing it.

My day was sudden. I woke up one morning in September, five months before the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, with the worst black-eye I'd ever had. No memory of what had occurred and no clues to how it had happened. Through a process of elimination, I was diagnosed as having had a nocturnal grand mal seizure. The black eye was a likely side effect from my face repeatedly hitting the bedside table. Eventually, I was diagnosed with having a benign, right temporal lobe tumor. A small lesion on my brain. 

I was fit for a normal life but not fit for aerial skiing.

Like most athletes, when I left sport, it wasn't on my terms. Sport moved on from me.

The struggle for athletes transitioning out of sport has increasingly become a topical issue in both professional and Olympic sport. With sensational lawsuits, heartbreaking deaths and unfathomable bankruptcies, it has become apparent sport hasn't always prepared an individual for life on the sidelines. 

It's spurring a growing debate on what sport federations should be doing to prepare athletes for the inevitable and what type of resources organizations should allocate to support athletes making the transition.

Most athletes will tell you retiring from sport was harder than they expected. A personal journey with a variety of challenges including emotional, financial, intellectual, physical or in many instances, a combination of them all. A journey with struggles and unique triumphs difficult for those outside of sport to empathize. 

Have a 'Game Plan'

To answer the growing need for support, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced the creation of Game Plan – a comprehensive five-pronged program to assist with athlete challenges on-and-off the field. The program was developed in collaboration with Deloitte to focus on education, skill development, health (including mental health), networking and career management. 

Professional leagues are also stepping up. The NHLPA and NHL have plans for a program jointly funded by the organizations to assist players with the transition into retirement. The details of the program have yet to be released.  The NBPA and NFLPA both have programs in place as well.

Sports are starting to understand the moral obligation to its athletes. The greatest challenge these programs face isn't in the curriculum they present, it is educating and raising awareness on why they are important.  Athletes, their coaches and support system live with a 'perform now' mentality. 

Understanding how and why an athlete needs to invest in themselves — financially, emotionally or intellectually — off the playing field before retirement is paramount to a complete change in sport culture.    

The way we view our athletes post-retirement is slowly changing. It is a shifting paradigm of hero to human. The change is heightened every time an athlete uses their platform to talk about the struggles in life after sport – whether a professional or an Olympian. 

But are organizations like the COC and NHLPA doing enough? Maybe but not likely.  For the programs to truly be successful, sport at every level needs a culture change. A system that values mental health in the same capacity as physical health and achievement. A system that teaches an athlete that they are valuable regardless of their statistics and most importantly, a system that encourages athletes that performance doesn't hinge on singular focus. 

We need a system that respects a balanced athlete and promotes a vision for a future beyond the field of play.

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