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Why some pro athletes (like Tom Brady) seem unable to stay retired

In this Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, file photo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady reacts after winning the NFC championship NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay, Wis.
Matt Ludtke
In this Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 file photo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady reacts after winning the NFC championship NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay, Wis.

Well, that was quick.

In case you missed it, quarterback Tom Brady unretired on the weekend.

The NFL superstar will return for what feels like his 85th season next year, and how much longer the 44-year-old can still play is anyone's guess.

He has won more Super Bowls than anyone else. He's the NFL's all-time passing leader. So the question isn't so much can he still play, but why is he still playing.

Why can some athletes walk away from their sport? And why do others, especially ones with nothing left to prove, hang on?

To help pick this phenomenen apart is Dr. J.D. DeFreese, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On whether he was surprised Brady's retirement lasted about six weeks

I mean, yes and no. Obviously, to be definitive and make a decision like that and then change your mind is a little bit surprising for anyone. That said, many athletes are sort of tired and stressed and physically beaten down at the end of the season, and then maybe six weeks later, they may sort of change their tune. So yes and no.

On whether being able to choose the moment of retirement made it harder for Brady

I think that's a really important point. Some of our research at the center shows that as many as half or more athletes don't get to choose their retirement. They commonly retire because they maybe get injured or because they're cut from their team or not offered a contract. So, you know, we're talking about someone that's in a really unique scenario. That said, just because others might think you want to retire, it can certainly be more complicated than that.

On the main stumbling blocks for athletes as they think about retiring

Athletic identity is pretty important. Just like all of us identify with roles as workers or parents or caregivers or spouses, athletes identify with the athlete role, and that can be hard to break. That can be a strong thing that they want to do, and trying to transition away from that can be tough.

Athletes also report that they might be afraid that they're going to lose some social relationships, like with teammates or coaches or people in the environments. Sport can be a stressor and can be tough, but it allows the competitive environment, and some people really like competing and they're afraid they're going to miss it if they leave.

On what advice he offers athletes transitioning from sport to retirement

One of the things we do suggest is trying to optimize your mental and physical health, trying to have a social network that certainly includes people in sport, but includes family and maybe those outside of the sporting venue. It's not necessarily problematic to be really focused on your athletic identity, but if that's the only type of identity you can have, certainly transition can be difficult.

We also suggest if there are ways to have other interests or to think about things in the off season. And really what I'm getting at is to just kind of have a plan for when you are ready to transition, how you'd like to go about that and to try to have some sort of a plan proactively.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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