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When You Can't Play Pro Anymore
I saw a really interesting segment on this weekend's NHK sports news programme, and I thought i'd share it here.

When we think "Pro Footballer", most of us think of the top -- the J top flight, the National Team. And when we thinking "retiring J-leaguer" we think of the veterans who have entertained us for over a decade and go out with flower bouquets and a standing ovation from fans. In the J-league, there are currently about 900 players. And every year about 100 players leave the pros -- and most of them are in their mid-20s.

Last year I remember a couple ex-baseball players were thrown into the spotlight when they got arrested -- the allegations dealt with selling illegal material, including porn. I think it shocked people because most of us think that pro-athletes lead these glamorous lives and get paid well. But most pros are hardly in the top rank; the income they get is not that great, and only the creme de la creme get those fat paychecks with all the zeros at the end. It sort of made me realize how short a pro's life really is on average. I had wondered if the Japanese Baseball Association had some sort of support network in place to help athletes as they returned to "civilian" life.

Three years ago the J-League created a Career Support Center. The thinking by the J-League was that not only did they need to pay attention to the care of youth and development but also attend to the needs of players as they were going out.

What does it mean to be a Pro? And what do you do when it's over? ...continues
Kozaburo Shigeno, who is one of the staff at CSC, was a pro for three years before being told he was no longer needed. This show followed him around on his typical day, and we got to see some of the work he does as a CSC staff.

Of course, the first obvious service for a place like the CSC is to find work for players after they leave professional football. The CSC works to match players with potential employers. So they also go around to different businesses and talk with the HR people there to illustrate to them the advantages of hiring an ex-footballer/athlete.

The most significant role that the CSC plays though is the emotional support. Most footballers start in high school, first joining the youth teams of the J clubs. They spend these formative years thinking that their lives will be about football. So it takes a while for the players to come to terms with their situation and assess how they want to proceed.

There are some players who can't quite give up on the idea of pursuing another chance at the pro. They get parttime work and play with amateur teams to keep up their physical fitness while they wait for another chance somewhere. The biggest theme for these guys seems to be the idea that they will regret it later on if they don't try a little longer now. And the people at CSC greatly respect this. They don't try and force players to give up on their dreams, whatever the likelihood. The important thing is for the player to feel as if he has given every avenue a try and leave without regrets. And the CSC wants to keep that connection with the player open so that when he comes to a decision he knows that there are people to back him up.

The CSC also visits J-league clubs for presentations to the younger players. The focus of these presentations is on letting the current footballers understand how important it is for them to set short-term goals for themselves (not universal goals like "be the MVP" or "get on the National Team"). Of the 900 players in the J-league each year, only a tiny handful will reach these big universal goals -- so the question is, what is the goal for the rest? The main aim is for each individual to set specific and reasonable short-term goals for himself, and spend each day of their professional lives doing the best they can to accomplish them. They stress the importance of living in the present.

So, when they do reach the end of their pro lives, they can look back and feel like they fulfilled what they wanted and gave this part of their life their 100%. It seems that this idea of fulfillment (regardless of what successes the player had or didn't have during their career) is the difference between those players who can leave the professional life without difficulty and those that can't.

When you think about it, the above advice is really true for all of us, isn't it? Pro athlete or not. (Though more significant for pro athletes because the length of the career is so short.) Many of us identify ourselves and pride ourselves through our work/careers -- if that career is no longer available to us, how do we deal with it? And how do you lead your life in the present to keep your sense of accomplishment and fulfillment no matter what the outcome may be? Anyway, I'm glad that at least the J-league are aware of these issues and is making some effort in this area.
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