O’Connell: How To Walk Away On Top

Apr 5, 2019, 3:46 PM | Updated: Apr 16, 2019, 1:09 pm
(Ryan Loco/PFL)...
(Ryan Loco/PFL)
(Ryan Loco/PFL)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – For an athlete, certain milestones on your timeline are more important than others. Usually, it’s the “firsts” we focus on. Freshman season, rookie year, first touchdown, first game-winner, first time under the bright lights.

(This column is my first, btw)  These “firsts” are all significant, memorable, and hopefully special. But they cannot hardly be compared to the importance and the impacts of the “lasts.” The final moments are the ones that stick with you as an athlete.

If you are reading this as a former competitor, you already understand what I mean. You probably remember what the grass smelled like for that last game of high school football. Or how your breath sounded in your own head that final time you crossed the finish line for BYU track.  Maybe you remember the minutiae of your “firsts” too. I know you remember your lasts though. (If you are still a competitive athlete, you’ll understand all of this soon enough).

For better or worse, your last moments are more important than your first.  That means retirement is the most important milestone on an athlete’s career path. So, how do you make your last moments memorable? How do you finish as strong as you started? How do you end on a high-note? How do you know when to say when, and retire with grace? Every situation is unique of course, but I think I have figured out the recipe.

Realizing The End Is Near

First, you have to see the end coming. The light at the end of the tunnel in this case is not so much a light as it is the dark, lonely dead-end you have been subconsciously dreading. Depending on your sport, the harbinger of this end can be many different things. Age is the most common culprit, along with the slowing of twitches in those muscles and stretching out of time needed to recover between practices and competitions.

Injury is probably close behind, either accumulated aches and pains or the final giving out of that wonky knee or ankle. We might try to ignore what our bodies are telling us as the end comes rushing in, but the message in those creaking joints and aching back is clear. Sometimes the end is represented by things that are harder to grasp, like the game passing us by. The changing style of play that makes our skill-sets less and less relevant.

For me and my fighting career, I got a nice mix of these. Every passing year and fight, my body responded less favorably to the grind of sparring hard rounds and wrestling. My muscle mass shrunk, my fat mass increased, and weight cuts (usually from 230ish down to 205) became more unpleasant and dependent on the flash dehydration offered by plastic suits and time in the sauna.

My aches and pains lasted longer, my back never felt quite right, and I remember once in the gym doing box jumps and thinking to myself “why is jumping so hard?!” That’s a basic athletic movement! My 4-year-old nephew can hop around like a kangaroo. If I am an athlete, why is jumping so hard?  My body told me for about three years that the end was near. I didn’t listen too closely, and I did what was necessary to stay my execution, but I knew…

As an athlete who works in broadcasting, I also had the displeasure of watching the end approach. I would announce or analyze the work of fighters younger than myself who had been involved in martial arts since their elementary years and be forced to accept the reality that some of the techniques they were executing were simply better than mine. Bigger, faster, and stronger, can be dealt with in combat sports.

There are ways to overcome those physical obstacles, even for an aging fighter. But if the new blood in the sport is more fluid, polished, and skilled on top of being fresher, faster and more explosive, the game is passing you by. I witnessed that close-up, and started to come to grips with the fact that the end was near. This first step – the acknowledgment that it can’t last forever – is the hardest for athletes. In order to confront this reality, you have to accept your humanity, your age, your deterioration, your mortality in whatever sport you love. Unpleasant, but ultimately very necessary.

Professional Fighters League

Second in the recipe for successful retirement is a swan song. You have to formulate a plan for the last ride, the final game, the one shot to go out with a bang. For me, the timing worked out perfectly. I had an opportunity to compete in Season One of a new Mixed Martial Arts organization call Professional Fighters League. Five fights in one year to determine a tournament champion who would take home the belt and a one-million-dollar purse. A lot of the best fighters in my weight class worldwide were still under contract with the UFC or other organizations when this tournament was announced, so I knew that I would be facing tough challenges, and perhaps a few unknowns, but not any of the top ten light-heavyweights in the world. Not everybody gets an opportunity like this one. But any athlete who is unencumbered by serious injury should be able to cobble together a script for how the final game, race, or season will ideally go.

In order to walk away and not look back, an athlete must give him or herself an opportunity to prove that they can do it one last time. Of course it doesn’t always work out in a Kobe Bryant 60-point-game or a Jerome Bettis Super Bowl, but the attempt itself is vital to peace of mind. I was lucky enough to have an extremely satisfying final fight.  My opponent quit on the stool after round three. I will reflect on that moment until I die. Realistically, I will probably talk about it way too much as the years go by and annoy everybody I know with the tales of my glory days. But even if I hadn’t won, knowing that I made the attempt would carry me in some way.  The hard thing for most is the “what if” associated not with failure in the competition, but failing to enter the competition. So come back for the final season, run the final race, dive in for one last competition, and let the sports gods decide your fate so that you never have to wake up in a cold sweat wondering how much you had left.

Last ingredient in the recipe for successful retirement (this is about the importance of “lasts) is finding something else. It’s unrealistic to think that a hobby, a family, or a new job will scratch all of the same itches that athletic competition does, but there has to be something to focus the new surplus of energy on. I’ll be participating in the next steps that have come cliché for retired athletes, broadcasting (PFL Season 2 on ESPN2 and ESPN+) and a little bit of coaching for fighters who want my help. I’ll also be writing more books, which is my real passion but doesn’t yet pay the bills.

I’ll be doing home improvement projects and embarking on the terrifying adventure of parenthood. I will miss the rush of fighting, certainly, but I will do my best to fill that space with other things. A lot has been said and written about the struggles athletes experience as they transition out of their athletic lives and become normal like the rest of us. Some define themselves primarily as NFL player, NBA star, home-run king, Prize-Fighter, or Olympian and don’t know where to go or what to do when that title no longer applies.

There are programs in place and jobs to be had for those people, but ultimately the responsibility is a personal one. Find. Something. Else. The world has endless possibilities for growth, but nothing is given. I think the best way to make that particular “something else” as satisfying and interesting as possible is to approach it the same way you would your athletic career. Time, hard work, constant improvement, and patience with setbacks and failures seem to apply well to just about every human pursuit. I’m already pushing forward with that approach in broadcasting and writing. The parenting thing I am not worried about though. I am sure that’s gonna be easy…

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