Star athletes are famous, wealthy and loved by fans across the world, yet when it's time for them to retire they struggle through some of the same emotional and financial challenges endured by more traditional clients. The major difference, of course, is that most pro athletes are forced to deal with retirement at a much earlier age, when replacing their work identity and finding that next passion in life is more important than Social Security.
As with our regular clients, star athletes have to make the decision to retire, adjust to life at home, fill newfound time, and maintain their wealth. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview several retired professional athletes on a number of topics, most notably retirement. Their insights were both enlightening and reassuring in the sense that even accomplished athletes go through this major life transition and must adapt and adjust. Advisors looking to add a fresh perspective to their retirement planning discussions can use this exclusive look inside the lives of champions to help their clients plan for and live their golden years with equal passion and commitment.
Work Can't Love You Back
My interview with pro football hall-of-famer and multi-sport star Deion Sanders provided a number of insightful thoughts on retirement. When I asked him about his own retirement and how he handled the transition, he was quick to point out, "Most guys don't understand that playing the game is only what you do ... it's not who you are. Players who fall in love with the game get heartbroken because the sport doesn't have a heart or the ability to love you back."
"You want to walk away from it while you can," Sanders continued, "otherwise you can lose your sense of purpose and stability." He made that point even more poignant by stating, "That's a profound statement because those that let the game walk away from them are often the ones who end up crying at their press conference and unhappy with their home life."
That powerful attitude is something advisors can share with clients, whether they are a CEO, doctor, retail manager or assembly line worker. Too often, people confuse who they are with what they do; or unknowingly fall in love with aspects of their work life that can't love them back. By simply changing the questions they ask clients about retirement decisions, advisors can inject this new wisdom.
Instead of asking the cliché retirement question, 'When are you going to retire?' advisors can add a fresh perspective, and open the way for deeper conversation, by asking, "Are you going to walk away from work or let it walk away from you?" A question like this not only gives your clients pause as they think it over, but it also allows advisors to talk about their experience with other clients and how they transitioned into retirement. We all have clients who made a smooth changeover and others who have and still are foundering. By introducing what can happen mentally (instead of just financially) to clients who are tied too closely to their work, advisors can move their value beyond that of market performance and investment selection to comprehensive retirement expertise.
Health Is Wealth
It's not uncommon for a young person heading off to college, and life on their own, to gain the 10 to 20 so-called "freshman pounds." Similarly, the transition into retirement can have the same effect on people as they enter a new phase on life ... bringing great aspirations and a sense of freedom but no grand plan to take care of themselves physically. Oftentimes people think the extra time they have in retirement will provide the motivation to be healthier than when they were working, but habits take time to both make and break.
Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller was forced to retire from her sport at age 19. When I asked her about the days and weeks following her last days as a competitor she said, "I didn't know how to be a regular person. I went through a time where I really had to think about who I am. What do I get up and do every day? Once retired, I initially watched a lot of TV, gaining four dress sizes on my 5-foot frame. It was very disheartening but it helped me realize I had to find my next passion in life."
"I had to set new goals," she said, "without really knowing where they may take me. Going through that transition taught me that it doesn't matter how many gold medals you have, everybody faces the same issues."
If an Olympic gold medalist struggled with exercise and nutrition at age 19, I think it's fair for advisors to discuss what may happen to clients at age 60 or 65 if they don't establish healthy eating and exercise habits prior to retirement. It's becoming somewhat cliché to tell clients they need to practice retirement before throwing in the towel, but it's often a general statement without direction.
Advisors can turn this generic advice into something meaningful by simply asking clients to write down between three and five healthy habits they want to start or continue in retirement. Then encourage clients to start doing it right away instead of waiting for retirement. Help them pick a day to start cooking one healthy meal weekly; work with them as they set days and times they will wake up early and go for a walk; or help them enroll right now in a couple of classes that help them learn yoga or cooking skills. Reiterate that time doesn't automatically turn into motivation. We're creatures of habit and our habits -- both good and bad -- take time to make as well as break.
Retirement Is Scary
Whether you are a fan of Mixed Martial Arts or not, the sheer idea of entering an eight-sided metal cage with another human being trained to hurt you, and with a plan to inflict serious pain on you, is more than scary to me; it's downright frightening.
I asked former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Tito Ortiz if he was ever scared before entering the ring. To my surprise, he was very upfront about his mental state before each fight. "I was always very nervous and full of fear," he admitted. "I'd pace back and forth, going through a series of emotions, and then throw up just before heading to the ring." I wasn't expecting to hear that kind of response, but he went on to say, "Once in the ring I found a sense of peace and comfort. I think the nervousness and throwing up was actually the fear leaving my body as I prepared to do battle."
The idea of retiring can bring out real fears, emotions and, in some cases, even a physical reaction, although not everyone would be as upfront as Ortiz about the impact their fears have on them. What's important is how he felt as he answered the bell. He said he had spent so much time in a ring and practicing for every conceivable punch, kick, or takedown move that he felt very at home ... he had a "sense of peace and comfort."
Unfortunately, that's not the case for many heading into retirement. They haven't practiced or prepared much for the "punches, kicks, and takedowns" that are inevitably on the horizon. Instead of being superficial about all the great things sure to happen, advisors need to prepare clients for actual retirement situations and help them understand the challenges they may face, including:
How their marriage will hold up as spouses spend more time together
How caring for an adult child, grandchild or parent may impact their plans and goals
How they will respond to a financial emergency of $10,000 or even $20,000
Who they will turn when a medical diagnosis, stroke, or other health condition disrupts retirement
How a shrinking social network and declining physical capacity may interfere with their emotions
How they may react to an adult child needing to move back home or borrow money
The personal and financial impact of long-term care needs.
I wish retirement was as idyllic as it is presented in 30-second TV commercials and company brochures, but it's not. Long walks on the beach and watching your grandchildren graduate from college comprise less than 1% of the time clients will spend in retirement. Advisors need to help clients prepare for the myriad of emotions retirement evokes, and get them better prepared so that when issues do come up, they will find that "sense of peace and comfort."
These insights from retired superstars are powerful reminders that no matter what a person's age, occupation, or work environment, we are all susceptible to similar issues when dealing with retirement. Together, advisors and clients alike can learn from what these athletes have endured and apply the things that made them great to their own retirement plans with the same passion and focus.
Follow Robert on Twitter @robertlaura. He is the president of SYNEGOS Financial group, co-founder of RetirementProject.org, creator of the Laddered Dividend Portfolio, and author of Naked Retirement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.