Phil Jackson announced his intention to return as the Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Each year he retreats to the desert to reflect upon whether he possesses the energy, health and reason to return to coaching. Already acknowledged as one of the greatest NBA coaches with 11 championships built on Michael Jordan in Chicago and Shaquille O’Neil and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Jackson’s process each year stands out because it is not the norm.
Jackson got it right and did so by thinking through the right range of issues. Most players and coaches linger on beyond their expiration date. I’ve discussed the rhythm of athletes entering and leaving. But most athletes stay on beyond their peak ability to play. They are not all that different from most of us who fear leaving our jobs, but tend to stay out for a number of reasons.
Athletes have very limited time windows because of their utter dependence upon the health and skill of their bodies. They can train, hone and refine their skills. The greatest and most durable athletes have incredible work ethics. Athletes can compensate for some decline of skills over time, but in the end they simply do not possess the same level of quickness, speed, strength, endurance needed to flourish at the elite levels of competition.
Elite athletes in elite leagues have excruciatingly small margins margin for error. They are constantly challenged for roster spots by an endless array of talented, trained and ambitious younger athletes. The younger athletes seek to displace them on team slots or beat them in head to head. This means players must constantly keep in top condition and hone their skills; if they do not, someone else will. The best elite athletes learn early that their talent only carries them so far against similarly talented but harder working or better-coached competitors.
A natural progression in many sports occurs from sensation, to rookie, to pro, to top-level game to veteran to grizzled veteran. The veteran designation is the kiss of death because it means a player has reached a stage where their experience and team compatibility now matter as much as their skill. The term suggests they are replaceable statistically by a wide array of comparable veterans or younger players with high upsides that surpass the veteran’s performance level. If you read too much sabermetrics, you begin to think that all but very few players are fungible, just like in corporate life.
The limited window and constant competition coupled with threat creates a very limited economic window for athletes. Most elite athletes are over the hill by the time many doctors are just getting their degrees or lawyers and accountants getting partnerships or military officers getting their first major commands. The world of an elite athletes ends just as most professional trajectories are moving into highest orbits.
For pure economic reasons more than a few athletes hang on past their prime or peak performance simply because they must maximize their earnings while they can. Athletes will endure steady diminishment of playing time, stature and often end as backups or team guys to bring a level of experienced toughness to a clubhouse. They suffer reduced lowered skills and performance to maintain a flow of money that they need to cache for a future.
What do they lose? Elite athletes start very young. They have identified as and been identified as athletes since their early teens. Parents, friends, family, schools all relate to them as athletes. They internalized their sense of worth tied to their academic prowess. Internal and external signals anchor their sense of self in being an athlete and succeeding as athletes.
Most elite athletes garner joy and satisfaction from the sheer execution of their athletic proficiency.
These losses are profound. Leaving sport abandons an identity that defines them and most of their relations. It means leaving behind the accomplishments that are valued and they are masters of for a different world that admires but does not really need what they are trained to do.
Most of that world will view and admire them for the player they were, not for the person they are. Imagine living in a time warp where your identity and worth are frozen by whom you were at the age of 17, 24, and 31? I can never forget memories of seeing old players signing cards at conventions or being official “greeters” at casinos.
I admire sports like soccer that have a wide range of leagues across a huge spectrum of talent and age levels that permit wider array of players to play for much longer periods by slotting their talent levels of the way up and on the way down to and leagues that fit them. American sports really does not possess such graded variations in the high visible sports where you play in NBA or have no options or you play in NFL or nowhere. Baseball has strong minor leagues and sports like tennis or golf have the equivalent of tournament that encourages and permits players to grow or settle into a mid range of elite play for long periods of time.
Phil Jackson got it right. He can stay on with a balanced decision to pursue glory one last grand time. Most athletes do not go out on their own terms and linger until nothing is left.