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

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In case you missed it, quarterback Tom Brady unretired this weekend. The NFL superstar will return for what feels like his 85th season next year. How much longer the 44-year-old can still play - well, that's anyone's guess. He's 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 some athletes, especially ones with nothing left to prove, hang on?

Here to talk about this is Dr. J.D. DeFreese. He's a researcher at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hey there. welcome.

J D DEFREESE: Thank you. It's great to be here today.

SUMMERS: All right. So maybe we should not be surprised that Tom Brady came back, but I've got to ask, were you surprised that his retirement only lasted for about six weeks?

DEFREESE: 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.

SUMMERS: You know, Brady is a little unusual in that he gets to make a choice as to when he retires. That is not a choice that many athletes get to make. I have to imagine in some ways, though, that perhaps makes it harder for someone like Tom Brady, who remains, undisputedly, one of the best in the game.

DEFREESE: Yeah, no. I think that's a really important point. Some of our research at the center shows that, you know, 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.

SUMMERS: Now, you've worked with plenty of retired athletes at the center. In your experience, what are the main stumbling blocks for these people as they are headed into retirement or thinking about possibly making that choice?

DEFREESE: 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.

SUMMERS: You know, as I think about this story, what Tom Brady appears to be grappling with here is what's essentially a very human problem but on one of the world's biggest stages of sport, right? He is a person who has been defined by his job for years and his job is playing football, and he seems to be struggling to transition away from that. I wonder, what advice do you give athletes who are trying to wade their way through that transition, trying to make it easier?

DEFREESE: One of the things we do suggest is trying to optimize your mental and physical health, trying to have a social network that it 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.

So we also suggest if there are ways to have other minor - 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.

SUMMERS: Dr. J.D. DeFreese is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thank you so much for joining us today.

DEFREESE: Thank you so much. I appreciated the discussion.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARAGE A TROIS' "THE MACHINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.