The real reason golf has helped pro athletes in retirement
Growing up, Eric Wood lived by the three Fs: faith, family and football. He started playing when he was 9 years old and eventually became a first-round draft pick in 2009 by the Buffalo Bills. During his time in the NFL, the center made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and was a two-time nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
After his ninth season in Buffalo, Wood went in for a routine exit physical. To his surprise, he was diagnosed with a neck injury that would ultimately end his playing career.
Wood was more than shocked when he found out, and the injury put him on a quicker transition out of football than he had expected, where one of the most difficult aspects of retirement was losing part of his identity.
"You realize how much football is a part of your life,” Wood, 36, says. “From the second I got to college, I was Eric Wood, the football player. When I was playing, I woke up every morning and my purpose or mission was to be the best center in the NFL. And when that's suddenly stripped from you, there's ultimately going to be some type of identity crisis."
That type of loss can be crushing. Licensed sport psychologist Dr. Daniel Zimet explains that the pressures of playing can dissuade athletes from taking care of themselves and often reinforce the idea that their sport is their life.
In his work, Dr. Zimet and his team conducted The Athlete Transition Study, focusing on the retirement experiences and long-term outcomes of elite athletes. Among his findings is that many players struggle post-retirement with what he describes as “identity foreclosure.”
"Identity foreclosure happens when an athlete's identity is deeply rooted in their sport. They don't think of themselves as being anything more than an elite performing athlete, and it can cause them to feel like they have no idea who they are," Zimet says.
In addition to his faith, Wood says his family and friends played a huge role in getting him through that transition period. According to Zimet, building a strong support system is one of the best ways to avoid or overcome identity foreclosure. Another way it is to experiment outside the sport and find something that resonates with the athlete.
For Wood, that meant playing golf. As a kid, he dabbled in the game, but started playing more regularly during the 2010 offseason. He and his teammates played almost every day after practice in the spring, and through the end of July before training camp started.
'Golf is a game that's hard to get good at and perfect. That's been great for my mental space.'Eric Wood
"I'd be lying if I said that golf wasn't one of the things that I looked forward to being able to do more," Wood says. "As a pro athlete, you're bred to compete, and finding other things to compete at is excellent.”
When he first retired, Wood thought he’d become a scratch golfer in no time. That hasn’t happened yet, he laughs, but it hasn’t cut into his motivation.
"Golf is a game that's hard to get good at and perfect,” he says. “There's always something you can work on, and it's been a lot of fun competing against myself to get better, and that's been great for my mental space.”
Wood also pursued a career in broadcasting and started a podcast,“What's Next with Eric Wood,” which opens up the conversation of retirement and inspired his book, “Tackle What's Next.” Through these outlets, Wood and others are able to share their personal experiences, what they've learned working with world-class coaches, and the tools that helped them find success after retirement.
"More athletes are starting to open up, and in a great way,” Wood says. “Although people haven't always given professional athletes much sympathy when they transition out of their sport, I think now people understand that it is a tough transition, regardless of how much money you've made or how long your career was."
As for advice to athletes who may be in the process of retiring or about to retire, Wood says the biggest keys for him were reconnecting with his core values, setting goals for the future, getting into a routine again and appreciating his free time.
"There are so many ways to create a purpose and find fulfillment in your life after sports," Wood says.
From a young age, Ryan Whitney can remember being obsessed with hockey. He’d practice for hours, but it never felt like work and every time he watched the Bruins take the ice, his dreams of playing in the NHL intensified.
“Looking back, it could've never been any other way for me. That's what drove me the whole time,” Whitney says.
Whitney was drafted in the first round, fifth overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2002. The Massachusetts native made his NHL debut in 2005 and the defenseman played in the league for nine years, even winning a silver medal with Team USA in the 2010 Olympics.
Toward the end of his career, Whitney’s body started to fail him. After a series of injuries and a stint playing overseas, he knew he couldn’t keep going and retired in 2015.
"I was so ready to be done because there was this stress of knowing that I couldn't really do it that well anymore,” Whitney, 39, says. “I was lucky to make enough money where I also didn't really need to keep doing it and I feel very lucky that everything happened when it did."
While it was bittersweet, Whitney had come to terms with his decision and was excited for what was next, particularly starting a family with his wife. And Dr. Zimet says having a next step in mind is crucial.
"Athletes have a smoother transition into retirement when they leave sport on their own terms and have made plans or look forward to what's next," Zimet says.
As with Wood, Whitney also recognized an opportunity in retirement to focus on golf. He began as a casual player during his hockey career, but has since developed into a high-level amateur who has competed at the state and regional level. Whitney also hosts the popular hockey podcast, “Spittin’ Chiclets,” and has even weaved his passion for golf into that with the recurring Sandbagger Invitational series, in which he and co-host Paul Bissonnette play 18-hole matches against other hockey stars.
"I love the game. I love being competitive and playing against my friends or even people I don't even know,” Whitney says. “You're outside, playing amazing courses. I just wanted to get better and better. I became obsessed with it the same way I did with hockey."
'Identity foreclosure happens when an athlete's identity is deeply rooted in their sport . . . It can cause them to feel like they have no idea who they are.'Dr. Daniel Zimet
For many athletes, golf also comes closest to approximating the camaraderie many experience with their teammates in the midst of their careers. It matters more than you might think, says Geoff Greif, a University of Maryland School of Social Work professor who wrote a book, Buddy System on the dynamics of male friendship.
“Golf is one of the few sports where you really have the opportunity while competing to actually communicate with somebody,” said Greif, himself a golfer. “In tennis and basketball, there’s not a lot of time. But in golf you have four hours. It’s a shoulder-to-shoulder activity, but you also have a chance to talk a great deal.”
That ties in nicely with Whitney's advice on retirement—to have good friends and find something that you're passionate about.
"Stay in touch with former teammates. It doesn't matter how much time has passed, they're always just as excited to hear from you as you are to talk with them," Whitney says.
Like many other kids, Danny Woodhead's dream was to play in the NFL. But Woodhead wasn't like every other kid.
Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery
Growing up, he was a multi-sport athlete and had a record-breaking college football career at Chadron State before reaizing his childhood dream in 2008 when he signed with the New York Jets. To emerge from a little-known Division II school and win a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, Woodhead established himself as one of the NFL’s great underdog stories.
While making the transition into retirement in 2018, Woodhead leaned on his faith and his family, and was reminded of a lesson his parents taught him: You are not what you do.
"I'm very thankful for that now. A lot of people's identity gets stuck in it [their sport], and it makes it incredibly difficult to leave the game," Woodhead says.
Woodhead says that players struggle when it's over because they were admired on a national level, and on top of it, from the time they entered the league their whole goal in life was to win games, pile up statistics, get to the next contract, or reach a Super Bowl—and Zimet agrees.
"The accolades, the striving, the attention, it's an identity addiction in my opinion,” Zimet says. “And I think all of us would be susceptible to it.”
There was one thing that wasn't new about Woodhead's post-retirement life, and that was his competitive drive. After football, Woodhead says that he needed something that drove him in a different way—and that was golf.
"I took a strengths-finder test, and competition was my number one. My wife always jokes that if I didn't have golf, I'd compete with her," Woodhead says.
Woodhead’s ambition in golf is paying off. His handicap is at a plus-3 and he qualified for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball back in 2020. This past summer, he produced one of the most intriguing stories leading up to the U.S. Open when he reached final qualifying for what would have been a storybook appearance at The Country Club outside Boston. Woodhead missed out, however, by shooting 10 over par.
Finding healthy outlets for competition is key when athletes retire because without it, Zimet contends, because many players can fall into a destructive habit like gambling to reawaken the rush and thrill of everything being on the line.
With his identity rooted in his support system, his faith and his family, Woodhead was able to recognize that football was ultimately a job. But also admits the transition into his new life wasn’t always smooth.
"There was a three-month period where things were difficult just because they were new,” Woodhead says. “I experienced some anxiety and stress because I was trying to figure out what to do with my time."
During this difficult adjustment, Woodhead was honest about his experience and often leaned on his support system.
"I told people if I was anxious or stressed because that's the best thing I can do,” he says. “A lot of people—and I think men, in particular—are afraid to speak up because they feel ashamed or that it makes them weak. But in actuality, you have to be pretty strong to come out and talk about that, regardless of what some people might say or think.”
When asked what he would tell retiring athletes, Woodhead shared a few pieces of advice: develop a solid support system, find your purpose and figure out what you're going to do next. It doesn’t have to be a job, he adds, just something that you're passionate about.
Wood, Whitney and Woodhead are among many athletes who've picked the game. While it might not be a cure-all, without question golf has helped many former high-level athletes to channel their competitive nature, develop relationships and find purpose after leaving their sport.
If you are a former high-level athlete and are interested in participating in Dr. Zimet’s study, or just want to learn more about the best tools and resources to use post-retirement, go to The Athlete Transition Study.