Nick Downing is in his second season as the New England Revolution’s strength and conditioning coach, a position that was created with the hiring of head coach Jay Heaps. This is Downing’s second go-around with the club, having previously played for the Revs a decade ago.
In his current position, Downing is responsible for developing and enhancing the Revolution players’ speed, strength and endurance, as well as their overall conditioning and fitness in conjunction with both the coaching and medical staffs. Through an integrated approach – including weight training, cardiovascular training, plyometrics, and nutrition – Downing has created both position-specific and individual programs to help the Revs emerge as of Major League Soccer’s most fit teams.
Ten years ago, I faced a decision that all professional athletes must address at some point in their careers. After three seasons with the New England Revolution, a couple more in the lower leagues and a lifetime of playing organized soccer, I decided to hang up my jersey and become a fitness professional. Last year, I was fortunate enough to re-join the team as the strength and conditioning coach. Making the transition from professional to former athlete required a lot of physical and mental adjustment. Now, as a coach and fitness trainer, I see many clients struggling with similar transitions on a daily basis.
Those who have pushed themselves exceptionally hard in competitive sports face special challenges, as aging bodies and changing motivations reshape long-term fitness goals. Professional athletes face the most dramatic transition, but highly successful high school and college athletes may also grapple with some of the same issues.
Many athletes define themselves through their sport. They are first and foremost midfielders or point guards, until they aren’t. Then, they play a different game: finding a way to stay driven and active without a team, coach or a thousand screaming fans behind them. That transition can be more demanding than the most grueling practice session or championship match.
Some former pros and competitive athletes approach their new lifestyle determined to prove they still have it. I can tell you from experience, whatever “it” is, you’re not going to have it much longer if you jump right into 300-pound deadlifts after being out of practice for a while. Other ex-athletes become more ex than athlete. They leave the field and never come back. The sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle – a routine that is personal and more relaxed, but still demanding and motivating. Finding that sweet spot takes a lot of adjustment and will power.
Step one for all of my clients who are ex-pros or former competitive athletes – whether they’ve been out of practice for a week or five years – is simple: leave your ego at the door. I don’t care if you ran a four-minute mile in your heyday, or if your morning coffee run is the closest you’ve come to working out in years. When it comes to former athletes, longevity is the name of the game, not peak performance. Adjusting your work-outs to fit this new lifestyle means everyone starts as a beginner.
Step two: focus on weight lifting and strength training, rather than high intensity cardio and building speed. Sprinting straight through a 90-minute game isn’t a priority anymore, but being strong enough to keep running into your 90s should be. (Yes, it’s possible.)
When I was playing for the Revs, I was 23 years old, five foot nine inches tall, 135 pounds and ran 60 miles per week. I focused almost completely on cardio and sprinting, and skipped every weight training session I could, because I was afraid I would get too big and it would slow me down. After I retired, I started focusing on mechanics and building strength. Ten years later, I’m still five foot nine, of course, but now I’m up to 165 pounds. I lift three days per week and I feel better than I did during my pro days.
Step three: rediscover your competitive drive. When I left pro sports, I was starved for competition. It wasn’t until I found a way to compete against myself that my fitness routine really clicked. The beauty of your impressive record is that when you compete against yourself, you have some pretty stiff competition. Race the clock. Set short and long-term goals, then test yourself every four to six weeks. Preparing for those tests like you would for game days is a great motivator.
Joining a group training session or recreational league is another way to stay motivated and fill your need for camaraderie and competition. It’s also a golden opportunity to challenge yourself and achieve success in a new arena. I’ve worked with several soccer players who took up recreational basketball and also a basketball player who joined a soccer league post-retirement. Striving for improvement in a brand new sport will remind you why you became an athlete in the first place.
Bottom line, leaving a huge part of your life behind – a time when you were highly successful on the field or court – is really hard. Adjusting to a new lifestyle means overcoming mental and physical hurdles that all of your training and conditioning cannot prepare you for. The most important thing to keep in mind is that this new lifestyle comes with new challenges and opportunities for success. You just have to be willing to take the time to start from the ground up again.
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint...literally.