Jan 29, 2015Ready to Retire
Whether you dream about taking on new challenges or playing golf all day in your retirement, neither happens without some preparation. In this article, six athletic trainers talk about how they are making (or have made) the transition.
By Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
When he reached 60 years old, Joe Gieck was ready to start winding down his career as an athletic trainer. At that point, he was teaching classes, doing research, and treating athletes as Director of Sports Medicine, Professor of Human Services, and Professor of Clinical Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Virginia. He had also been the Director of Life Skills and the Curriculum Director of the university’s masters program in athletic training. And though he enjoyed everything he was doing, he was ready to stop working so hard.
Seven years later, Gieck is officially retired from UVa and working part-time as a physical therapist. He likes the freedom of less responsibility and spending more time with his family. And he continues to reassess his goals every year to make sure he is getting everything he wants out of life.
“All through your career, it’s important to think about your next step,” says Gieck, EdD, ATR, PT. “But once you hit 50 years old, you need to set aside some time every year to reassess your plans. Where do you see yourself 10 years down the road? Do you still want to be chasing 18-year-olds when you’re 60 or 65? How’s your health? By 50, it’s time to get those things in order.”
Working nights and weekends in a demanding field is hard enough when you’re in your 30s and 40s. But by the time you reach your 50s and 60s, it gets even harder, and at some point, even the most dedicated athletic trainers are ready for the next stage.
But what does “the next stage” mean? In this article, we profile six athletic trainers who have made or are making the transition, from full-time, 60-hour-a-week athletic trainers to planning for retirement. For some, the change has to do with slowing down physically and mentally. For others, it is simply time for a different challenge. And for a few, a threat to their health pushed them to rethink their priorities.
At 53 years old, Bucky Taylor considers himself very, very lucky. Thirty-two years ago, fresh out of college, he found his dream job as Head Athletic Trainer at Mesquite (Texas) High School and has been there ever since. He loves his profession and loves coming to work every day. He has invested wisely over the years, and with the help of a good benefits package, he expects to have enough money to carry him through the next stage of life. But at this point, he still doesn’t know what that next stage will be.
“Retirement scares me, because I don’t know that I can find anything that will fulfill me like being a full-time athletic trainer,” says Taylor, MEd, LAT, ATC. “I’ve seen some folks who have transitioned well—they’ve found a niche for themselves, continued to be active, and kept giving back to the profession. I’ve also seen folks who haven’t transitioned well—who are just wandering around bored, without a purpose, feeling like caged animals.
“I think that the difference is in the preparation they made beforehand,” he continues. “You need an exit plan.”
With three or four years to go before he expects to retire, Taylor is working out the details of his own plan. He’d like to work about 25 hours a week and has started networking with drug-testing companies to look into a job administering tests to area high school students. He’d also like to continue working with younger athletic trainers and is considering a transition into a formal teaching position or informal mentoring program.
“I can’t completely walk away, so I’d like to do some kind of outreach where I teach the next generation of athletic trainers,” says Taylor. “I think I would enjoy that, because I’ve got some experience that I could pass on to others that might help them down the road.”
For inspiration, he’s reading Bob Buford’s Finishing Well: What People Who Really Live Do Differently!, which contains interviews with people like Kenneth Blanchard, T. Boone Pickens, and Roger Staubach talking about their successful transitions to retirement. Some common threads Taylor has found in their stories include a desire to give back, stay productive, and remain physically active.
“Everybody is different, but whoever you are, you need to think about what will meet your needs and what you want to do after you hang up your scissors,” says Taylor.
Before he leaves Mesquite, Taylor hopes to finish training his replacement and create another full-time athletic training position. He is easing out of his leadership responsibilities in the athletic department and delegating more of his athletic training administrative duties to his assistant.
“When I leave here, I want to know that this department will have all the tools it needs to keep things going,” says Taylor. “I’ve invested so much of myself in this place, and before I walk away, I’m going to make sure all the bases are covered and the kids have been provided for.”
MAKING A PLAN
With only six months to go until retirement, Cash Birdwell, MLA, LAT, ATC, is sending out his resume for the first time in 34 years. Currently an Associate Athletic Director and Football Athletic Trainer at Southern Methodist University, Birdwell would like to find a part-time position as a hands-on athletic trainer. So he’s reading the want ads, networking with colleagues about new opportunities, and investigating possibilities for freelance event coverage in the Houston area.
Birdwell began planning five years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. His first step was to consult with SMU’s human resources department, which confirmed that he was fully qualified for retirement benefits and that both he and his wife would continue to be covered by the university’s health plan. From there, Birdwell concentrated on financial planning for his family’s future and started to think about how to make his transition.
His health took a turn for the better, and he has continued to work full-time at SMU, but the cancer was a wake-up call that it was time to focus on retirement plans. No later than December, he will leave SMU, and he’s looking forward to setting aside time to relax, enjoy his family, and maintain his health. Ideally, he’ll also work between 15 and 30 hours a week, piecing together gigs covering high schools, junior colleges, long distance races, and cheerleading and sports camps.
Birdwell’s advice is to plan ahead and slowly ease out of the profession. “As athletic trainers, we run the risk of going from being extremely busy to all of a sudden sitting around the house with nothing to do,” he says. “Or we retire when we’re past the point of burnout and ruin our health.
“Don’t wait to retire until your health is so bad that you need a wheelchair,” he advises. “Stay active as long as you can, keep setting an example for your staff, and be accountable until your last day on the job.”
CREATING A POSITION
After 36 years as a full-time high school athletic trainer, Dennis Hart, MEd, LAT, ATC, decided to slow down by keeping only the part of the job he loves best: working with student-athletes. He officially began his retirement this summer, trading his job as Head Athletic Trainer at North Mesquite (Texas) High School for a pair of part-time jobs.
Two days a week, he is a part-time athletic trainer for Mesquite’s eight middle schools, traveling to each school once every two weeks. On a third day, he’ll help market a sports medicine practice of six orthopedic surgeons, visiting former colleagues at schools and sports organizations around the Dallas area.
At 57 years old, Hart gets full retirement benefits from the school district, plus a shorter work week, more time with his family, and a new set of professional challenges. Mesquite’s middle school athletes get their first athletic trainer, and the sports medicine clinic gets a public relations manager with extensive contacts as former president of the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association.
“I needed to reduce my work schedule and allow myself the freedom to spend more time with my extended family,” says Hart. “This is my way of staying involved in athletic training without the extensive demands of the high school season, and I think it’s going to be a really positive change.”
To create the athletic training position at Mesquite’s middle schools, Hart spent four years reworking his proposals, ultimately persuading administrators that middle school coverage was needed to help protect athletes from injury and the school district from liability. Through the process, he learned the ingredients of a persuasive argument.
“You have to develop a plan and provide justification for your position,” says Hart. “Get insights from your colleagues in the profession, look for athletic trainers who are already doing similar things, and keep rethinking your proposal from an administrator’s perspective. Be persistent and expect success. I always knew this was a good idea, but I needed to refine it to fit the financial resources of the school district.”
For athletic trainers who are thinking about switching gears, Hart suggests starting with a list of the pros and cons of the profession and your present job. “On one page, make a list of all the things you like about being an athletic trainer,” says Hart. “On another page, make a list of all the things you don’t like about being an athletic trainer. Then ask for help. Go to somebody you respect, talk about the issues, and compare your lists to see how you can apply the positives to change the negatives.
“That’s one of the things our professional organizations provide,” he continues, “a group of people who can energize you, motivate you, and help you come up with new ways of approaching athlete care.”
At 44, following a diagnosis of breast cancer, Daphne Benas stepped down as Head Athletic Trainer at Yale University. In the 10 years since, she’s worked as Assistant Athletic Trainer during the school year and taken summers off to work as a physical therapist. After years of 60-hour work weeks—plus many more hours at home, catching up on paperwork—she sees reducing her workload as one of the best decisions she ever made.
“When I was running a Division I athletic training program, my job was with me 24 hours a day,” she says. “I never got away from it. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it made me realize there were other things I wanted to do in my life. Those last couple of years being head athletic trainer were very stressful, and I was tired of being tired. I came to realize I needed a change.”
Scaling down from head to assistant athletic trainer has allowed her to work fewer hours, with less travel and less stress. The physical demands are also much more manageable, making it possible to work another job and maintain her health.
It’s also given her time to think and plan for her retirement from athletic training, which will come in five to six years, allowing her to go in a completely different direction: real estate. With a partner, Benas owns 10 apartment buildings in downtown New Haven, which they design, renovate, and rent out.
“I love being an athletic trainer, but I also love having the opportunity to do something totally different,” says Benas, MS, ATC, PT. “Real estate is work with a capital ‘W’, but it’s very stimulating. I’m still dealing with people, which is what I’ve been doing for my whole working life. But this offers a new creative outlet, where I get to design apartments. And I know that the work I’ve done as an athletic trainer has helped me prepare to succeed in business.”
Benas says the key to her career transitions has been remaining open to new ideas and opportunities. “I’ve learned that if the opportunity is there, you really need to go with it,” she says. “If it doesn’t work out, you’ve still gained some knowledge. There’s a lesson here about being flexible and not being afraid of change.
“Everybody needs to evaluate themselves every single year to make sure that other people aren’t wondering, ‘When is she going to retire?'” continues Benas. “I know I don’t want to be doing athletic training to the bitter end—there are so many other things that interest me.”
With the increasing responsibilities of the profession added to the ongoing challenge of recovering from an automobile accident, it’s no surprise that 53-year-old Joe Iezzi is feeling the physical demands of growing older. “It’s starting to get to me,” says Iezzi, MS, ATC, PES. “Even though I have an assistant, the things I used to do without an assistant are harder now, because the demands on athletic trainers are so much greater than they were before, both at the high school and collegiate level.”
After 13 years as a college athletic trainer, Iezzi is beginning his 19th year as Head Athletic Trainer at Downingtown (Pa.) High School West, where he works between 40 and 60 hours a week. With more teams to cover and more athletes to treat, the job is far more complex than when he started, and injuries from a head-on car collision in 1999 have made it difficult for Iezzi to stand for long periods of time, especially on cold nights.
The accident helped Iezzi focus on the things that are most important to him, including his plans for retirement. He hopes to stay at his job for another six or seven years, then shift to a combination of part-time athletic training and consulting work.
After years of experience as President of the Pennsylvania Athletic Trainers’ Society and a member of the NATA board of directors, Iezzi still enjoys giving presentations, and he plans to continue advocating for the profession in front of regional school boards and giving public lectures about athletic training. He’d also like to create a regional substitution system for athletic training coverage, which would help athletic trainers find game-day replacements in cases of sickness or family emergencies. But before he makes it to that point, he’s working on winding down the right way.
His plan for the next seven years includes maintaining a healthy balance of work and life. To work more effectively, he’s set a firm treatment schedule, learned to say no when athletes and coaches don’t follow those rules, and hired a full-time assistant athletic trainer to provide additional coverage.
When he’s not working with athletes, Iezzi takes care of himself. “You have to have a physical outlet,” he says. “Staying physically fit is an important part of avoiding burnout. So is sleep—I try to get my seven or eight hours every night. And I find time for myself, staying home at night to watch a comedy on television, or officiating high school and college basketball and baseball games. Even though it’s demanding, it’s a great release. When I’m officiating, I don’t worry about athletic training or anything else.”
Most of all, he spends more time with his family. “At this stage in life, the monetary compensation isn’t as important as having time away from the job,” he says. “Having weekends with my family has become a lot more important.”
When Joe Gieck retired a year ago, the athletic training world said goodbye to one of its icons and heroes. But for the longtime athletic trainer at Virginia, it was time to say hello to being just a regular guy.
Along with volunteering three half-days a week as a physical therapist in the practice of one of his former students, Gieck keeps busy by consulting on substance-abuse policy for the NCAA and working with community groups on fundraising. He’s also spending time with his family, supervising the building of a summer house in Montana, and working on his farm, where he grows hay, manages timber, and rents hunting and fishing cottages. It’s the kind of life he’s been planning for the last seven years, and now that retirement has arrived, it’s been very rewarding. And every year, he keeps reassessing his goals to make sure his schedule leaves enough time to enjoy this next stage of life.
Gieck has doled out a lot of important advice to athletic trainers over his career, and after years of studying burnout in athletic trainers, he has some advice on retirement. “Change is coming, and the best way to prepare yourself is to be proactive,” he says. “Take initiative. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Keep up your exercise routine. Control your diet. Talk to people about your financial plans. Consider volunteering in the community. But whatever new tasks you take on, make sure you’re not sucked into feeling you’re back at a full-time job. Nobody ever carved on their tombstone, ‘I wish I’d spent one more day at the office.'”
Sidebar: Our Panel:
The following are the six athletic trainers we talked to about their plans for winding down and heading toward retirement.
- Daphne Benas, 54, Assistant Athletic Trainer at Yale University, is currently laying the foundations for a second career in real estate.
- Cash Birdwell, 65, Associate Athletic Director and Football Athletic Trainer at Southern Methodist University, plans to continue as a part-time athletic trainer after retiring this year.
- Joe Gieck, 67, retired in 2005 as Director of Sports Medicine at the University of Virginia. He keeps active by consulting with community groups, volunteering as a physical therapist, working on his farm, and spending time with his family.
- Dennis Hart, 57, retired as Head Athletic Trainer at North Mesquite (Texas) High School at the end of the school year. He currently works as a middle school athletic trainer and as a marketer for a sports medicine clinic.
- Joe Iezzi, 53, Head Athletic Trainer at Downingtown (Pa.) High School West, plans to retire in six or seven years to become a part-time athletic trainer and consultant.
- Bucky Taylor, 53, Head Athletic Trainer at Mesquite (Texas) High School, would like to retire in three or four years. He intends to keep working part-time as an athletic trainer and mentor to younger athletic trainers.