Retirement from elite sport can be an enjoyable process of moving towards new and exciting goals. However, for those for whom retirement comes unexpectedly through injury or being released from a club, or for those whose identities are so closely bound up with their sporting achievements they don’t know who they are without it, retirement can be a deeply challenging time. Indeed, retirement from sport has been identified by research as a ‘mental health pressure point’ (see research commissioned by Mind, ‘Performance Matters: Mental Health in Elite Sport’).
Why might this be? One of the key reasons why professional sports people are vulnerable to mental health problems following retirement is due to having a self-identity which is dominated by sport, with little room for the development of other aspects of self-expression or other means of achieving self-worth. This can lead to a loss of meaning and purpose when a sporting career comes to an end. The future is uncertain, there is time to be filled with who knows what. Alongside this, a sense that whatever comes next cannot match the thrill of sport.
What can be done? Check out these five tips.
Prevention - Ideally preparation for life post-sport is incorporated into life during sport. This means a broadening of a sense of self such that sport is not the only means of acquiring meaning in life and value in yourself. This can be challenging when sport places such high demands upon those who succeed in it and there is a sporting culture which supports notions of self-sacrifice and giving everything. Nonetheless, to avoid a sense of loss of identity post-sport it is important to find space in your life for other interests, relationships and goals. Even having a vision of how your life might look post-sport is a starting point, if you don’t have time to actually do much activity outside of your sports commitments.
Accept your feelings - Even if you have done some preparation, there is still likely to be a period of feeling lost, when you may deeply miss your old lifestyle. Times of transition are periods of loss. This is true of retirement generally and especially at an early point in life. Our culture supplies us with narratives of what retirement should look like for older people – but for sports people retirement does not usually represent the end of working life, but rather a transition point towards new beginnings. Work, in whatever form it takes, serves many psychological functions including such things as providing a sense of community, belonging and purpose. It is natural to grieve the loss of these things when this part of life comes to an end. Allow yourself space to feel and do not compound the issue by giving yourself a hard time about it. However, if the feelings don’t shift or are overwhelming, it may be a good idea to talk to someone. Sports psychotherapy/ sports counselling can be one way of processing what is going on for you and supporting your mental health.
Use your feelings as a guide – That’s what they are there for. What is it that you miss? This can help you as you consider next steps. Maybe it’s being part of a team, or the thrill of competition. Think about where you can fulfil these needs through other sources.
Accept change – Even though you can enjoy other ways of achieving some of what you loved about a career in sports, accept that it will not be the same and any new career may not provide the same degree of excitement. Instead of frustration about what is lost, focus on what is gained and embrace new experiences and parts of your life that were neglected when your sporting commitments took centre stage.
Make a plan - Not having a sense of direction can be a big problem when you’re transitioning from sport. You don’t really know where to put your time and energy. There is no structure to your time, and your choices become your own rather than part of a regime. This can all feel overwhelming. Sit down, work out your goals, in the short medium and long term. Then work out the steps you have to take, this week, today. Having a plan for each day will help provide a sense of direction and purpose.
That said, sometimes if you are really stuck and perhaps suffering from depression, it’s not easy to pick yourself up and move forward. Depression can be debilitating and even simple tasks can feel too much. Although these are tips which may help restore some balance, if you feel you may be depressed, you may benefit from additional support. Sport counselling/sport psychotherapy can support you as you grieve the loss of your former life and find meaning and purpose in life as it is now.
If that's the case, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation to see how I can support your mental health in sport and after retirement.