It is often said that a sports star will die twice, the first time at retirement. For elite athletes who have dedicated their lives to sport, what happens when your time comes to an end, if you aren’t an athlete, then who are you?

Elite athletes train extensively for years, in many cases, consuming the majority of their young lives, often making extensive personal sacrifices in order to pursue their dreams of glory. These may include making huge financial sacrifices, moving away from family to train full-time in academies, calling time on their academic studies and sacrificing personal or romantic relationships. For many athletes, retirement is a concept that they do not wish to think about in great detail. However, whether they have achieved Olympic glory or failed to reach the pinnacle in their sport that they had aspired to, all athletes’ careers will eventually come to a close, whether this is through age, injury or exhaustion.

However, what happens to these athletes once they leave the days filled with rigorous training, the extensive time spent travelling and the buzz and adrenaline of competing? This is the time in their lives where they may be susceptible to depression. Team GB Olympic Champion cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, expressed her extreme relief of retirement after the London Games, citing that she couldn’t wait to go on to new ventures in her life and was much happier now that the pressure of competing was no longer a burden. However, not all athletes will enter retirement with such ease and willingness, many will struggle with adapting to a “regular life” where they are no longer in the limelight and perhaps in their eyes, become forgotten members of society. Sport career termination induces dramatic changes in athletes’ personal, social and occupational lives, this can in turn potentially affect individuals cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994). The social and professional changes induced by retirement from sport can in effect cause distressful reactions (Allison & Meyer, 1988; Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). These retired athletes express a feeling of emptiness in their lives (Stambulova, 1997) and one of the main stakes of this transition is to therefore reconstruct and adjust themselves on the basis of a new life style.

The transition that is made by professional athletes from a full-time athletic career to that of retirement has received considerable comments in the sports media, however, it only in recent years that it has warranted formal academic study. Schwenk et al. (2007) stated that the transition is often found to be difficult because of the sudden cessation of intense demands of elite athletic performance, compounded by the sudden loss of the athlete’s intense devotion to professional athletic competition and its attendant rewards.

Multiple Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe, Celtic FC Manager Neil Lennon and double Olympic Champion Dame Kelly Holmes are just a few of the high profile athletes who have made their depression public after their retirement from professional sport. Andrew Flintoff, Paul Gascoigne and Frank Bruno are a further few who have been afflicted by the illness and have been open and willing to share their issues to help raise the profile of depression in athletic retirement.

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” Leonard’s struggles with retirement were well documented, leading him to suffer from extreme bouts of depression and eventually making repeated comebacks. However, for some, the depression becomes all too encompassing and over the years, there have been a number of cases of athlete’s committing suicide following their retirement from professional sport. This includes the shocking story of Russian judoka Elena Ivashchenko, who is believed to have committed suicide following depression brought on by her failure to win gold at the 2012 games.

What exactly is it that often leads retired professional athletes to spiral into depression once they leave the days filled with rigorous training, the pressure of competition and the glory days behind them?

Loss of Identity

An individual’s identity may contain numerous dimensions, however, it is possible for one in particular to become dominant or preferred and a lens through which the others are viewed. Athletic identity is described as the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). The neglect or atrophy of other roles as a consequence of the ascendancy of a single role may therefore expose the individual to subsequent identity issues. It has been hypothesised that the loss of a preferred or dominant role may subsequently effect a person’s overall self-concept (Markus, 1977;Stryker,1978).

Lavallee & Grove (1997) identified that individuals with a high athletic identity at the time of retirement were more likely to experience a higher degree of  emotional adjustment difficulties. Bill Cole, a world-renowned peak performance coach who has worked with many athletes who have struggled to come to terms with their retirement, noted that an important factor was this profound sense of loss in their lives that athletes may experience after putting their competing days behind them.

Tunnel Vision Syndrome

A “tunnel vision syndrome” affects many elite athletes to varying degrees at some stage of their careers. It is often the case that coaches, parents, professional sports agents and general managers are able to see it, however, athletes who are unaware that they suffer from tunnel vision spend far too much time thinking only of training, competition and results. As a result, athletes are left ill-prepared for the balanced perspective required of “real world” career opportunities. Britain’s double Olympic rowing champion James Cracknell stated, “I think people suffer from depression after retiring from sport because they aren’t sure where to apply that focus…there is a lot of focus and a lot of selfishness in sportsmen.” Athletes often cannot see their lives following another career path and as soon as the dreaded retirement looms, with this, brings a void that the comfort of a training routine once filled.

Potential Biological Factors

Bill Cole also noted the importance that biological factors may play in an athlete who is struggling in their retirement. Athletes have had regular doses of serotonin daily for many years, when this is suddenly decreased or stopped outright, we see a huge upset to the chemistry of the body. A causal link between an imbalance in serotonin levels and depression has been explored by a number of researchers, however, more research in retired athletes posits exploration.

What Next?

There are a number of ways that athletes can help to reduce the chances of depression after retirement from sport, these include:

  1. Reduce your exclusive identification with your sporting role and expand your self-identity to other pursuits
  2. Discover interests and competences for other activities beyond sport (perhaps considering coaching or the mentoring of other athletes)
  3. Acquiring stress management and time management skills (such skills will represent tools that help you better reconcile sport with your other roles)
  4. Encourage strong relationships with coaches, family, friends and managers who care about your sporting success as well as your personal growth. Being supported by significant others to consider other avenues in life will help you keep an open mind and diversify your identity
  5. Consult with a sport psychologist to help explore further avenues and adaptation techniques

Athletes by nature are mentally tough individuals and are often perceived by the public to be fitter, healthier and happier than others. It is this attitude and stereotyping that can make it more difficult for them to approach someone for help. Therefore it is highly important for close family, friends, team mates and coaches to understand that depression cannot always be seen and the athlete may indeed never admit to how they feel for fear of shame and embarrassment. The most important take home message is to understand that despite their incredible success in their hard-fought and dedicated careers, the process of retirement is a difficult one and it is in this time that social support and communication is of vital importance if the athlete is to avoid the dreaded post-retirement blues.

 

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  • Julie

    Very thorough & detailed article :) I believe all of the above reasons are contributing factors and make retired athletes depressed or longing for the career they just successfully completed. Athletes are given a taste of the forbidden fruit (praise, admiration, fame, success, adrenaline rush, etc) and I’m sure it takes a toll on them when they no longer see the prize looming ahead. I just hope athletes realize that they are worthy with or without their sport & still amazing people through & through <3 Most of them have very charismatic and lovable personalities so they are not lacking anything in the personality department! Such kind and genuine characters I swear

  • Elliot

    i was a full time Great British athlete…

    I retired as a result of stress and for 5 years fought depression and attempted several comebacks to be wiped out by depression for no apparent reason as it was going well. I can’t really even begin to describe how disappointing it was as I had a belief I was destined for Olympic glory and that if I just tried “one more time” my mind would let up and I could push through the stress….after all facing anxiety gets through it right?! I tried again recently to no avail. To add insult to injury through my illness I developed late onset of OCD which combined with retirement left me seriously contemplating suicide.

    On my first retirement I got a part time job in a shop… I HATED it!!!. I’ve grown up with packed stadiums, speed, a schedule which I chose and in the end i quit my job because I was horrified at how dissatisfying it was and couldn’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to do that. I felt for years that the world had interrupted in my god given destiny to win the Olympic games….oh the injustice!!!! I was for years holding my head in my hands thinking f*** I need to be a major success in something to replace/avenge what was taken from me. I was baffled as to how some of my role models have worked through the worst issues and I was devastated my brain would not just pull itself together for all the affirmation and fighting through tough times in the world.

    After my worst bout of illness I discovered art as therapy. I also discovered poetry and dancing. I’m 30 now and want to see how far I can go in one of these areas but regardless of my successes or failures the main point is I’ve found other pursuits I can enjoy and express the fire and energy and ambition I had in sport. Of course sometimes I reflect on sport and think “I should of pursued a creative career earlier” but I have full belief in myself that I can do this regardless of my age and that this will still happen if I possess enough talent. I truly believe if my gift is art, poetry, drama ect I will still discover it with time and effort.

    I can also work part time now without feeling I’m throwing my life away so somebody in a high chair somewhere can exploit my time. I still feel that nobody should have to do anything they’re not passionate about, though I accept sometimes there’s a middle ground where some of your time is ok to just be ok with doing something a bit mundane so long as it pays well enough to eat good food and buy the things necessary for your own pursuits.

    But in the midst of all this I have realised I am valuable without all the success and that I can perhaps live without my destiny being to be world famous or a huge success. There’s an element of growth and acceptance in athletic retirement and with perseverance and openness to growth and possibility the retired athlete can still win even if for a few years they felt life left them with nothing but themselves. Even if you end up happy working in a little shop. You are still worth it, Just for being your own personality and things will change again when it is your time again. Change is inevitable. We as athletes ended up there because we were driven, talented and ambitious…so have faith you will find something where that continues…

    Understand you may feel angry, raged, hopeless, like you were denied of your true potential but also understand you will have other skills and pursuits you can be equally successful in and who knows…

    Final tip. Post retirement, Go travelling and go to lots of classes to find what you like. Find out how people live and find where you belong for this next chapter!

    • Annie Bee

      I just wanted to let you know how helpful what you said is to me. I’ve recently taken a step back due to personal disagreements with my sport, as well as injury, and now I’m struggling to figure out where my place is and coping with physical pain. It’s really hard starting over and the OCD sucks.

    • Elliot

      Hi, What is your sport? I’m glad I could help someone I didn’t know!

      • Klaudia Malenovska

        Elliot. I would love to chat with you. I am also a former athlete and starting a blog about this topic. What to do after. I was a tennis player and it seems that you found your inner peace? would be great for people to hear some tips.

    • Jess

      Hey Elliot! Thanks for sharing! I used to be a pretty high level distance runner, started spiralling downhill after setting a national record, again for no reason — mostly due to fatigue from years of training. It’s really good to hear your sharing and it gives me this unsaid approval that it is okay to not be ‘great’ and that it is just perfectly okay to be happy in our own terms. Change is indeed inevitable. Take care!

  • Jocelyn Ingram

    This is totally a thing and I say this all the time :( Except I call it post athletic stress disorder. I get flashbacks watching little kids play basketball and miss it so much!

  • Pippa Thomas

    Hi,
    im a final year student at salford university making a documentary on depression in the retired athletes, it would be great if i could have a quick chat via email or phone

    • Sadie

      Hi,
      I’m a ballet dancer who has just retired due to injury. I’m not sure if that is what you are looking for, but I would be open to emailing a bit.

    • Patty B

      There should be mandatory classes/counseling, something, geared to our high school and college athletes so they are prepared for life after their career is over. I know now what my son was going through, he was never the same man after his career was over. It came at the time the NBA was having problems, oh around 1987, 1988, somewhere around then. His option was to go overseas to continue his career. At the same time he was expecting his first child, excited about that, he chose to stay back and be there for the birth of his child, personally I think he was a little afraid of being that far away from home, facing the unknown, that’s just my thoughts. After his relationship fell apart was when his depression became obvious, drinking and drugs followed. He couldn’t pick up a basketball, he would watch BB games and see players in the game that he had played against. I feel the medical profession failed him, pretty much no health insurance, no help. He attempted suicide several times, the last time he was successful, maybe, I’ll never know if it was intentional or accidental. All I know is I lost my son years before he died. I just started today researching this epidemic after watching a Dr Phil segment with a pro baseball player going through depression and alcoholism. This is a serious subject that needs some serious addressing and glad it is now being spoken about

  • MimiGolfer

    Thank you for this article. It has really clarified a lot of things for me. Since ending my sporting career (partly 2 years ago, but completely ended 1 year ago) I have battled to find a new direction and still haven’t been very successful. When I realised that I was struggling, I made attempts to seek counseling and one of the first responses I got was a back-handed comment of me merely “…going through a mid-life crisis”.

    The counseling I did end up getting was of little to no help what so ever and never approached the issue of being an athlete/sports person in retirement.

    I have sought different paths but everything I have done seemed so completely meaningless and utterly uninspiring. From being driven for so many years to be the best I can be and to only aspire to get better, I found I had nothing to focus that attention and determination on. You don’t just find something, anything, to apply it to. It has to be something that has meaning to us.

    Today I have found that traveling has helped alleviate the desperation I feel and I have found ‘tourist’ type jobs that keep me active and are relatively stress free have been really helpful. I still have no possessions so I can freely move around and I love that I am not stuck in one place.

    I don’t have vast amounts of money to be doing this, following my career, so I do need to earn money along the way. But [now] being debt free after being happy to live a minimalist lifestyle, I find that being mobile, traveling and looking forward to each new journey, has helped ease the distress. ….or maybe it could merely be distracting me from dealing with the issue at hand, but I am yet to find out I guess.

    Good luck to others that find light at the end of the tunnel in ‘sporting retirement’.

  • Keith Fredricksen

    Hello and thank you for the article. I recently made the decision to step away from coaching soccer (football for non yanks) and my experience has been awful. It’s been all I’ve ever known and the only proper job I’ve ever had. The loss of my identity and the inability to find a transition into some other form of meaningful work has left me defeated. Does anyone know of any specific help available for people in the same situation?

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  • Liz Groth Zuhlke

    Tom,
    I’d be willing to help you. I stopped swimming for a D1 school after a setback with back surgery. But when I actually finished swimming in 2003, I’ve been mourning the loss ever since. I still think I’m a swimmer, and I’m not good at anything else. I’ll never be the same person. I miss my sense of community and natural easy friendships I had. I often wonder if my fellow team mates (many from around the country) are experiencing the same sort of loss. But no one seems to want to discuss it. Why is it so controversial to talk about this? If you’re still looking. Elizabeth.zuhlke@gmail.com

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  • Klaudia Malenovska

    Hi Tom,

    I am starting a blog about retired athletes and I would like to know more about your dissertation. Could you please drop me an email? klaudia.malenovska@gmail.com

  • Anna Ringsred

    Hi everybody,

    Thank you for your discussions. I have never commented on anything in my life, but I felt compelled to comment here. The article above made me sob. It hit every chord of sorrow that I have felt every day for the past two years.

    I was an Olympic speedskater. Was or am? I don’t know if I am allowed to still call myself an Olympic athlete. At any rate, I competed in Sochi 2 years ago. I was planning to retire afterwards, but the experience was so amazing that I had decided to go for one more year. Two weeks later, I crashed during a world cup and got a serious concussion. I couldn’t exercise for over a year and could hardly hold a conversation. It was the darkest year of my life. I didn’t want to accept that skating was over, so I didn’t. I kept thinking that I would make a comeback. Two years later, I still sort of want to make a comeback, but am still plagued by headaches. It breaks my heart and kills my soul. I don’t know what to do with my life. I have tried multiple things – worked a “career” job, now back in school doing my Masters, but nothing gives me the same joy that I had while I was an athlete. I feel a huge void where skating used to be. It doesn’t help when people keep asking me if I am going to “try to go for another one.” Every time I hear that I feel myself grasping at straws, thinking maybe they are right! Maybe I will try again! But I know that I can’t. And then I spiral down again into depression…

    I am still in this terrible black hole and am hoping desperately that I can find something that I can focus on. Like some of the other people have said, that is the hardest part: as athletes we spent our entire lives focusing on one thing, and now that we have succeeded, where do we turn that focus? It can’t just be anything, it has to be something meaningful, or it doesn’t feel worth the bother. I BELIEVED in what I was doing with my whole heart and soul. That was the only reason I was able to push myself every day to make it to the Olympics. But jobs don’t need this kind of drive. I have yet to find a job that requires this drive and pushes me to my limits every day. A job that I believe in so much that nothing else matters.

    It is really hard to retire. I hope to find my way out someday so that I can guide others through this abyss.

    • Linda

      Hi, Anna,
      I can identify with you so well. I used to be a long distance runner, it was who I was. I loved running, it was more important than school, partying ect simply because it gave me the highest high: from everyday practice to winning and reaching my goals. When I was running I was fully alive, no thoughts in my head, pure seeing and feeling, being.
      I stopped running at my highest point. I still dont know why. But i just suddenly didnt feel like i used to. I started having disassociation, feeling numb and empty. Then the following 5 years were the darkest in my life. I was depressed, alone, working shitty meaningless jobs… trying to come back 2-3 times, I even competed, but I cant get the same feelings when i run. As if something had been broken inside me.
      I am much better now. I have a wonderful relationship with a man i love, i hace great friends, i like my own self, i study sports at a university, i draw a lot. But still nothing satisfies me like sport did. I have no answer to my question. I am in a constant state of a mild bitter resentment towards life. Watching Rio and seeing athletes I know, athletes I travelled to competitions with.

  • Trevt24

    Hello, I’m from the US, grew up playing Football as a runningback, setting rushing records, ect. It’s been over ten years now since my last game. I keep myself in great shape, to the point where I feel like I could still go back and play the game. I’ve been at the same job since i quit playing, but I’ve never liked it. I still feel like I am a football player, especially since I am still in better shape than a lot of guys that are playing now. But I have a job, a family, ect ect. Football season starts every September. I get excited about it, almost as if I am going to be competing again, and then of course, the realization that I have nothing to contribute to football anymore. No more pulling off an adrenaline pumping 50 yard touchdown run, making several defenders miss in the process, all to the awesome melody of thousands of screaming fans. You feel like a gladiator out on the field. I’ve gotten into custom cabinet and furniture building that I’ve really taken a knack to. I’ve been able to focus a lot of that energy into that, but at this point its still a part time thing, and the mundane day job keeps me in a state of disillusion. The woodworking is quite entertaining, and I love the creativity and challenge of building with my hands. However, I have not found anything that compares with the heart pounding rush of breaking that long touchdown run, and all the attention it brings with it. September and the start of the new football season is so exciting, I love watching the athletes perform, and watching my favorite team compete. But it’s also so, so depressing…..

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