“I am feeling lost and with no direction, no purpose, no career, no identity and who the hell do I go to?” and “How can I train myself for this? I’m in a world I don’t know.” (Gail Emms, 2017)
Lots of athletes talk about their athletic career and the retirement process once they’ve been retired for a few years, as shown with the recent quote from Gail Emms. It would be beneficial to bridge this gap and ease the process in some way for athletes.
Retirement from elite sport is considered a career transition amongst the majority of the literature (Alfermann, Lavallee, & Wylleman, 2004). The process can also be somewhat stressful, exciting and considered a period of confusion for elite athletes (Dacyshyn & Kerr, 2000). Thus support is imperative at this point in an athlete’s career.
Research shows that athletes have a very strong athletic identity (Lavallee & Robinson, 2007), which is therefore impacted upon during the retirement process. Those individuals who identify strongly with their athletic identity, are more likely to be vulnerable to difficulties with the transition out of elite sport (Grove, Gordon & Lavallee, 1997). Similar results have found that identity is a common theme amongst the findings and that athletes felt lost post retirement (Lavallee & Robinson, 2007). Despite the initial identity issues, athletes appear to commit to other identities and succeed in making a smooth retirement once they have reached one year of retirement (Lally, 2007).
There are multiple reasons why an athletes career may come to an end. Previous research has demonstrated how the retirement from elite sport can be due to a variety of reasons. Evidence demonstrates that retirement is primarily due to injury (Heinonen, Kettunen, Kujala & Ristolainen, 2012). Athletes are often used to coping with niggling injuries but one that ends their career is completely different. Relationships, family and career satisfaction have also been found to be influential in the decision to retire (Japhag, Stambulova, & Stephen, 2007)
Regardless of how the career terminates, retirement from elite sport does not necessarily mean that all sporting involvement will cease. Research has found that upon retirement, athletes may relocate their involvement in the sporting context by becoming coaches or commentators, for example (Cruz, Boixodos, Torregrosa, & Valiente, 2004).
Mental well-being is becoming a real priority in the sporting world which is perhaps driven by the openness of retired athletes. It is commonly noted that athletes experience periods of low mental health during the career exit process, especially if the exit was unplanned. Experiences of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress (Wippert & Wippert, 2008; Wolff & Lester, 1989) are especially cited in the literature. It is pivotal that athletes are provided with support during this period to minimise any periods of low mental health and encourage them to seek help. It would be ideal to provide the athletes with psychological support during this time to process their thoughts and changes in their identity.
With athletes frequently leaving school and going straight into a career as a professional athlete, it is unsurprising that goals and achievements out of sport often aren’t considered. However, this can be hugely beneficial to the athlete if the career exit process is forced upon them (from injury for example) as it means they have other identities and self-concepts which they can draw upon as they make the exit from a career as a full time professional athlete.
I would encourage athletes to look for goals out of their athletic career as well as in sport as it can often lead to beneficial transferable skills that can even help in their sport. This could be related to sport in the form of a coaching qualification, drawing upon your current skillset or it could be totally separate, for example doing a marketing course. This could provide the athlete with beneficial skills for their own self-promotion, as well as a skill they can utilise when the retirement process occurs.
The Australian swimmer’s association does this well in terms of having a personal excellence (PE) program which focusses on three key areas of the athlete’s life: dual career, sport/life and progression. The dual career element provides guidance to their athletes, in terms of encouraging lifelong learning through achieving qualifications in and out of their sport (Swimming Australia, 2017).
The career exit process can be a period of uncertainty. We can facilitate this process by having an identity which is not isolated to sport, through achieving skills outside of sport during one’s athletic career. This will hopefully minimise the effects of being thrust into a period of unknown when that career exiting process occurs.