I have based this post on Roger Lipe’s article The End of a Sportsperson’s Career, about the challenges of retirement from sport. It appears in his blog http://sportchaplainsportmentor.blogspot.com/, dated 21 June 2019.
Like it or not, it will happen. It may be on your terms, following many years of glory, with cabinets full of trophies. It may be a coach or selector who forces it upon you. Or it may be your own body saying ‘Enough!’ However it happens, sooner or later, your sporting career will be over.
Many find retirement from sport, whenever it comes, to be their biggest challenge. Because athletes are often so single-minded and focused during their career, they don’t prepare for life beyond sport. As a result, they find themselves at a loss as to what to do. They can even wonder who they are outside of sport.
How retirement from sport happens
At a certain age, people will start questioning whether you are too old. If you are a gymnast, you may still be in your teens; for a golfer it will be decades later. If you are in a team, people will talk about making way for ‘young blood’. You may still feel that you have a lot to offer, but you may find yourself having to justify this more and more. You may question yourself, and feel pressured into stepping away.
Or it may be your own body betraying its age. You notice you don’t recover like you used to. Your spirit may be willing, but your flesh may be crying out to stop.
Declining skill often accompanies aging. Speed, agility and endurance decrease with age. It doesn’t matter how much you love playing, and want to continue, sometimes your body just can’t carry on at the same level.
While you become more prone to injury as you age, catastrophic, career ending injury can occur at any time. The reality of sport is that in a moment, all your dreams can be gone. The results are devastating, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.
A lot of athletes suffer burnout. This results from the intense pressure of the sporting environment and the unbalanced lifestyle that follows. Some of them recover and return to sport, but many do not.
It may be that your career ends at a time of transition in your life. Maybe you are a promising sportsperson in high school, but selectors don’t pick you at the next level. Maybe changing family or work commitments mean that you no longer have time to pursue your sport.
Issues often encountered on retirement from sport
Loss of identity
Many former sportspeople admit that they didn’t know who they were after retirement from sport. They based their identity upon their sport, and so without sport they felt lost.
Loss of income (or a dramatic drop)
Some sportspeople earn enormous sums of money at a relatively young age. But many never get good advice on how to use it wisely. This income can suddenly go, and they can find themselves with nothing, or worse, in debt, and with no real skills outside of sport by which to earn a living.
Loss of social status
While people love successful athletes, they often quickly forget them after retirement. Your adoring fans may soon move on to the next big thing.
Loss of disciplined lifestyle
A sportsperson’s days, weeks, and years follow a strict timetable. Others may closely monitor their sleep, diet, exercise, and social life. When a sports career ends, this structure goes, often leaving nothing in its place.
Loss of community
A team is like a family, and sportspeople can spend a lot more time with their team than they do with their actual family. It’s not surprising that many struggle when the team goes on without them.
Four ways to prepare for and cope with life after sport
1. Restore or build your true identity.
No matter how successful and famous you are, you are more than a sportsperson. For some, retirement from sport can lead to a severe identity crisis and deep soul searching. For many, exploring religious and spiritual bases for identity can be tremendously helpful.
These blog posts may help:
2. Get involved in a new community.
In order for you to transition well, you need good relationships. If you are no longer involved with your sports family, find a new family. Preferably you can do this before retirement from sport. Reconnect with old friends. Get involved in a project in your local community. Join a choir. Most likely, you will need to take the initiative to reach out to others and build relationships. It may feel awkward at first, but, just like in sport, effort brings reward.
Find more ideas in this post:
3. Discover a new purpose for life.
You need a new reason to get out of bed in the morning, now that you are not playing sport. What’s something you thought about doing when you were younger, but sport got in the way? Now could be the perfect time to pursue it.
Talking with family and friends, a counsellor, a pastor, priest or chaplain, could help you identify your strengths and interests outside of sport and find a new passion.
4. Build a new lifestyle.
Your life is going to look different than it did when you were playing sport. It will be different, but it can be just as fulfilling and rewarding. It may take a bit of hard work, courage, discipline and patience to establish new rhythms and routines, but that’s okay – hard work, courage, discipline and patience are exactly the skills you will have brought with you from your life in sport.
Sports Chaplains are trained to support sportspeople to prepare for and deal with transitions, including retirement. Find a Sports Chaplain near you.
Stories about retirement from sport
1982 All White Sam Malcolmson: ‘I thought would be easy, but to be truthful it haunted me for ages.’
Multisport legend Steve Gurney: ‘He was left with huge amounts of anxiety and a head space often so bad he thought about taking his own life.’
All Black Neven MacEwan: ‘It was a real void for me, because the adulation and achievements which I had achieved on the rugby field, there was nothing, I didn’t have anything to replace it.’ See also https://www.nevenmacewan.com/img/article_the_prodigal.pdf
England Sevens star Ollie Phillips: ‘I didn’t feel worthy or valuable as I’d no experiences other than rugby and my whole raison d’etre appeared to have gone.’
England rugby captain Catherine Spencer: ‘there was a strange sense that people would forget me and the team would carry on being good without me. That was really difficult to process.’
English club footballer Scott Ward: ‘I went from being a professional footballer to being a dustman to collecting recycling for a living – it’s quite a fall.’
England cricketer Andrew Flintoff: ‘I hated it (cricket), I couldn’t watch the game, I didn’t want to be around it, I couldn’t see other people doing it because I thought I should still be playing.’
Do you have a retirement story to tell?
Please share it here, or contact us in confidence to talk to a Sports Chaplain.