Here's why athlete retirement is so challenging

Athlete retirement and transition is an ongoing process with no clearly defined end point. It can be full of highs and lows. Many athletes don’t realise that this process exists when they retire. For a successful transition, it's essential to prepare.

The process of athlete retirement and the transition to life after sport can be seen as a ‘grief’ or ‘loss’ that has to be worked through before an athlete can move onto the next phase of their life. Much like a death, to move through this process the athlete must learn to grieve for and then let go of the life they once had.

For some athletes, the the loss of their sporting career hits them immediately. For others it can take some time. We all know an athlete stuck in the twilight years of their sporting prowess, unable to finally let go. Other athletes, for example those who have children straight after they retire, might not get hit with the shock of retirement for several years.

It is common to talk about the 'stages' of grief and loss but this approach can be misleading, as it suggests there is a defined end point or destination. When we talk of stages, as we do below, it's important to realise that these stages are not linear or equal in length. Transition actually occurs in a cyclical fashion. Throughout the process of transitioning to life after sport, we can circle back to earlier stages of grief and loss, or stay in one stage for a while.

It is also important to remember that we go through many cycles of transition throughout our lives - from child to adolescent to adult; through different relationships and different careers.

"Our sporting life was just a very exciting and special example of those cycles. The tough bit is letting go and moving onto the next cycle”.

The grief process is described well in a best-selling book  “On death and dying”  by Elizabeth Keubler-Ross. She describes the five to seven stages of grief that must be experienced before a person can feel acceptance or peace and finally move on.

The stages of athlete retirement and transition

The speed of movement through the stages is very much reliant on the type of individual you are, as well as the manner in which you have retired: if you were forced into retirement through injury or life circumstances, or if you have chosen to retire because you felt it was the end of the road.

Most athletes are used to having fixed goals and working to achieve them, aided by data and progress indicators. We can be very well programmed to feel physically, but not to feel emotionally. It also means we're used to a clear timeline and definitive end. Again, it's essential to remember that the transition process has no defined end point – it is something that will be FELT over time and may take a lot longer than you imagined.

However, the process of athlete retirement will be easier if you prepare in advance and are aware of the stages you might move through.

1. AT THE BEGINNING YOU MAY FEEL SHOCK.

This shock may feel positive. A sense of new found freedom – able to eat whatever you want, no restrictive regime, able to go out partying with no repercussions.

It could be a negative shock. Suddenly you have nothing to do and you are struggling to grasp the concept of having nothing to aim for. Your friend base of athletes have moved on and suddenly you feel like you are alone.

2. TO DEAL WITH THE SHOCK WE OFTEN MOVE TO STAGE TWO: DENIAL.

This is where we can block out what is happening. We can block out the shock and pretend everything is fine. Athletes can be programmed to keep stuff hidden and not show their emotions and weaknesses. It can feel easy to do so again now.

In the denial phase, destructive behaviour can creep in as a coping mechanism. Drinking too much, experimenting with drugs, being withdrawn and refusing help. The denial phase can also be really hard for your friends and family.

3. THE NEXT FEW STAGES CAN APPEAR TOGETHER:  ANGER, BLAME, BARGAINING

In this phase you might experience: withdrawal, mood swings, body image issues, low self-esteem, uncertainty, loss of fitness, relationship pressure, lack of direction, mental health concerns. The ‘honeymoon’ period of denial is over and the road ahead can seem long, desolate and with many forks.

Many marriages and relationships have ended in this phase. The partner of the athlete, having waited for years to have them home, is suddenly dealing with a grumpy, directionless, depressed individual who has no answers and just wants to be left alone. It is a very typical occurrence.

You might go through periods of blaming others for the loss of your sporting career. You might feel like begging others for 'just one more shot'.

As noted, these stages can be cyclical, so that you think you've moved past a feeling only for it to crop up again. These stages can also include depression and anxiety. It is crucial to seek help.

4. THE LAST PHASE IS ACCEPTANCE

It may not always feel like it, but with the right support you will reach acceptance. You will be in a position to comfortably move forward in a changed world, to re-discover your intuition, and find a new passion and reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Knowing this process exists and that what you are feeling is normal is half the battle to a successful transition. There are millions of athletes who have gone before you who have also been through the pain.

An increased awareness of athlete retirement issues has thankfully meant that it is becoming easier for athletes to find support and share stories of their transition. Any ex-athlete who tells you they haven’t experienced at least a tiny bit of the above is probably stuck in the denial phase themselves!

Check out Elizabeth Keubler Ross stages of loss for more information.

A version of this article was originally posted on Crossing the Line.

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