Two Businessmen JumpingOne of the most challenging times in an athlete’s life can be the end of his or her sporting career and their ‘transition’ into a new life and a new career. In the same way that a sporting career is more than just a job: the move from sport to a post-sport career is not like moving firm.  In this author’s experience, it’s far tougher.

In the modern sporting environment, those determined to pursue athletic careers are often required (or require of themselves) to put everything and everyone to one side to achieve their ultimate goals. While the nature of those goals is flexible (Olympic Champion; Premier League winner; or Six Nations victor) and the percentages who actually achieve their goals are minimal, the mind-set that is embraced by each athlete on their chosen path is typically not. Therefore, the transition affects the whole spectrum of athletes: from perennial first round losers to global superstars.

There are many elements to the transition that make it a uniquely challenging experience. The nature of the sport, the athlete, their support team and the circumstances of their retirement will all be factors which impact upon an athlete’s transition and no two athletes will have an identical experience. However, in this author’s opinion, there are some common questions that feature in all transitions:

  • A loss of regime and purpose – with no training session to wake up for or competition to go to, how do you structure your day and what do you do with that spare time?
  • A loss of team mates – after years of training and competing with people of similar experiences, mentality and beliefs; how will you find a new group that you feel accepted or able to thrive in.
  • A loss of identity – your whole life you have defined yourself as one thing: an athlete. What do you define yourself as now or, even more simply, what do you describe yourself as at, for example, a party when someone asks you ‘what do you do’?
  • A loss of finance – how will you support yourself (and possibly your family) without your sponsorship money or grant funding?
  • A change in physical appearance – what will your body look like now and will you and/or others like what you/they see?

Each of which adds up to the behemoth of a question that has phased even the greatest of athletes: what will I do now? Frequently, the time it takes to answer that question will leave an athlete in a state of limbo and uncertainty that can have devastating effects including alcoholism, drug abuse and depression.

Many former sports stars have written eloquently about the challenges that the transition can bring.  But there is not a simple ‘one size fits all’ solution.  Why?  Primarily, because the transition affects a person’s mental health. No two people will react to an identical situation in an identical manner and, as discussed in last week’s Sports Shorts, mental health is a topic that still has an associated stigma.  The transition also raises a number of legal questions such as: whose responsibility is a retiring (or retired) athlete’s mental health?  In the cases of athletes who have employment contracts with clubs or teams then there may be a duty of care argument to be made.  However, what is the situation when an athlete is simply funded or supported by his or her national governing body and is not technically ‘employed’ by anyone?

While a discussion of these issues requires far more space than this blog post allows, there are positive signs that the problems surrounding the transition are starting to be taken seriously. First, people are now openly talking about the issues. Until a problem is acknowledged, it cannot be addressed. Second, sports organisations such as Athlete Career Transition and sport specific programmes such as the IOC’s Athlete Career Programme are being established to offer tailored support to those going through the transition.  The transition is unique and it requires the help of experts, both in sport and in psychology.  Third, in the UK, the Government has launched a review led by Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson into the duty of care owed to athletes which will cover mental health issues. This is an important piece of work and the results may have wide reaching ramifications for retiring athletes and sport organisations in the UK.

The sub-title of this blog is: ‘a complex and developing area’. This author does not back away from the former but takes heart in the latter.  Inarguably, the ideal support network for transitioning athletes has not yet been found but the growing discussion is positive and one would hope that the increased media coverage and growing investment (government or otherwise) will lead to a much better solution in future. Until then, all options are on the table and all input is welcome.

Disclaimer: this author is a facilitator of the IOC Athlete Career Programme in conjunction with the World Badminton Federation.