We all go through major transitions in life that can initially leave us with mixed emotions, high school and college graduations, leaving home for the first time, relationships and career changes, or starting a family to name a few. However, for athletes who retire from competitive sport, the struggle to adjust to “normal” life is very real and thankfully it is discussed more and more openly by athletes themselves. For example, Michael Phelps has talked publicly about his post-London Olympics struggles. After making a return to swimming for the Rio Olympics, he insists he will be retiring for good after ending his career the way he wanted to. And I’m sure after the mistakes he admittedly made in transitioning out of sport the first time, he’ll have a better plan and approach in the coming months and years this time around.
Of course, not all athletes can decide to retire on their own terms, especially with the ultimate high of Olympic Gold. Team deselection, injury, financial stress, and motivational burnout are all reasons athletes struggle with or ultimately walk away from a competitive driven life.
Perhaps shedding “athlete” as your primary identity is one of the most difficult because it is so all-consuming. You don’t have to be an Olympic or Professional athlete to experience the many, mostly positive, influences that purposeful and clear daily goals, and constantly pushing one’s physical capabilities can bring to one’s life. In the name of performance sleep and nutrition are prioritized and discipline is cultivated. The immediate gratification of accomplishing optimally challenging training sessions provide regular endorphin highs. Social ties can run deep as teammates and training partners forge strong social bonds through the highs and lows or training, traveling and competing together.
When all of the above is taken away by choice or involuntarily, after a win or a loss, a period of withdrawal and grieving is to be expected, and every athlete will experience the intensity of this process differently. It is important to have a plan, with non-sport goals to move forward, and the social support to do so.
As a result of a debrief report after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Canada it was concluded that life-sport balance and post-sport career planning needed to be better addressed with athletes. Of course this has also been done in the name of optimizing performance prior to retirement as well. As a result Canadian athletes now have access to program called Game Plan which was founded to support athletes with their transitions throughout their sport and non-sport careers.
A Canadian paddler, and Olympic medalist, Thomas Hall, recently wrote in his blog titled, When the Games are Over:
My “live your dream” speech to students has evolved. I tell them now that I have learned that though having a goal is important, having multiple things that excite you, multiple goals, is crucial for happiness. If I could, I’d offer the same advice to most athletes I know.
Multiple goals are certainly important. Over a year ago when I began the transition from life as professional athlete as part of the LUNA Pro team, travelling and racing Xterra triathlons for the most recent decade of my athlete life. Well before athlete retirement, I had a PhD, a husband and two kids, my ongoing part-time career as a mental performance consultant and college instructor, as well as continuing to work towards clinical counsellor certification. These were all things that I was sure would make the transition away from a jam-packed training and racing schedule, and a dwindling competitive fire, as seamless as possible.
As much as I was looking forward to the break from the structured athlete-life – working out as often or little as I wanted to, worrying less about what and when I ate, not fretting as much about lost sleep, having more time for work, social nights and drinks with friends, planning family vacations that didn’t revolve around races, as well as more time to just go with the flow of kids and family life – I was still surprised at how lost and listless I felt at times without purposeful training goals at the core of my daily schedule.
Although most athlete retirement advice is centered around pursuing other goals, and thinking and planning for what’s next, I personally believe it is also important to stay connected to your athlete-self in important ways that will help manage the transition away from competition. Here’s my bit of advice from personal and vicarious experience:
Keep moving. Yes, it is important to give yourself a few days or weeks to be lazy after a hard season of training and competing to recharge the mind and body. However, don’t be surprised when you start feeling grumpy and irritable within days. Since your body has been accustomed to working out every day, it is important to avoid the bodily withdrawal and ensuing potential downward mental/emotional spiral from stopping cold turkey for too long. Be sure to prioritize the time to still do something active, whether it is your sport or something completely different. Staying active and committing to a minimum level of exercise will give you the energy and clarity to find your new path as you start to focus more on your non-sport goals. While you don’t need to train at the level you once did, all the discipline and positive habits you’ve cultivated so well over time don’t need to go out the window either. If you need reasons and motivation to keep moving without a competitive focus you’ll certainly find them in the book: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain.
Find your happy place when it comes to exercise. As competitive athletes the bar of expectations are set high when it comes to working out. If you’ve been used to training hours per day, getting out for 30 minutes can feel almost pointless and like a fail. Start somewhere. Everything counts. Experiment with how much and what type of exercise is enough to burn off stress yet leave you feeling rejuvenated; enjoy the change from previous training that may have left you feeling more often grouchy and tired than re-energized. Some athletes retire and never want to do their sport again, and choose alternative active pursuits. Others realize how much they truly love and enjoy their sport and continue to participate in it, even if at a much lower key level. Is exercising socially or solo, indoors or out-of-doors in nature most important to you? If you miss pushing the pace, go hard once in a while but don’t bother comparing with your old self or previous times and benchmarks, just enjoy the endorphins of a hard push now and then. Most importantly give yourself time to find out what brings out the best version of you when it comes to a new relationship with exercise, and maybe even competition, if you’re so inclined at any point down the road.
Let go of your old athlete self and be where you’re at today. I often hear athletes say, I wouldn’t do a race/event (insert previous sport) because then everyone would expect me to do well and I’d be disappointed. Let go of your old self, and your previous glory days, as they don’t define you today. Be where you’re at, train or participate at the level that is ideal for you now. This is one of the joys of non-structured athlete life. For example, these days, I sometimes miss swims with my master’s group for several weeks but I always go back because I truly enjoy swimming and I like the social aspect of the group. Each time I miss a significant chunk of time in the pool, the transition back is tough as I feel clumsy and out of shape for a week or two, but it always comes back and the feelings are worth it! I know I still enjoy running and love mountain biking, but if I don’t get to do one of them for periods of time I’ve learned not to sweat it. Psychologically, so much of an athlete’s identity and self-esteem can come from completing training consistently and successfully. In post-athlete retirement one of the biggest challenges is learning to let go of rigid all-or-nothing training goals, to be okay with doing less to feel good, to find new meanings and (social) connections, and truly enjoy what our bodies are still capable of doing, partly in thanks to the years of hard work put in!