Body Image Crisis after Retirement in Sport

CTL contributor Zuzana Radakovska speaks to international canoist Jana Smidakova about body image issues after retirement:

It is said sports stars die twice, the first time at retirement. If you are no longer a sporting superstar, then who are you?

Once athletes retire, they must be aware of physical changes and how this can affect their psychological state. For many of them the body and their image plays a key role in the construction of their identity. They train for many years to reach their best physical condition and when this starts to deteriorate it can affect them in many ways. Athletes are used to certain level of physical activity and exercise routine so after the career ends, dealing with weight gain, loss of muscular mass and bodily pain is not something they they are prepared for.

No matter whether we talk about men or women in sport, body image, low self-esteem and changed perception of their own body is something that can negatively affect their healthy transition or retirement process.

To find out more about how professional athletes perceive the issue around body image and its changes after retirement, I interviewed Jana Smidakova, Czech-born, Spanish sprint canoeist who has competed since the mid-2000s. She won 5 medals in World Championships and competed in two Summer Olympics. Jana successfully terminated her professional career and currently works as a physiotherapist of Slovak canoe sprint team Dukla Trencin. She recently married Slovak professional kayaker Peter Gelle and is a proud mum of little Amelia.

ZR: Professional sport is often associated with the image of slim, healthy and muscular bodies. You competed in sprint kayaking for many years. This is a type of sport requiring excellent physical fitness and endurance. How do women in this sport perceive the questions or body image, satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their own bodies?

JS: From my point of view canoeing is not a masculine sport but I may see it from the perspective of a professional athlete. I don’t think that women in canoeing have major issues with body image. They are very clear at why they are doing what they are doing and accept that with 90-60-90 type of body they won’t be able to achieve any significant success. These days women in professional canoeing are not as masculine as the female competitors a few years ago. This sport is developing and certainly not only because athletes are becoming physically stronger and bigger.

On the other hand, during my active years in the Spanish National Team, I heard the younger girls saying that they don’t want to exercise too much simply because they don’t want to be like us professionals.

ZR: Professional sport in addition to performance and success is very much focused on the matter of image and external appearance. Media and society through social media often put an additional pressure on professional athletes to look attractive. Excessive pressure can culminate in mental health problems, depression or eating disorders. Did you notice such issue during your career?

JS: I agree that external pressure to look good and attractive can lead to some mental and physical problems. I remember a case, where one professional athlete just one month before the World Championship secretly disrupted his hydration regime to look more attractive and masculine, what led to significant decline in his performance.

Sport and sporty bodies are currently trending not only among professional athletes, which is beneficial for culture and society in general. However, it is also important that professional athletes work with psychologists who can help them to better understand the balance between healthy body and healthy mind and also support them to carefully prepare for the transition and retirement. Unfortunately, during my professional career we weren’t given the opportunity to benefit from this type of psychological support.

ZR: The big problem with many professional athletes in matters of body image/appearance set right after a professional career ends, when physical activity and energy expenditure reduces, the eating habits change significantly and more intense pressure and media attention also subsides. You career transition looked quite smooth. I’m aware that you stopped professionally competing in 2012 and successfully transitioned to another career. From your personal and professional experience is there something you would recommend to athletes right after the end of career to maintain healthy body image, physical & emotional well-being?

JS: I think it is very important not to be tight to the one sport only. For mental & physical well-being of a professional athletes is crucial to have some other alternatives, other then their current sport. Athletes have to be able to close one chapter of their life to successfully open another one. Many athletes have identity issues and feel stuck to move forward. For each of them sport means a lot, it is their work, love and passion. It is important that athletes start to prepare for the transition and retirement while still competing. Not every sport can provide good quality lifestyle after the career ends. To maintain healthy body after retirement, athletes can’t just give up on sport from day to day. I suggest, they courageously embrace this new period of life, which offers a great opportunity to engage in different sports, they were not able to perform while competing professionally. We all hope that sport may slowly be waking up to some of these problems and provide professional support and help also to those who no longer compete professionally.