Moving into a life beyond sport – whether intentionally or through injury – can be a very complex process that tests the mental, emotional and physical resolve of many athletes. This is true if you are a student-athlete, a player for your local club, or an elite athlete competing at state, national or international level.
For the majority of people who take part in sport, their love of it has arisen from more than just a desire to win. Sport provides a sense of community and belonging. It helps build identity and self-concept. It creates friendships that become more like family ties. It offers a social life that may have otherwise been lacking. For some, sport provides a reason to get out of bed. It helps keep mental health issues at bay.
Sport gives people a sense of passion and purpose. Often they aren’t even aware of how much of their identity is tied up in their sport. When they can no longer take part, for whatever reason, the practical and emotional complexities that result can come as a nasty surprise.
Losing the identity of being “an athlete” is the most common challenge. Research suggests that the more people identify with “I am an athlete”, the harder the transition process is. Identity loss can literally turn lives upside down if people are not expecting or prepared for it. It can lead to mental and emotional turmoil (including depression); destabilisation of the family unit (did you know one in three premiership footballers in the UK are divorced or separated within 12 months of retirement?); difficulties finding a new passion (or for some, finding a new reason to get out of bed); and for others, a loss of income.
You can’t really explain to a current athlete how they will feel when they become a ‘former athlete’. It is a process that needs to be felt to be really understood, and the process is different for everyone.
But as a sporting community, we can educate anyone involved in sport about the issues and emotions they might experience during and after their transition, and be there for them when they start to roll. We can share athlete-lived experience combined with expert psychological counsel for those in all stages of the process. We can help people build a dual pathway before they retire, so they are ready for the next stage when they do. We can steer people down the path to finding a new passion and purpose.
Retirement can be a serious issue for athletes, regardless of the level at which they compete. We are here to support any former athlete who encounters issues on their journey to life beyond sport.