Feature: Why letting go can be so hard

The Pain of Letting Go:  Life after the Olympics.

There comes a time in the life of every athlete when the lights start to dim on even the most brilliant sporting career. The reward for commitment and effort no longer match the sacrifices made. Both athletic performances and the accolades they once inspired in others start to diminish.

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Photo: Rio2016.com

“Who am I if I am not an athlete anymore?”  This will be a question that many athletes will struggle with at some point. Most of them will not have enjoyed the success experienced by Olympic Track Cyclist, Anna Meares. She is taking time out to consider what comes next in her life.  The void in their lives, irrespective what they achieved, is often challenging.   

From the time they are children athletes know there is something special about them.  They are constantly praised by their parents, rewarded by their teachers and admired by their friends.  Every day is structured with training or competition. Full of challenge and full of purpose.  Athletes aspire to be the very best version of themselves.

Through their teenage years, while their friends pushed back against their parents in a struggle to establish a sense of who they are, the athlete already knew.  The whole world stops for 2 weeks in every four years, entranced by their sheer brilliance. So elevated is the elite athlete that the Olympic Games transcends politics and religion.  

For many, nothing in life may ever feel as exhilarating or as exciting.  Retirement from sport may come prematurely due to injury or failed selection. Or maybe  for personal or financial reasons. Alternatively, retirement may come as a part of the natural ageing process or a desire to plan for the future. Regardless, retirement is often a time of grieving.

Initially the athlete may feel relief from the very real physical pain that comes with relentless training and competing. Relief from the pressure of faster, higher, stronger.  Relief from living up to their own or someone else’s expectations.  

The loss of a purpose presents the greatest challenge.  Athletes sing to their own tune. They are directly rewarded, based on their own efforts or the combined efforts other equally dedicated individuals.  Losing this autonomy over their own lives is hard.  Having someone else control the hours they work, what they are paid and when they take holidays. It is a loss of self that many athletes will struggle with.  

The athlete’s transition will be improved if they have a balanced sense of who they are.  Perhaps a university student, a parent, artist or musician.  The more complex the athlete’s identity the more able they will be to manage life after sport. But many athletes don’t have a good sense of who they are outside the athletic arena.

Athletes are exceptional people. Dedicated, hardworking, fearless and passionate. These qualities enabled them to become great, not the other way round.  When they recognise their personal strengths they can look to other career paths that value these attributes. This makes the transition easier.

 If an athlete experiences a miss-match between their values and those of the profession they transition into post sport, they can experience cognitive dissonance.   A disconnect between their own values and the values of the organisations they now work for.  This disconnect can lead to psychological distress, confusion and depression.  

They may find themselves in jobs where “no-one works hard” or “no one is passionate about what they do”. The may get the dawning realisation that  “management works people relentlessly hard, scooping profits for themselves and paying wages that don’t remotely match”.  Any of these scenarios will be hard for the athlete to adjust to.  

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Photo: consultancy.co.uk

The athlete may need to match their strengths and values of like-minded people. Adapt their own value system to be more in line with the role they now find them self-working in. They could look to create a new path that gives them a sense of autonomy (entrepreneurship).

 It isn’t an easy path. Life after sport can be hard. However, you share this challenge with many others and you are not alone.  We provide vocational and counselling guidance for those ready for their next challenge in life.