Female Perspective – helping transition out of sport


In part 2 we look at one of the female perspectives in the athlete transition mix. Retirement from sport can bring a real sense of grief leaving individuals questioning who they are and where they belong in the world. A potential protective factor against this grief is parenthood. In this piece we focus on motherhood.

Having a complex identity (many ways to define who we are), wife, mother, sister, musician, artist, author etc… the smoother retirement from sport can be. Being a mother adds to identity complexity and loving relationships help to release the neuropeptide, oxytocin.

We are rewarded with oxytocin when we engaged in loving and prosocial behaviors – doing things for others with no expectation of anything in return. These behaviours have helped to keep our children safe for 200,000 years by building connectedness in families and tribes and today, cooperation in teams and communities.

Oxytocin is often referred to as the love chemical because it presents in large amounts during sex and is indispensable in childbirth and parenting. It also drives a mother’s protective response when her child is threatened.

Imagine a single mother at home on her own late at night. Her children are in the safe care of a relative. In the dark and early hours of the morning she becomes aware of someone attempting to break into her house. She is afraid for her safety and looks for somewhere to hide. If however, her children are with her she would be just as likely to escalate to anger, rather than fear. Like a tigress protecting her litter, her anger would rise and she would probably challenge the intruder. How dare someone threaten the safety of her children! She would demand “Get out of my house!”

Oxytocin can reduce anxiety and inhibit psychological stress as a prosocial response of caring for others. Caring can be healing for both the person receiving the care and the care giver. When athletes retire and leave their sporting teams behind them, families become more important than ever.

Former elite triathlete, Louise MacKinlay, says her transition into motherhood helped her deal with the depression she experienced after retiring from sport. MacKinlay won 9 national titles over various distances and finished in the top 10 in the World Ironman, but a motor vehicle accident whilst training in Canada resulted in a significant head injury that ultimately led to premature retirement.

Louise MacKinlay 1
Photo: triathlon.org.au

Of her memory loss MacKinlay says; “for most part I don’t remember my athletic career. I knew I raced and won a lot, and for a while I rehabilitated my injuries and got back into racing. But I just sustained too many injuries, my body just wasn’t right after the accident. Apparently I went to the Commonwealth Games in 1990 when Triathlon was a demonstration sport, but I don’t remember it.”

When MacKinlay retired from competing, she made the decision to start a family and said if it wasn’t for her daughter, Georgia, she doesn’t know if she would still be here (alive).

“The thing I found difficult about having a brain injury is that people don’t know you have a disability. It isn’t physical and they can’t see it. So they think I am a normal person who is not very smart or who is really forgetful. Sometimes, I was so embarrassed that I wished I had a physical injury that people could see so they wouldn’t expect so much from me.”

She elaborates by saying; “After retiring things got pretty rotten, my marriage broke down and I felt I wasn’t worthwhile. There was a day when I thought about putting my foot flat to the floor and driving into the back of a truck, but I knew I wouldn’t because I was the sole provider for Georgia and I wouldn’t do that to her, she made my life worthwhile.”

Caring for Georgia and caring for others is what got her mental health back on track. She noticed how much her zest for life came back when she moved into working in health. It made her feel like she had something to offer.

While Mackinlay experienced the benefits of motherhood post athletic retirement she warns; “I see too many professional women feeling pressured to do it all. Some are the primary income earners and the primary care givers, they are so burnt-out. Women need to give themselves permission not to do it all and take the time to be a present for their children.”

The benefits of motherhood can be a protective factor for many of our elite female athletes upon retirement, provided they are given the time and support to be mothers. It may also provide them with greater identity complexity and the time they need to reflect on where they want to go next in life. Let’s nurture our women, while they nurture our children.

The Black Dog Institute offer advice on mental health and motherhood. Click on the direct link to the relevant page.