Is retiring the same as quitting?

When quitting sport is the best choice“When you think about quitting – remember why you started.”

“Work hard, dream big, never give up!”

“There is no failure unless you give up.”

“Never give up something you can’t go a day without thinking about.”

There are endless quotes and sayings urging athletes to keep going, not to quit, to never give up. Quitting is seen as the greatest failure.

But what happens when quitting is the best option? And what if quitting is not actually quitting at all, but rather a smart choice?

When talking about retirement, you will often hear athletes say: “I am thinking of giving up” or “I am not ready to quit just yet”. Since when did the retirement become another word for giving up? Yes, sometimes we need to let go of dreams, and peace made with goals not achieved. But this is very different to just quitting. Sometimes the decision to retire is a way better one than pushing through, but, while athletes see it as quitting, it is a decision infused with the shame of failure.

Also, athletes come to the decision to retire in many different ways, and few, if any, simply give up. Brendon Dedekind, former Olympic swimmer, explains why his decision to retire was the best one for his future:

“I had always swum for the fun of it, just for the sake of swimming, but now I had to make some hard decisions because fun would not pay the bills.  I knew that wanting to swim just because I enjoyed it was not going to be a good enough reason to carry on. I had to think hard about why I was swimming for another four years…I would be 28 by then, and worried about essentially putting my life on hold – for what?”

Fourteen-time World Boxing Champion Brian Mitchell says that sometimes you’ve just had enough of the restrictive life of being an elite athlete:

“By the time I was 22, I had become South African champion, and by 25 I was World Champion. I went on to fight in 14 title fights, defending all of them over a five-year period. Then, after beating Tony Lopez at the age of 30, I had had enough, and walked away.

“Twenty-five years of sweating it out in the gym gets to you in the end. The thing that people don’t understand about professional boxing is that it’s a very isolated life.

“Professional life is not as glamorous as you may think, because you are literally hidden away while competing. In the end, I got tired of doing the same thing, day-in and day-out.”

Other times, like Olympic Hockey players Charles Teversham and Gary Boddington, life’s priorities shift and change.

“My wife gave me these four years to make my dreams come true,” says Charles, “but both her life and our life together had to be put on hold during that time. It would have been unfair to keep her waiting much longer after that.” Gary also knew that, “When you have a wife and children and know that hockey won’t pay the bills, you have to make choices that are not just good for you, but good for your whole family.

“Hockey was wonderfully exciting – very little is as exciting as running out onto the field wearing the green and gold, prepared to do battle for your country – but life has other priorities.”

And sometimes, you’ve given it your all and realise there is more to life, as is what happened to former Springbok Rugby captain Mornè du Plessis.

He knew it was an honour to play but also knew that there were issues in life greater than rugby. Morné points out that to others involved in the game, and to the general public, his place in the rugby world was very meaningful, more meaningful than he himself felt it should be. So, he decided to retire after one of the most successful years in Springbok history and with a dream tour to New Zealand scheduled for the following year.

As long as athletes see retirement as quitting, they will fail to make good choices for their future. Retirement should come from a place of knowing that the time has come to pursue different, meaningful dreams, and whatever goals are left on the playing field, are there for others to take on and chase as you cheer them on.

NOTE: All quotes are from Waking from the dream: Stories of transition out of elite sport, by Dr Kirsten van Heerden.