Athlete transition isn’t just about finding a job; it’s about discovering who you are outside of sport.
Straight up—far too many Olympic athletes struggle when transitioning from a career in sport to a life they may never have imagined nor prepared for. Decades after the Seoul Olympics, I went public with my personal challenges around transitioning out of rowing on the Canadian National Team. Since then, I’ve heard from dozens of athletes from around the world who felt compelled to reach out and share their own powerful experiences with me. I’ve found solace in hearing their struggles. What I’ve taken from their stories however is that the athletes who fail to accomplish their Olympic goals are not the only ones who have scrapes, bumps and bruises—Olympic Champions do as well.
WHERE TO BEGIN:
When we define ourselves by what we do and what we accomplish, we set ourselves up for a difficult moment when we can no longer do and accomplish what we used to.
Like so many young athletes who dream of competing at the Olympic Games, I thought that winning an Olympic Gold Medal would change my life for the better. I believed that being an Olympic Champion would not only be the pinnacle of my athletic achievement; it would be the gateway to a fulfilled, happy and successful life. When that Gold Medal didn’t happen, I was lost.
Once the devastation of losing in our Olympic final cleared long enough for me to consider my next steps, I was hard-pressed to entertain any plan that involved moving forward—with or without rowing. The fear of pursuing another dream and falling short yet again was consuming, as well as paralyzing. The pain and shame of failing on an international stage was too much for my young psyche, and I fell into depression. Initially, it manifested itself as anger and rage the likes of which I never imagined myself capable. Once I officially retired from rowing after a disastrous attempt to come back for another Olympic quadrennial, I fell deeper into trouble. The biggest challenge? Filling the emptiness that quitting rowing had left.
“If I wasn’t an Olympic athlete and my goal wasn’t to win a Gold Medal, than who was I and what on earth could I do that would ever fill that void?”
What resulted were an eating disorder and a compulsive exercise regimen. My thinking was that if I couldn’t’ attain success as a rower, I would reach it anyway that I could no matter how destructive. After a number of years of successfully controlling what went into my body and my physical appearance, I finally began to see that achievement was not the guaranteed path to fulfillment that I had originally thought it was. Thus began a long journey of self-discovery.
To my amazement, and I am sure many others’, I’m not an outlier. The insecurity, isolation and despair that I experienced are far too commonplace among elite athletes. If I had known that at the time, perhaps I would have been more apt to reach out for help. Thankfully, attitudes are changing and more athletes are feeling safe to expose their demons, fears and inner turmoil. Therein lies the opportunity to help—and, we must help.
Having a healthy sense of self outside of sport is the foundation of not only achieving high-performance, but also creating a life of happiness and fulfillment regardless of what you do or have done—we are human beings, not human doings!
Undoubtedly, from what I’ve gathered, it is handing in the membership that appears to challenge transitioning athletes the most—the winners and the losers. This seems to be the consistent message.
“I was once part of a group of individuals that could do things that only a minute percentage of the world’s population could. Now, I’m just an average person with an average life.” Not surprisingly, this belief is based in our ego. And, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, whenever we make decisions in the interests of our ego—we can almost guarantee life will go sideways”.
As more international sporting bodies implement athlete transition programs, it’s important that we ensure that establishing career security isn’t the only thing on the checklist. Yes, it’s important to plan for the future, but that’s not the only component that determines a healthy exit from sport. It begins with honest conversations, too.
As coaches, administers, parents and retired athletes—we are all responsible for sharing our journeys and insights with our current and aspiring crop of Olympians. It’s imperative that we have genuine dialogue that dispels the deeply help myth of “I’ll be happy when… !” No—it doesn’t work that way. If you’re not happy with your life now, no Olympic Gold Medal is going to change that. Achieving stuff is not the foundation upon which you build a meaningful existence. That comes from a whole host of ingredients in which sport can play an important role, while not being the defining feature.
“It’s important that we encourage coaches to buy into this preventive measure as well. I hear too often that some coaches feel “preparing for the future” is a distraction. Hogwash. Science tells us—and it only makes sense—that athletes who are prepared for their exit from sport are more relaxed and engaged in training and competition than those constantly worrying about what they’ll do the day after their last Olympic event”.
Furthermore, having interests outside of sport is another way to insure that athletes broaden the spectrum of who they are. When you’re thinking about one thing and one thing only all day, you set yourself up for bouts of anxiety, stress and burnout. Again, research tells us that multifaceted athletes not only have longer careers, but more successful ones as well. It only goes to reason.
In looking back on my journey—yes, there were some rough patches—however, those difficult times were the catalyst to my most profound learning, and I do not regret them for a moment. At the same time, I don’t believe that we all have to fall down to have deep and meaningful insights. In the case of career transition, we can prepare our young athletes better by providing them with the tools, skills, education and life perspective that will ensure when they hand in their membership it’s the beginning of the next exciting part of their life’s journey—not just the end of their athletic career.