The life of an elite athlete almost always requires of them to make extreme personal sacrifices in order to attain the fame, money, status, and glory that comes with reaching the pinnacle of their chosen sport. When they arrive, though, athletes often feel as though the sacrifices were well worth it. They’ve climbed the summit of Mt. Everest, and the view from up top is awe-inspiring. In addition, they’ve had friends, family, and strangers alike cheering them along the way, giving them endless praise and adulation that makes them feel beloved, extraordinary, and special. For these athletes, it’s impossible for them to imagine that their professional careers will come to a grinding halt one day, whether it is through age, injury or exhaustion. Father time will make his presence known to all of them eventually.
Along the way, these athletes have trained extensively and rigorously for years, and their pursuit of greatness consumes the majority of their young lives. For most of them, they’ve chosen to make financial sacrifices, moved away from their family and friends, cut romantic ties with people they’ve loved, given up on college and academic studies, etc. They’ve come to believe that the ends will justify the means. While this may be true for a very small group of elite athletes, the majority of athletes are simply ill-prepared for life after sports. They simply never anticipated that the day when the buzz and adrenaline rush of competing would come to an end; they didn’t foresee that the limelight would grow dim and then dark and they would soon feel forgotten, empty, lost, and ill-equipped to thrive in a world that demands more than brawn, size, and amazing hand-eye coordination from its citizens. They simply never imagined how the end of a sport’s career would induce dramatic changes in their personal, social, and occupational lives. Like soldiers coming back from war, they too must transition back into society and reconstruct new lives and adjust themselves to a new life style.
Athletes that fail to prepare for life after their professional careers are over are often vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, depression, and a despair that runs so deep that they even commit suicide. They feel lost and rudderless, and they are also vulnerable to suffering from an identity crisis. Take former tennis child prodigy and 3 time Grand Slam Champion Jennifer Capriati, for example. When her career ended as a result of multiple injuries, she said, “When I stopped playing, that’s when all this came crumbling down.” “If I don’t have tennis, who am I? What am I? I was just alive because of this. I’ve had to ask, well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now? I can’t live off of this the rest of my life. I struggle with trying to like and love myself on a daily basis.”
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously said, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring…There is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in the moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” Not surprisingly, Leonard struggled in retirement, suffering from extreme bouts of depression and eventually making repeated comebacks that never amounted to much.
For some professional athletes, the pressure becomes all too encompassing, and over the years there have been a number of cases of athletes committing suicide following retirement from professional sport. This includes the tragic story of Russian Judoka Elena Ivashchenko, who committed suicide following depression brought on by her failure to win gold at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Many people wonder out loud, “What leads retired professional athletes to spiral into depression after the rigorous training, pressure, competition, and glory days are behind them?” Three answers come to mind. First, professional athletes become overly identified with their role as elite athletes. In turn, they become addicted to other’s recognition that they are physical specimens capable of achieving amazing feats in their chosen sport. While they are in their athletic prime, they remain blissfully unaware that they have many other dimensions to their personality, much like a diamond has many facets to it. As they become singularly focused on perfecting their role as an elite athlete, they’ve unwittingly allowed the other dimensions of their personality to atrophy. When their playing days are done, they often feel emotionally or intellectually arrested; they don’t feel whole, well-rounded, and complete as human beings. In turn, they often suffer from an identity issues or an identity crisis of some kind.
In addition to an athlete’s loss of identity, they often experience anxiety and depression after their professional career is over because they suffered from “Tunnel Vision Syndrome.” They spent far too much time thinking only of training, competition, and results. As they were competing, they were likely coddled and enabled to some degree by their handlers, so they didn’t have to acquire many of the basic life skills that their non-athlete counterparts did. Without these skills, they aren’t prepared for the “real world” and they therefore miss out on countless career opportunities. They’re no longer sure where to apply their focus, and they can no longer fill the void with the comfort that a rigorous training routine once gave them.
The third variable that may contribute to the anxiety and depression that professional athletes feel when their career is over may be due to biological factors. It’s well known that exercise boosts serotonin in our brains, and serotonin is a chemical in the brain that is responsible for regulating our moods. I imagine that when an athlete stops exercising, there may be a dramatic decrease in the serotonin levels in their brains, and they may consequently fall into a depression. In addition to a decrease in serotonin, athletes may also experience a decrease in the amount of adrenaline and endorphins that pump through their brains after they stop exercising as often as they did before.
Fortunately, there are ways for elite athletes to reduce the chances of suffering anxiety or depression after they’ve retired from sports. Emma Vickers, who is currently taking an MSC in psychological well-being and mental health, noted that first and foremost, elite athletes must reduce their exclusive identification with their sports role and expand their self-identity to other parts of their personality as well as other pursuits. I echo her sentiments. Like her, I believe that elite athletes must remember, for example that they are Mothers, Fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends as well. In addition, they must be open to acquiring new skills and reinvent themselves as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, life coaches, etc. When they pursue other careers with the same heart, soul, and dedication that they pursued their professional sports career, the chances are high that they will be very successful at whatever they choose to do.
As they discover interests and competencies for other activities that go beyond sports, they will realize that they are truly multifaceted and multidimensional beings. I remember watching the famous snowboarder, Shawn White, give an interview after he failed to metal at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. When he was asked what he planned on doing next with his life, he said that he was going to tour with his band and give a go at being a professional musician!! Shawn White recalled how depressed and aimless he felt after he won the Gold medal at the 2010 Olympic Games, so he decided soon afterwards to become proficient at playing the guitar. Apparently he’s a talented guitarist now, and he’s taking his band on the road to start an exciting new chapter in his life.
In addition to reducing their exclusive identification with their sports role and discovering new interests and competencies for awareness that extends beyond sports, I think it’s very important for former professional athletes to acquire stress management and time management skills. Taking yoga classes, learning the art of mindfulness, practicing meditation, or hiring a life coach or Marriage and Family therapist are all great ways to achieve these skills.
Furthermore, I encourage professional athletes to maintain and/or cultivate strong relationships with their coaches, family members, friends, and managers who are sincerely interested in helping them to make their own personal growth a priority in their lives. Even though elite athletes can be strong-willed and pride themselves on self-reliance, I strongly encourage them to allow others that they trust to support them in taking other avenues in life, keeping an open mind, and diversifying their sense of identity and expanding their sense of who they are and what they have to offer the world.
Finally, I would strongly encourage professional athletes to seek out the support and guidance of a Sports Psychologist to explore a wide range of adaptation techniques. A Sports Psychologist can help an athlete to let go of their need to maintain the public’s perception of what they were when they were performing in their athletic prime. A sports Psychologist can help them accept that they no longer have to be fitter, stronger, faster, and happier than everyone else; life doesn’t need to feel like a never-ending series of competitions. They can cast aside their warrior mask and let go of any shame or embarrassment they feel around feeling vulnerable, and they can instead learn to embrace their own humanity. They must come to realize that they are only human after all.