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How to deal with retirement as an athlete

How to deal with retirement as an athlete

6 min read
  • Sport psychology

Retirement is something every athlete has to go through at some point. Whether it’s a slow transition that you don’t really notice or a sudden stop due to injury or being without a contract, there are as many retirement stories as there are retired athletes.

More importantly, it may be something out of your control, or something you don’t want to do. Either way, leaving the world you’ve known most of your life is difficult.

So, we have looked at the research – here are some strategies to help you prepare and cope with retiring from elite sport.

What can you do before retiring from elite sport?

“What if” planning

“What if” planning is a great way to prepare for situations that you might have fears about. It encourages you to think about what is worrying you, and then to plan what to do if that scenario does happen.

We like using this strategy with our athletes, because it helps them to prepare and really think about how they can help themselves. It is also a good way to ensure you acknowledge the situation you are in, rather than pretend it’s not happening.

To put this technique into practice, you should write down potential situations that might happen. Secondly, write down what worries you have about these situations and how they would make you feel. Last of all, create an “If, Then” plan for each scenario. You can do this alone, but it may be beneficial to do it with people you trust and who support you.

And it won’t help just your retirement: research has actually found that athletes who plan their retirement well in advance are more likely to enjoy success in their playing careers! This is because the athletes who engage in planning for the future feel less stressed and are better able focus on their sporting performance.

Write a letter to yourself

Another nice strategy that we like to use with both younger and older athletes to help them consider the challenges ahead and plan for them is to get them to write a letter of advice to their future selves. If you feel as though you’re getting near the end of your career, this will help you prepare and acknowledge your situation.

Some things to include in that letter include:

  • Congratulating yourself for a great career
  • Some of the things you are most proud of
  • Some advice for yourself
  • How can you bounce back? What do you want to focus on now?
  • Who is there to help you?

When done properly, this can be a nice initial resource to go to for comfort and guidance.

Find your strengths

As your career tapers out, if your training has reduced or you think it’s coming near the end, it is important to start finding something else that will become more prominent in your life, whether that’s hobbies or professional pursuits. Ask yourself: what are you interested in outside of sport? If you can’t think of anything, this is definitely something to start focusing on.

Something beneficial to do is to spend time thinking about what you’re good at and how this can transfer to other things. Recognising your strengths will help you to feel better in a tough situation.

Another thing to think about is: what have you learnt in sport that will help you in life and with other careers? For example, this can be dealing with mistakes, leadership skills or teamwork.

Create lists, mind maps, presentations or even posters. You can do this alone, but it may help to sit and do this with someone close to you, who may have a more objective view of your strengths and interests. You may discover that what you’re scared to lose can be found in other places!

How to deal with retirement from elite sport

Use the team around you

Having the right team around you is important at the best of times. During more difficult times like retirement, being able to lean on people you can trust and who will help you is vital.

This includes your loved ones, of course. However, you may feel as though you’re losing your teammates or coaches, but they are still people you can go to. Talk to those friends and staff members who care about your sporting success as well as your personal growth. They may be able to offer you support or suggestions that you hadn’t thought of.

You could also consult with a sport psychologist to help explore further avenues and to help you adapt to this change.

Loss of identity and finding your purpose

Each person’s identity contains numerous dimensions, but it is possible for one to be particularly dominant or preferred. For athletes, your athletic identity is described as the degree to which you identify with the role of an athlete and look to others for acknowledgement of that role.

Due to dedicating so much of your life and time to sport, you may tend to identify mainly with this role, and therefore struggle with identity issues after retiring. Olympic rower Gearoid Towey talked about this: “That affected me way more than I ever imagined it would. I felt destabilised for the first time in my life, a little bit directionless. I realised that finding something else as satisfying as rowing was going to be a longer process than I imagined.”

To help athletes with this, we suggest expanding your self-identity to other pursuits. This is why thinking about what your other interests are and strengths are before you retire can be beneficial. And if you don’t have other hobbies or interests yet, change your mindset to make it an exciting process of trying new things and finding something else to put your focus onto. This could be a new sport, or even the same sport but for fun with your friends, or focusing on doing things for your career.

Be aware of your body

Another important consideration in athletic retirement is body image. It’s easy to forget about, but it can actually have a significant impact on you.

Athletes’ self-worth is often built up from their perceived competence in the physical domain. But it is inevitable when you retire that you will lose some fitness, which can give you a negative perception of your body – and especially if you retired because of that loss of competence in the first place. Because you’ve trained so hard for so long, this sudden change to less or no training and different eating habits can cause a change in your body.

In order to ensure this doesn’t become stressful or upsetting, try and educate yourself on changes that can happen after you retire. They may not happen, but preparing for them will allow you to deal with future problems which might occur.

Final thoughts

Retiring from the sport you love can be hard. It’s important to remember that it’s okay to take the time to miss it and let those emotions out. Retirement is even tougher to deal with as a young adult or even teenager, when your life isn’t even halfway done. This is confusing and a really hard thing to deal with, especially when you’ve dedicated your whole life into one thing and then it’s no longer there.

You may be feeling all sorts of different things, especially if it was out of your control, so processing it and letting these emotions come out can be beneficial. However, it is important to not stay there too long. Move on and find new things that interest you. And with the right mindset, what will seem painful at first will quickly become exciting.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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