Athletes are trained to push through pain, ignore hardships and endure sacrifices – it’s the price of victory.
As an athlete, I was taught it, and as a coach, I preached it.
The trade-off is the shared experience with other athletes, teammates or fellow competitors, coaches and supporters. We strive together and are united in the camaraderie it creates.
We are introduced to it slowly through our junior years, acclimatised to the pressure, and supported by our passion for our sport. But what happens when the stadium lights are turned off on our careers and when the fans find someone new to cheer for? Does our training help or hinder us in preparation for life after sport?
Over the past 2 years we have spoken to dozens of recently retired or retiring athletes and in the comfort of our quiet conversations, away from the perceived judgement of the real world, there are 5 themes in all transitions that athletes tell us about that they tend not to admit to anyone else:
- It is tough
- It takes time
- It is expensive
- It requires planning
- It’s made easier by talking about it
For many athletes who have been the best in their chosen field, it is hard to admit this to anyone, as our egos want to protect themselves from the reality that things have changed, that we have a long way to get back to the top in our new adventures.
What makes it more difficult is that we don’t feel we can talk to our new peers or colleagues because they aren’t experiencing it and think athletes have lived the blessed life. We can’t talk to our friends who are still playing because they are still in the bubble.
For all athletes, it’s not a matter of ‘If’ but ‘When’, so if you believe as we do that knowledge is the precursor to experience, then through this article, we will help you identify the ‘What’ so you can plan the ‘How’.
Life After Sport is Tough
If making it to the top of sport is tough, then transitioning to a successful life after sport is equally so.
For most elite athletes, our passion for our sport and the confidence we gained from our abilities developed naturally. We didn’t have to question it, we just knew that we loved our chosen sport and our confidence in it had been built over many years by many small victories and compliments.
Life after sport can be the opposite.
Athletes have to consciously question what they are interested in, where their strengths lie and create their own confidence in a hostile environment where they are often working their way from the bottom up.
They have to rebuild or renovate their identity and self-worth to adapt to their new challenges and environments…this is tough, really tough!
The great news for elite athletes is ‘we eat tough for breakfast’, but the trick is to realise what is ahead of you. Shane Webcke, one of Australia’s most famous rugby league players, said it so simply, “If someone had just told me it was going to be tough for a while, I could have prepared for it!”
2. The transition takes time
In our experience, a successful transition will take between 2 to 3 years; an unsuccessful one can last a lifetime!
This may seem like a long time, but if you compare it to the time it takes to transition from a young aspiring athlete to an elite level competitor – usually 5 to 10 years – it is very manageable. The trick is knowing your destination; what sort of life are you aspiring to.
The reason it takes so long is because you are adapting to massive changes in your life;
For most people, a significant change in one of these areas would take time to adjust to, whereas athletes are often facing changes in every area all at once.
Prioritising which 1 to 2 areas are most important to you can speed up the transition process and help athletes avoid that overwhelming feeling, and all can be made easier by planning and taking action during an athlete’s sporting career.
3. The transition is expensive
For some athletes who don’t earn much from their sport, this might seem absurd, whilst for the big-earners, it should be obvious.
However, for all athletes, there are costs involved with stepping away from sport which may surprise you, and include;
- Money formerly earned from sport – obvious
- Paying for your own physical and medical well-being
- Clothing – particularly for work situations
- Costs associated with that general age in life: e.g children, mortgages etc
- Upskilling yourself and other education
The cost of lost earnings is obvious, but can be significant for athletes in popular sports, with up to a 75 to 80% reduction in income for most athletes, and even higher for the absolute superstars.
Compound this with paying for your own gym memberships, doctors and physio bills (which can be ongoing depending how your body has held up), and the reality that most of your meals are no longer covered, and it all starts to add up. Your sport and sponsors no longer give you clothes and shoes, and in most jobs you can’t just wear the same outfit to work every day, so you’ll need to buy some threads.
For most athletes, transition happens between the ages of 25 and 35, the time that many people look to start families, purchase properties and make serious life decisions. Mortgages and children can quickly eat up a large portion of your budget, and without proper planning can add serious stress to most transition experiences.
At the same time as all of this is happening, many athletes will be required to upskill or retrain themselves to enhance their opportunities in the ‘real world’.
Generally speaking, short courses can cost between $400 and $2000, certificates and diplomas up to $25,000, and University qualifications such as an MBA can cost up to $120,000.
Many of these are subsidised for elite athletes during their sporting careers either through scholarships or career education programs, but a failure to take advantage of these OR correctly aligning them to what you want to do, means the cost can be deferred to you if you take this for granted.
Which leads us to planning…
4. Life after sport takes planning
Talking to Liz Ellis, Australia’s famous Netball captain and freely communicated planning freak, you get a great insight to the level of planning required for a successful transition.
Liz had the knowledge of seeing her husband ruled out of a rugby career before her retirement, and also a near career-ending injury to scare her into action, but the steps she took to research and prepare for retirement gave her one of the smoothest and most enjoyable transitions of anyone we have spoken to.
- Started her own business alongside her career that supported her financially.
- Researched the physical effects of de-training and the impact this had on hormone production and their impacts on mood, and created a training plan to manage this.
- Wrote a list of everywhere she had ever wanted to holiday but hadn’t because of sport, and booked them throughout the first year of transition
- Gave herself time to just be herself and switch off after finishing netball.
All of this planning gave Liz the peace of mind to relax, confident in the knowledge that her future was safe, well-organised and enjoyable. She had created it for herself and felt in control rather than in freefall.
The lesson to all athletes is that all of this can be prepared whilst you are still competing.
Prior to starting her own business, Liz had completed a Law degree alongside her netball, and she felt that all of these parallel interests and skills not only prepared her for retirement but aided her on-field performance rather than detracting from it.
Sport can be a cruel travel companion at times and put many unexpected bumps in our road, so the ability to plan your life outside of sport not only prepares you for transition, it also puts you in the driver’s seat regardless of what life throws at you.
5. It’s made easier talking about it
By keeping the challenges of transition to ourselves and failing to admit they are real, many athletes imprison themselves in their own thoughts.
We often hear athletes say that they thought they were the only ones struggling and, because of that, they thought something was wrong with them. Trained in a world where injury is a form of weakness, our past can torment our thinking and make it hard to ask for help.
This can be exacerbated by what we witness as the greatest source of anger for many athletes in retirement: a feeling of betrayal. This is borne out of the perception that the sport that asked for their hearts, their bodies and their minds for 15 years of their lives, now can’t even find the time to call them to ask, “Are you OK?”
For any athlete experiencing these feelings, they are completely normal and are the observations that we have heard over and over again talking to athletes going through this process, and so you are not alone.
The solution? Talk to past athletes, coaches, managers. Talk to people who have walked in your shoes and gone through the same challenges.
Even better, talk to them in the fields you are now working in or want to work. Find mentors in work, mentors in life and even just mentors in transition. This can be done ahead of retirement through networking and work experience; by building an identity alongside of sport.
Many of these people will explain how to re-frame these experiences into strengths in your new adventures.
But it's not all doom and gloom...
For most of us, anxiety about any future event is simply a fear of the unknown. For athletes, this is amplified by a comparison to their known past; the fact that they were outstanding at something in their life.
Refusing to take action and admit the reality of your future is just procrastination, a way of protecting yourself and living in the past.
Learning from the experiences of other athletes, I hope this knowledge can give you the confidence to step forward and experience a future in which you can again be outstanding in your chosen field.