In recent months, the challenges facing athletes during transition have become mainstream news.
Leading papers seem to have weekly articles on the topic and in Australia, this week and next, the SBS Insight program starts a two part series on ‘Life After Sport’, followed up by ABC’s Four Corners special on Depression in Athletes to be aired on April 24th.
As active participants in this theatre, the public seems to be captivated by this classic Hero’s journey, the path we watch our sporting idols walk.
We watch as these young men and women innocently answer sport’s call to adventure, only to cross the threshold into the supernatural world of sporting Gods and face the challenges and enemies equal to any of Ovid’s imaginations.
And then comes the crisis – the ‘death’ as many have referred to it – the ultimate ordeal an athlete faces; retirement. And in this Abyss, we currently bury our attention, transfixed by the Hero’s fall from grace.
But what of the transformation, of the atonement and the re-birth? Who is helping these athletes to leave the supernatural world of sport and cross the line back into the ordinary world? And, more importantly, how exactly is this done?
What treasure or lessons do our Heroes need to grasp to set them on their path to resurrection?
To date, all of the media attention has been focusing on the problems, the trials and tests athletes can go through; mental health concerns, financial troubles and bankruptcy, addictions and high-risk behaviour, marriage and relationship break-ups.
Whilst this increase in awareness is a necessary first step in finding a solution, until we provide athletes with a holistic program and plan to overcome these challenges, all of this talk risks inflating the problem rather than alleviating it. For many athletes, these are now the perceived realities of transition, and unless we can change athletes’ thinking around this, it is likely that highlighting the problems only serve to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, to trap athletes in their innermost cave.
Since we started working with athletes over two years ago, we have seen a marked change in their language and fears. Initially, athletes would come to us using phrases like, “I’m worried about my future because I have no idea what I want to do.” Now we are hearing, “I don’t want to end up depressed.”
In their sporting career, athletes were supported in meeting each new challenge with detailed plans, coaching support, best-practice research and step-by-step programs. It is time that the transition challenge was accepted by the sports community as any other athlete scenario and tackled with the same methodical approach.
The Turning Point
In February this year, I was privileged to speak at the Crossing The Line summit on Athlete Welfare.
The athlete transition panel I was to speak on followed an outstanding group of ex-Olympians and professional athletes talking about what it means to be a male athlete. As many of you may know, this panel was missing one speaker, Dan Vickerman, who had taken his own life one week earlier.
Following a minute’s silence for Dan, the summit was an amazing outpouring of experiences, personal journeys and discussion on best practice in specific areas of transition and athlete welfare. It was a coming together of like-minded people, retired athletes and experts, with the overwhelming resolution that more had to be done.
At the conclusion of the event, as I embraced Crossing the Line Founder Gearoid Towey in a congratulatory man hug after what had been an emotional week, despite the resounding success of the event, we both acknowledged the lack of athletes in the room, the lack of coaches and lack of a plan to make a difference.
That was the tipping point, the moment when we realised that the best of intentions are mere nothings without a plan.
The start of the solution
The realisation we had was that neither The Final Whistle nor Crossing the Line nor any other individual sport was going to solve this by themselves.
I say the start of the solution because we are aware of the lessons we will no doubt learn on the way, of the many people who will contribute to developing and trialling this hypothesis, of the sporting organisations, athletes and partners who will work together to make it work.
What we have though, is the foundation of a best-practice model; 5 pillars on which athletes can create practical plans to transition to life after sport.
At the Crossing the Line Summit, addictions specialist and counsellor Chris Mordue highlighted the fact that transition does not necessarily equal mental health issues – the transition is primarily a high-stress environment, and therefore one that can be managed (Hear Chris speak on Mental Health in Sport).
Therefore, having a strategy in place for each of the following key areas can significantly decrease the stress of any transition experience and increase the likelihood of a successful step into life after sport and back to the ‘ordinary world’.
The 5 Pillars of Successful Transition
The detraining effects of transition are significant. The changes in the body are both physical and chemical, affecting diet, and often appearance and mood. This can be complicated by ongoing injury management and any associated symptoms with a change in one’s work environment (e.g. On-field to an office work setting).
As such, these three key areas require a plan:
- An awareness of calorie intake and usage pre-retirement and post-retirement, with an appropriate diet plan to monitor;
- An awareness of hormone production associated with your sporting pursuits, with a detraining plan to replicate or gradually decrease your body’s reliance on these through exercise alone;
- An injury assessment and management plan, as well as an understanding of the impact that different working environments will have on your body and an exercise program to adjust to these demands.
For more information follow Patrick Wright’s series on Athlete Physical Transition at The Final Whistle.
Regardless of athletes’ salaries, the adjustment here will be immediate.
For the big earners it can mean a drop from six or seven figure salaries, whilst for other elite program athletes, it may just mean paying for your own gym and medical expenses, more of your own meals, clothes, and travel. It is relative, though, as it is the change in financial habits that requires attention.
This requires athletes to know:
- Their likely post-sport salary;
- The costs of those products or services no longer provided by their sport;
- An awareness of any re-training requirements and their expense (e.g. Formal education or short courses);
- An awareness of general life expenses frequently experienced in that stage of life (mortgages, insurances, kids education etc).
The earlier athletes have an awareness of these scenarios, the better they can plan during their sporting career for this financial adjustment.
The creation of a cash buffer to support an athlete during the transition for the first 3 – 6months post-retirement is advised but understandably not possible in all situations.
Note: Many athletes are now using their brand and profiles to start businesses or invest in existing ventures. Whilst there are many upsides to this, with 9 out of 10 small business failing in their first 5 years, planning and education here is vital (Learn more from Athlete Entrepreneurs).
For even further reading, see what Morgan Stanley is doing with Athletes.
I have met very few athletes who didn’t love what they were doing – so how do athletes find the next great career passion in their lives? It’s important for athletes to realise they will be a non-athlete much longer than they’ll be an athlete.
With work taking up such a large part of our lives, and post-sporting careers lasting up to 5 times longer than sporting careers, getting this right goes a long way to creating an identity to support self-worth, which will inevitably lead to financial worth.
There are four main questions an athlete needs to be able to answer here:
- Who am I outside of Sport?
- What options do I have that interest me?
- Why do those options suit or not suit me?
- How do I go about researching them, creating them and capitalising on the opportunities?
Like financial planning, all of these can be developed during an athletic career, a process that needs to extend beyond education alone to include researching careers through networking and work experience, a process of trial and error that can be done alongside high-performance sporting goals.
For assistance, check out The Final Whistle online courses on Career Direction and Employability skills for athletes.
4. Head Space
Modern athletes are arguably the most physically aware individuals the world has seen, tested and measured regularly on every aspect of their physical health. Yet, when it comes to mental health, they can be a long way behind.
From a young age, many athletes are insulated from the many trials and lessons learned in normal maturation; this allows an accelerated development in their sporting pursuits, however, can result in a slower rate of maturation in other mental and social skills, particularly self-awareness.
On top of this, physical exercise is one of the best remedies for anxiety and depression, so when physical activity is your livelihood, it can mask early indications of mental health.
This can lead to a dangerous combination where we have athletes who are not naturally self-aware individuals, living in a bubble which provides mental health support whilst they are in that environment. When things are good – no worries, but when things go bad or an individual is forced to leave that space, the contrast can seem extreme.
As mentioned before, transition does not mean inevitable mental health issues for athletes, however, it is a high-stress environment, and by nature of this, may well exacerbate existing conditions.
As such, the following recommendations could form the basis of a Mental health plan for athletes during and after their sporting careers;
- Self-awareness programs and personal development plans whilst competing;
- Regular mental health checks performed by an independent organisation to ensure privacy for the athletes;
- Access to counselling and coaching services both during and after their career;
- Peer-to-peer mentoring during the transition period (See Athlete Voices; Crossing The Line).
When sports was something done after school and outside of work hours, life taught many of these skills to our young athletes.
With sport now life for many individuals and from younger and younger ages, the duty of care falls on those associations demanding these commitments of our young and talented athletes.
In the absence of sporting organisations providing these programs, there are many personal development books and programs that athletes can start educating themselves with.
For many experts in athlete transition the debate often returns to focus on the importance of identity; and with identity being such a truly personal creation, the relationship an athlete has with themselves and those they love is vital.
Athletes are trained to sacrifice everything to become champions, and in this way often adopt the values of the sporting dreams they have, of their coaches, their teams or their sporting idols. They do this to belong, to feel they are good enough and to be the best.
The challenge is that in creating the identity of a champion, they can often forget to create an identity for themselves and those they love. This serves them whilst they are still competing and will equip them with many amazing traits for life, but if it is all they have, it fails them when sport is gone.
Relationship break-ups are common amongst retired athletes, often because the transition is just as hard on partners as it is on the person competing. Often they have supported you for years, sacrificed some of their own dreams and desires to ensure your success, and at the exact time that they feel they might receive some reprieve or even some reciprocated support – the athlete seems to require more help than ever.
This stress in heightened by the change going on in all of the previously-mentioned pillars (Physical, Financial, Career, Head Space), but it can be easy for parties to let resentment slip into their lives – the athlete resenting that fact that their partner doesn’t understand what they are going through, and the partner resenting the athlete because the perceived selfishness of their sporting career has now flowed over into transition and their day-to-day lives.
How can this be prevented;
- Have a strategy and work on the first four pillars: The peace of mind, confidence, and enjoyment you’ll discover from having those parts of your transition in place will give you the time and energy to be grateful to yourself and your loved ones for their support during your sporting career;
- Work on yourself first: As the Airline safety demonstration prescribes, ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ – you can’t help anyone if you’re drowning yourself – you will only pull them down with you. Self-awareness programs are a start, but educate yourself in any way you can, including reading and listening to audiobooks or podcasts. A good place to start is The 5 Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman.
- If needed, seek relationship counselling: this can be done before and during transition, so as to proactively work towards solutions before problems get too large to solve.
In the Hero’s journey, the return home to the ordinary world is a journey of atonement, often for pride or greed or some other mortal sin which served as the Hero’s downfall.
However, for our Heroes, whether they reach the level of sporting Gods or are simply just our brothers and sisters, children or friends, the only sin they seek atonement for is believing they could be the best.
And if we as a sporting community can help them re-birth themselves, to transition to life after sport, this is the elixir they return with.
They can carry the belief that they can be the best throughout the rest of their travels, in whatever fields they journey through, and in doing so not only continue to contribute to their own lives and those that they love, but also to ours, because today we need Heroes more than ever.