This is the 2nd in a series of articles on the physical aspects of athlete career transition – see here for the original article titled 4 Considerations of Athlete Physical Transition from sport.
When we think of athletes, we immediately think of extremely healthy, strong, athletic, mobile and powerful individuals. Whilst a lot has been said about the emotional and career transitions on life after sport, surprisingly, very little has been researched or even said around the physical impacts of athlete retirement.
During their careers, through the support of their strength and conditioning coaches, athletes are provided with in-depth, specific and individualised programs, which help to manage performance, manage injury and even prevent injury.
While these S&C coaches undoubtedly push their athletes hard, instilling discipline and commitment, towards achieving that end performance goal, whether that be as part of a team or individual athletes, it is ultimately all wrapped up in the athlete’s identity; they are motivated to train hard and do what is necessary in training, knowing that it will help them win that race, match or tournament.
But what happens in retirement when the S&C coaches and other support structures are removed?
In retirement, invariably this expertise, support and source of motivation and hence discipline ceases to exist.
Once an athlete ceases training, it can take as little as 2-4 weeks for losses in exercise performance to start. Athletes need to consider the adaptations that their body will go through and how to manage these effectively. It is a very similar process and concept to sustainable and lasting weight loss. There is no quick fix. Going from a high-intense environment to little or no activity will be detrimental to athlete’s health in the short, medium and long term. A professional athlete’s body has been so highly tuned and adapted, that in retirement there will inevitably be a period of re-adaption, with a slowdown in their metabolic rate, which should look to be controlled to avoid complications and health issues down the track. This is certainly an area that needs to be addressed as research has shown that athletes, unsurprisingly, become less active after competitive sport participation, with a substantial portion inactive.
But whose responsibility is it? Should sporting organisations provide retirement training plans to help with physical adaptations? Or should it be the sole responsibility of the athlete themselves? What if an athlete suffered a career-ending injury whilst employed and competing for that sporting organisation? In my opinion, it should be a combination of both. Responsibility certainly needs to come from the athlete themselves, but at the same time the sporting organisation should have a duty of care to their athletes. Given the extensive and expert resources a lot of sporting organisations have around physical activity, surely it is not too much for them to provide some form of support to an athlete who has competed and performed for them.
Smaller, day-to-day implications must also be considered. The athlete’s access to facilities will change. They may, perhaps for the first time in their life, have to pay their own way. That includes gym memberships, personal trainers and any other memberships or subscriptions required to engage in their activity of choice. And the quality and maintenance of the more commercial facilities they use may not be anywhere near that of what was available to them as part of the organisation they belonged to. Training facilities have become a big source of pride for a lot of sporting organisations, appearing at times to be always trying to one up or outdo their rivals. Facilities of clubs like Barcelona FC, the New England Patriots, the big sports Colleges in the US and countless others, have almost become the stuff of legend. Even high schools are getting in on the act these days with fully-fledged S&C programs, with staggering, astronomical amounts of money being spent.
Injuries too, will undoubtedly play a large role in athletes’ retirement. The effects of injuries don’t magically disappear in retirement. The main difference is that now the athletes do not have specialist coaches and staff helping to manage these injuries, to provide guidance and support on how best to manage their bodies around the injuries they have. Not to mention the medical support and data they no longer have access to.
As a follow up to their episode the other night, After The Game, 4 Corners released a video, where each of the athletes who had featured in the program, detailed their extensive and serious list of injuries.
Lauren Jackson spoke of how she became reliant on prescription medications to simply be able to sleep at night, with her inability to sleep due to extreme pain from past injuries (we will explore this topic in the next article in this series, namely dealing with medical support in retirement).
Implications in retirement
Additional worrying statistics, again out of the US, show that former collegiate athletes have a decreased health-related quality of life, compared with non-athletes which in part may be attributed to lingering injuries which makes the ability to stay active more difficult. The bodily changes as a consequence of this inactivity have their own link to mental health, with negative associations to self-esteem and physical self-worth. The research also highlighted that cardiovascular disease risk is more strongly related to current physical activity than a history of sport participation and that former elite athletes may be more susceptible to inactivity-related increases in risks for certain types of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
I may refer mainly to statistics out of the US and former collegiate athletes, however this is not because of any particular bias, but because the information and statistical data simply does not exist anywhere else… Evidence that this is an area of athlete transition that has been neglected.
Mental and emotional health has quite rightly been the focus of a lot of the airtime in this space. However, given that there is well documented research and evidence that engaging in regular physical activity is extremely beneficial for mental health and can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, surely, even on this alone, physical activity in transition is an area that needs greater and urgent attention.
Athlete Identity vs Exercise Identity
The ability for an athlete to apply themselves to training, to improving themselves physically to give themselves every chance of being successful in their athletic endeavours, is a large part of what sets them apart from the general population. It helps them to develop those transferable skills we so often mention; skills such as resilience, commitment, teamwork and the ability to perform under pressure. It also contributes significantly to their identity. The reason they are training in the first place, is because they are trying to achieve a goal from competing. Their motivation is clear. But take away that athletic identity and you also take away their exercise identity. The reason they are training in the first place. The motivation has become not so clear. In fact, research has shown the link between athlete identity and physical activity to be extremely strong.
The physical implications in athletic retirement are therefore not simply as straight forward as a decrease in levels of physical activity. Like most things in life, before undertaking a particular task, there usually needs to be a ‘why’. Why am I doing this? If an athlete is no longer feeling motivated to train, due to a lack of athletic identity and reason to train, their can be serious physical health effect. A recent study out of the US, found that 44% of former NCAA athletes who were underweight or normal during their final year of competition, were now overweight or obese.
Athlete identity is not a new concept in athlete transition, it has been mentioned many times previously, whether that be in relation to careers, relationships of mental health, so again, physical aspects of transition appear to be no different.
Onward and Upwards
So how do we help develop a new exercise identity, separate to athlete identity? The NCAA has in recent years launched a program called Moving On!, which specifically looks at helping “student-athletes transition from a sport-specific identity (e.g., I am a basketball player) to a broader, active-based identity (e.g., I am a physically active person) and to strengthen self-determined motivation for physical activity by enhancing competence in a wider range of activities, promoting choice of activities, and fostering a connection with peers through physical activity participation.” I won’t going into the finer details of what the program actually involves, but its aim is to start working with athletes whilst they are still at college and not waiting until after they have left. So far the feedback has been very positive.
Whilst by no means does it appear to be the perfect program, it certainly seems like a step in the right direction.
As already alluded to, the elite resources, knowledge and expertise in this area that sporting organisations have could be put to very good use in helping have physical transition plans in place. In saying that, a lot more research is needed and it will need to be approached as a case-by-case basis from an individual perspective right through to an organisational one.
Like in all areas of athlete transition however, it should not just be the responsibility of the sporting bodies and organisation; there has to be accountability from the individual athletes themselves, to understand the consequences of reduced physical activity in retirement.
I, of course, don’t know the ins and outs of every sporting organisation, so there may be systems in place, whether informally or formally. I have heard of ex-colleagues and teammates getting together at their old club’s gym, to train together again, to be part of that team environment again and to reconnect, with the added benefit of engaging in physical activity. Even this can have huge benefits across a number of different areas and may be more commonplace than I realise. But maybe it is time to start highlighting this type of thing a bit more, so that those ex-athletes who aren’t aware, become so. It even has the potential to influence athletes from different sports or different organisations.
Yet, as the conversation around mental and emotional wellbeing in retirement certainly gathers pace, the importance of physical activity in this, as well as its role in maintaining long term physical health, should be part of the conversation.
The aim of Moving On!, I think, sums it up well. “The aim is to prevent dramatic declines in physical activity at the end of an athletic career, which has important identity, self-worth, and health-related consequences.”
Strength and conditioning, or even more simply than that, physical activity and fitness, is something that can be taken for granted as an athlete, but is wrapped up in their identity as an athlete. The challenges faced in retirement are arguably as great as any other area but is one that appears to have been neglected.
Keep an eye out for the next article in this series, dealing with medical support and how this changes in retirement.