Tuesday, 22 April 2014

It is said sport stars die twice, the first time at retirement

The announcement last week that Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, was coming out of retirement and aiming to compete in the 2016 Olympics timed quite well with me finishing the autobiography This is Me,  Ian Thorpe’s journey out of retirement in his quest to qualify for the London Olympics, sadly unable to fulfil his dreams. 

I’ve heard the phrase that athletes come out of retirement an average of 1.6 times. I have probably contributed considerably to that statistic, retiring from swimming in 2006, retiring from pentathlon in 2010, retiring again from swimming in 2012 only to take up triathlon. Although I have never competed at the intense international level of Michael Phelps or Ian Thorpe, perhaps there are some similarities in the reasons why athletes come out of retirement whether they are amateur or professional. 

Other top names who have made a return to international sport after making the decision to end their career include Michael Schumacher, Ricky Hatton, Andrew Flintoff and James Cracknell.  So why do so many athletes struggle with retirement and make a return to sport?

Loss of identity - Athletes identify themselves by what they do - take that away and it’s like a major piece of them missing.

Sugar Ray Leonard said that his inability to separate the boxer from the man became all consuming, forcing him to the depths of depression and leading him to make repeated comebacks.

Biological Factors - Athletes who have retired fail to experience the endorphin highs since they no longer complete. They used to have regular doses of serotonin and suddenly that has stopped.  Athletes such as James Cracknell who don’t make a comeback in their former sport, chase adrenalin highs in other sports.

Tunnel Vision - An athlete’s regimented life leaves an athlete at loss with retirement bringing a void where the comfort of training routine once was.  

So how can athletes manage this transition?

There are two main differences between those who successfully manage their retirement and those who don’t. The reason why an athlete retires is important; if they are forced to retire through injury or de-selection the negativity can lead to a period of denial, isolation, anger and depression. The focus is a loss of way of life and not the beginning of a new one, a ‘grieving process’. The Professional Players Federation have found that 16% of the 1200 ex-footballers, rugby union and league players, jockeys and crickets interviewed experienced depression or feelings of despair.  

Those athletes who are better prepared and have plans in place of their retirement with a strong support group have a better acceptance for their decision and therefore manage the transition much more successfully. So how can athletes do this?
  • Reduce the athlete’s exclusive identification with their sporting role and get involved in other areas of interest outside of their sporting career.
  • Discover other interests or careers beyond their sporting career and begin to prepare for their retirement. Coaches should be encouraged to support their athletes skills outside of their sport
  • Begin to take control of their daily routine
  • Develop a strong support network of family and friends who can help support you through your retirement.
This is Me is a good example of some of the challenges athletes face in coming out of retirement. Ian Thorpe retired from swimming at the age of 24 after reaching his goals and achieving more than he could have dreamed of in the sport. The media was cited as being one of the main reasons why he quit the sport with the athlete fed up of the paparazzi that surrounded him. However, he loved the sport and ending his career created a void in his life. He missed the training, the competition and ‘swimming’ itself and  four years later, at the age of 28, he decided to return to the sport and attempt to make the London Olympics. 

The book goes on to describe the motivation for his return, how he managed his comeback and the setbacks and challenges he had to face along the way; the media, doping conspiracies and speculations against his sexuality and even though feedback from performances in training indicated he was on track, his performances in the Australian Olympic Trials were unable to secure him a placed at the 2012 Olympic Games. 

If he had made the decision earlier, given himself more than 18 months to prepare, would he have made the team?

No comments:

Post a comment