Candice Lingam-Willgoss (The Open University), David Lavallee (Abertay University) and Caroline Heaney (The Open University) recently wrote an OpenLearn article titled ‘Life after sport: giving back‘ exploring how retired athletes can use their transferable skills to ‘give back’ to society. The article supports the free Badged Open Course (BOC) The athlete’s journey: transitions through sport, which examines the psychological impact of the various transitions athletes face on their journey through sport.
As outlined in the article, retirement from sport can be a particularly challenging time for athletes which can have a negative impact on their wellbeing and mental health. Supporting athletes through career transitions and providing them with opportunities to ‘give back’ to society can help minimise the risk of negative responses and has benefits for both the athlete (e.g., self worth) and wider society.
“The OU have teamed up with Abertay University to produce a really valuable piece of work, first of all acknowledging that athletes go through many phases in their career. When you are on the outside looking in it is not always easy to see it. Retirement is hard for athletes who have dedicated often many years of their childhood and life to the sport so for them to understand how what they have learnt is transferable is really important. Often there is not much notice for an athlete approaching the end of their career and they don’t always have the time or inclination to prepare for it. But it can also be hard for athletes to recognise all the benefits they can bring to themselves and others using what they have learnt in sport. Starting the dialogue of what they can offer and how they can give back and benefit wider society it is a vital first step and is excellent to see such free learning available for athletes in helping them prepare for their life after sport.”
Something that he worked relentlessly to achieve remembering that, “I felt suddenly and gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years” (The First Four Minutes). He held the record for 46 days when John Landy, Bannister’s rival, ran a mile in 3mins, 57.9s in Finland on 21 June 1954. Indeed, breaking the four minute mile barrier was a giant sporting achievement particularly in light of the lack of training techniques, research and technology that currently exists today.
Athletic careers have a short shelf life with athletes ordinarily retiring before their mid-late thirties, but Sir Roger was able to put his great sporting achievements in perspective and set his sights on other meaningful purposes enabling him to live a full life enriched by family and medical breakthroughs.
End of life
The irony of Sir Roger Bannister being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a medical field he had worked a lifetime in, is not lost on me. My Grandfather was diagnosed with bowel cancer after his wife, Joan Bebbington, had dedicated so much of her life working for Mr Douglas Macmillan (now known as Macmillan cancer). Similarly, another sporting legend, Muhammad Ali, also developed the degenerative brain disease Parkinson’s and died in 2016 at the age of 74 years.
Sir Roger may have argued, as a neuroscientist, that the brain is the most critical organ but the loss of a loved one will be felt most critically in all our hearts.
The close of the 2016 Olympics bought with them the prospect of the retirement of some of the leading names in sport. Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps, for example, will all be notable absences from the 2020 Olympics, but how will these athletes cope with life after elite sport?
After the thrill of the Olympics many athletes experience a post-Olympic come down and some can even experience depression. It seems logical that after the four-year build-up and the excitement of the event, many athletes are left asking themselves the question of ‘what next’ once the games are over. When an athlete feels that they’ve achieved all that they can achieve in the Olympic environment the answer to that question might be retirement.
Retirement from sport is not an easy transition for any athlete to make. Elite athletes who have dedicated their whole life to their sport and tend to have a strong athletic identity, where being an athlete is a large part of their perception of their identity. To have that part of their identity taken away can be traumatic and lead to an identity crisis. Several high profile athletes have admitted to struggling with retirement and career termination (retirement) is considered to be a significant potential cause of depression and anxiety amongst athletes. Of course, retirement from sport doesn’t have to be a negative experience – some may view it as a ‘rebirth’ rather than a ‘death’. How an athlete copes with retirement can depend on a multitude of factors such as their general resilience, whether they have made plans for life after sport, whether they have fulfilled their potential, and whether their retirement is planned or forced (e.g. a career ending injury).
Let’s examine the case of three Olympic medallists who are reaching the end of their careers and are contemplating retirement in the not too distant future – Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps.
Bolt: The man with a plan
After he achieved the unprecedented ‘triple triple’ (Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016) Usain Bolt announced that Rio would be his last Olympics. This comes as no surprise as Bolt had identified this as his plan long before the Rio Olympics. Bolt is not retiring just yet and is planning to compete in the World Athletics Championships in London next year. This ‘phased retirement’ may help Bolt with the transition into retirement that many athletes struggle with. The difference between Bolt and some athletes who find retirement difficult is the fact that Usain has achieved everything he possibly could in his sport and is exiting on his terms (a ‘planned’ retirement) – for Usain there will be no unfinished business. This will give Usain a strong sense of control over his retirement. Despite this, retirement must still be a difficult decision for Bolt, particularly when he is viewed by many as the saviour of athletics – a pressure indeed and his absence from the sport will no doubt be felt when his retirement does come.
Ennis-Hill: A decision to be made
Whilst Bolt has a clear plan for his future Jessica Ennis-Hill, after achieving a heptathlon silver medal in Rio, following her Gold in 2012, is taking some time to contemplate her future. After her event she stated “It’s going to be a tough decision, I’m going to go away and think about it… it’s a big decision.” Like Bolt, Ennis-Hill has given a clear message that she will not be at the 2020 Olympics, but has yet to decide whether to draw a line under her career now or at a later date. A home World Championships for the reigning World Champion might be a temptation for a final swansong, but will it live up to a home Olympics? Preparing for a heptathlon competition is no easy task and having twice before won the World Championships Ennis-Hill may decide that the incentive just isn’t great enough. Maybe what Jess needs is a new challenge, such as joining the exclusive 7000-point heptathlon club. Taking her time to reflect on her future and not rushing into a decision in flurry of post-Olympics emotion is a sensible approach as effective retirement decision making can be a complex process. Whatever decision she makes Ennis-Hill has been a fantastic ambassador for her sport and as one of the few women in sport to become a household name her role as female athletic role model should not be underestimated.
Bolt, Ennis-Hill and Phelps have all left their mark in Olympic history and as they move towards new chapters in their lives they face new challenges which they will hopefully take on with the mental strength of an Olympian.