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“Every athlete dies twice” – Retirement from professional sport

“Every athlete dies twice, once when they retire from sport and once when they take their last breath.”

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about Andy Murray and his possible retirement from tennis due to a long-term injury. There have been a number of articles and videos referring to Murray as being ‘emotional’ and ‘in tears’, which is unsurprising when you come to realise that everything his whole lifestyle could be about to potentially change. Figures released from the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) found that 31% of retired professional rugby players claim to not feel in control of their lives within 2 years of retiring. There are also approximately 150 ex-professional footballers currently in prison, with 3/5 English Premier League players declaring bankruptcy within 5 years of their retirement (Believe-Perform). There are also a lot of high-profile athletes who have made their struggles with retirement public including Dame Kelly Holmes, Ian Thorpe, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff and Paul Gascoigne.

So why is retiring from sport such a psychological struggle for many athletes?

Within sport psychology, retirement from sport psychology is known as a critical moment and change is often rapid, traumatic, personal and involve high levels of anxiety and depression (Nesti & Littlewood, 2010). Another problem that athletes may face when retiring is the emotional loss that comes with the separation from significant others, such as coaches or teammates (Lavalee et al., 1997). All those things can occur when retirement is planned and can often be much worse when retirement is unexpected, such as being forced into retirement by an injury.

Precaps one of the most common issues when dealing with retirement is a loss of identity that may occur. Athlete identity is defined as ‘the degree of which an individual defines themselves in terms of athlete roles’ (Brewer et al., 1993) and this can heavily influence the psychological aspects of adapting to life away from sport. Those with a stronger athlete identity tend to suffer the most (Lavalee et al., 1997) and often suffer a profound sense of loss in their lives, with a similar psychological status to the loss of a loved one.

Despite this, many athletes do in fact enjoy their retirement and transfer with ease: cycling great Victoria Pendleton famously expressed her relief at retirement after the 2012 Olympic Games. There are a number of strategies that athletes can use to reduce the risk of negative psychological connotations after retirement. Firstly, athletes can expand their self-identity to other pursuits, so they don’t see themselves as an athlete and only an athlete and develop interests into other activities outside of competing (such as coaching or mentoring). Athletes can also develop stress and coping techniques and use their social support network to help with their personal growth. Finally, consulting with a sport psychologist could be useful for athletes to develop and discover further coping techniques.