Life After Professional Sport


‘Who am I if I am not a professional athlete?’

Personal Mastery Coach Jeff Jackson explores the growing concern around retirement and the challenge of adjusting to life after a career in Professional Sport

The difficulties many former athletes experience when they retire from their sport is well documented and is being increasingly highlighted in the media.  Andrew Flintoff, Ricky Hatton, Paul Gascoigne and Dame Kelly Holmes have all openly struggled with depression brought about by the end of their sporting career.   Retirement triggers big changes in their personal, social and professional lives which in turn impacts individuals cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally (Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994). The social and professional changes induced by retirement from sport can cause some athletes considerable distress (Allison & Meyer, 1988; Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). Retired athletes often express a feeling of emptiness in their lives; they have trouble adjusting to the ‘real world’ and commonly struggle with a ‘loss of identity’.

Recently, former professional footballer Jason McAteer revealed that he had suffered badly with depression following his retirement from football and at one stage had thought about taking his own life. Many ex professional footballers struggle with some form of addiction and a lot get into financial difficulties.  Research by XPro, a charity for ex-players claims three out of five English Premier League players declare bankruptcy within five years of retiring.

Rugby Union only went professional in 1997 so the players now retiring have only ever been full time professional sportsmen, unlike their predecessors who also had jobs outside of sport.  According to figures released by Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) 31% of retired rugby players claim not to be in control of their lives within 2 years of retiring.

Former England rugby player Lewis Moody played for 17 years before injury forced him to end his career early.

"I spent a year convincing myself I didn't miss playing, I filled my time with my family and going on holiday but then you come back and watch a game on TV and you suddenly realise you're shouting and getting very grumpy. It was hard to wake up to the realisation you wouldn't have a set routine. It was so structured and then all of a sudden it was like having a guillotine cut off part of your body. The next day you wake up and go 'what happens now?  I craved competition, I missed the camaraderie between the players and most of all I missed the structure. I didn't realise until a long time after that I was in denial, it was like a mourning process."

Moody’s comparison with ‘mourning’ is of course very apt.  It is often said that ‘Sports Stars die twice’ and what we really need to recognise here is that we are fundamentally dealing with a profound sense of ‘loss’.

·         Loss of identity, self-esteem and status

·         Loss of purpose, direction and meaning

·         Loss of camaraderie and support

·         Loss of structure and discipline

·         Loss of earnings

The ‘dream’ is either over or has died.  Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering felt when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief will be.  We usually associate grief with the death of a loved one but any loss can cause grief, including all of the above.

The bereavement process and the stages people move through is well understood and manageable and clearly very relevant here.

The younger players who learn that they are not going to make the grade after years in the Academy System, also fit into the ‘grieving’ category and deserve similar recognition and support. Hopefully in the future, player education will put more emphasis on the possibility of a life outside of their chosen sport and preparing them for the day when they can no longer perform.  However the single mindedness and focus that it takes to reach the highest level can also create a type of ‘tunnel vision’ that excludes and denies the possibility that they might need a back-up plan.

We should not be surprised that some players who retire or are forced to retire through injury are likely to need professional support whilst they come to terms with what has happened.  Others appear to be able to make the transition smoothly.

Sports Bodies and Clubs should be taking the post retirement challenge seriously.  The physical and psychological well-being of their players should go beyond the time they are playing and into the period where they are transitioning into a new stage in their lives. One could argue that it is part of their ‘duty of care’ as a responsible employer.

However it is early days and recognising that there is a problem is only the first step.  Generally across all the sporting bodies there does not appear to be an established protocol of providing proactive, professional support to players or athletes that need help in making the transition from playing sport full time to an alternative life or career. This is relatively new ground.

Dealing with issues like depression and addiction once they have manifested themselves is a much more serious concern and beyond the remit of a coach.  The aim should be to circumvent the downward spiral by helping people understand what they are experiencing and supporting them with strategies and techniques they can use to cope.  Helping them to see that they have transferrable skills and that having achieved one major goal in one arena they are more than capable of finding another worthwhile challenge in a different sphere.

Another challenge is that athletes may not realise that they need help or even if they do, may not feel they can ask for it.  The ‘be strong’ driver is likely to be prevalent in the world of sport and needing specialist help could be viewed by themselves and peers as being weak. This will become less of a problem once it becomes normal and accepted practice for some players to work with a Coach as retirement approaches or suddenly arrives.

Sport is comfortable with the word ‘coach’ even though it works with a different understanding of its meaning to those operating in the world of Executive Coaching; so working with a Transition Coach, Life Coach, Career Coach or Performance Coach should not be too difficult a step for it to make. However, it has taken many years for some sports to be comfortable with the idea of working with a Sports Psychologist and yet the mind is the arena we are working in here. Becoming more aware of how our thoughts, beliefs and drivers can both help and hinder us is an essential part of helping people manage themselves differently and to cope with the new and unfamiliar ground they find themselves on.  Learning to lead themselves on a daily basis is dependent on them understanding how they are capable of sabotaging their own best efforts. Managing their ‘inner dialogue’ is paramount.

Every respected Business Coach knows how important it is to establish a high level of trust and rapport with their clients.  The client has to feel safe enough to talk openly and honestly about their feelings, fears and concerns as well as being brave enough to talk about their hopes for the future. Having somebody to confide in and to ‘tell their story to’ without being judged is a huge part of the process. It isn’t therapy but it can be therapeutic.

(Lavallee, Gordon and Grove (1997) wrote an article called ‘Retirement from Sport and the loss of Athletic Identity’ in which they come to the conclusion that ‘account making’ played a significant part in moderating distress in 15 former elite athletes experiencing severe emotional difficulties at the end of their career.)

The expertise required to work with elite performers when they are unsure, vulnerable, anxious and temporarily ‘adrift’ is considerable and ideally the ‘coach’ will  be skilled and comfortable working across a range of facilitative and developmental disciplines such as:

                ~ Personal Mastery

                ~ Performance Coaching

                ~ Life Coaching

                ~ Career Coaching

                ~The Inner Game

This is a challenging skill set to find in one person and even more so if we ideally want them to have previous experience of working at a high level in both Business and Sport.  However as this field becomes more established, it will undoubtedly attract high calibre coaches wanting to work with people who have already proved they have what it takes to be successful in a highly competitive arena and who need help to find meaning in another.

It will be very satisfying work to do.