Coping with Athlete Retirement
Throughout an athlete’s life, one goes through many different transitions. The first, which the athlete might not even remember, is when they’re first starting out in the sport. Whether this be when they’re three years old or in high school, every athlete started somewhere. After that, some athletes go through the transition from amateur sport playing to elite or professional. This is less common, but the most common and impossible transition to skip is the last one of an athlete’s career: retirement.
The term retirement is usually common in the professional world, with big-named athletes finally retiring and the world is wondering what they are going to do next with their lives. While that’s just media drama, the question is valid in the world of sport psychology. Typically, for all athletes, retirement brings on many psychological and physical strains. So, as athletes, partners and parents of athletes, and coaches, being informed of these strains and how to combat them is essential to health after retirement.
To start, retirement is typically done as a process. It’s probably extremely rare to find an athlete that plays their sport one day, then never again starting the next day. However, similarly, the athlete also usually is pressured to not retire until it’s deemed the ‘right’ time, whether it be because of age or length of time in the sport circuit. The largest shift after retirement is for the athlete to find their self-identity outside the sport they are leaving. This becomes harder the longer time involved in the sport. Lastly, once the athlete is retired, the connection to their peers, parents, and partners may change as they find themselves and their lives outside the sport.
Retirement for most athletes comes in a very procedural manner. Athletes can begin competing less frequently, training less, or giving themselves days off completely from their sport. Through the procedure, the athlete has time to adjust to their new upcoming lifestyle and lack of sport. Probert and Crespo (2015) note that “it was concluded that career retirement was a gradual, transitional process of psychological and social adaptation and quest for self-identity” (p. 20). Retirement is a large change and step in an athlete’s career and life and should be treated as a learning and adapting experience.
Once the athlete beings their step towards retirement, a common worry is about them staying active and physically fit and healthy. The exercising they did for their sport was specific for the sport itself, but “athletes may not fully understand the importance of continued engagement in cardiovascular and fitness training after retirement from their sport for [their] long-term health” (Esopenko et al., 2020, p. 431). These athletes have been integrating their exercise into their lives by their sport, and some might not continue once the motivating factor of the sport is absent from their lives. This can cause some issues in their health depending on their levels, age, and abilities before retirement.
Along with losing some motivation of exercising, athletes will also most likely lose some form of self-identity once retired. This factor is depended on their length of time and personal connection to the sport and its community, but it’s similar to the metaphor: a fish out of water. Athletes that focus their lives on their sport may lose who they are without it, so retirement could be detrimental to their psychological identity. Park et al. (2012) notes that studies regarding athletes’ career transition out of sport “have revealed that the retired athletes experienced a loss of identity when they had a strong athletic identity at the time of their sport career termination, and they needed a longer period of time to adjust to post-sport life” (p. 9-10). Big names like tennis star Serena Williams, or football player Tom Brady, would have a harder time adjusting to retirement life than younger, less experienced players, due to most of their life dedicated to their sport. Retiring from a lifelong hobby could have large psychological tolls, due to the athletes basically not knowing who they are outside their sport.
Once an athlete begins the retirement process, they are not the only ones being socially and psychologically affected. Parents, partners and coaches of these athletes are also affected by their choice to leave the sport for different reasons. Parents lose going to competitions and having a strong reason to support a specific athlete, partners lose the routine of their athlete going to practices, training, and competitions, and coaches lose a student and someone to be prideful in. So as the athlete is going through the transition to retirement, the parents, partners, and coaches also have to adapt to this new change. “At times, parents and partners felt that their relationship with the athlete was distant or detached, with each person in the relationship experiencing a similar, but somewhat separate transition. However, parents and partners also described times when they felt close to the athlete and transition seemed to be more of a shared experience (Brown et al., 2018). Parents, partners, and coaches may grow closer to their athlete, in support of their life changing choice of retirement, and everyone may adapt together. Or, resentment and distance might form, if more of these relationships held the athlete and the sport highly. These clashes may cause further psychological affects like feelings of regret towards retiring. The common theme of future regret if an athlete retires causes other psychological issues. With pressure from everyone around them and the sport circuit itself, “athletes are positioned as needing to continue playing until [an] appropriate ‘right’ time is reached” (Cosh et al., 2013, p.8). Waiting until the ‘right’ time to retire so fans, parents, partners, and coaches aren’t as affected could lead to injuries or burnout, all that could have been avoided.
Understanding these effects on the athlete when they are retiring will help aid the transition and all those going through one during the time period. Athletes should understand that retirement can be taken as a process, and that they don’t have to quit cold turkey when leaving their sport. Methods like competing less, less intensive training or giving themselves a day of rest in between would help adapt to the retired lifestyle. Immediately following that idea comes staying fit. Retirement from a sport may also mean the athlete may stop exercising since it wouldn’t be integrated in their sport routine. So as an athlete steps away from their sport, they should look to more general workout and exercise plans to stay active in their later years.
As the athletes figure out staying fit outside their sport, they also need to find their self-identity. Finding themselves outside their sport is the hardest battle they will probably face in retirement. This shift would be harder for elite and professional athletes who have their lifestyle and career focused on their sport, but even amateur long-time players understand the transition. A fix would be not removing themselves completely from the community and find time to spend with their peers outside the sport community.
Staying in touch with sport peers allows athletes to hold their connection. Connections with parents, partners, and coaches should also be held onto. These outsiders may transition differently than the athlete, but the main point is that they should remain supportive in the athlete’s decision. With the community, and the athlete’s loved ones’ support, the transition to retirement should be smooth and calm.
Every athlete goes through multiple transitions in their career: starting out, moving up, and retiring. Understanding these affects and their outcomes will aid others in their transitions, allowing for a better outcome and less regret and negative feelings about retirement. It is a natural step that all athletes take, so there should be no shame or hesitation when it becomes that time in a career.
Brown, C., Webb, T., Robinson, M., & Cotgreave, R. (2018). Athletes’ retirement from elite sport: a qualitative study of parents and partners’ experiences. Sheffield Hallam University. http://shura.shu.ac.uk/25310/9/Brown_Athletes%27RetirementFrom%28AM%29.pdf.
Cosh, S., Crabb, S., & LeCouteur A. (2012). Elite athletes and retirement: Identity,, choice, and agency. Australian Journal of Psychology. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Suzanne-Cosh/publication/257470651_Elite_athletes_and_retirement_Identity_choice_and_agency/links/59e57a92aca272390ed650ed/Elite-athletes-and-retirement-Identity-choice-and-agency.pdf.
Esopenko, C., Coury, J., Pieroth, M., Noble, J., Trofa, D., & Bottiglieri, T. (2020). The psychological burden of retirement from sport. Current Sports Medicine Reports. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2020/10000/The_Psychological_Burden_of_Retirement_from_Sport.11.aspx?context=LatestArticles.
Park, S., Lavallee, D., & Tod, D. (2012). Athletes’ career transition out of sport. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/22467/1/Park%20IRSEP.pdf.
Probert, A., & Crespo, M. (2015). Sociology of tennis: research on socialization, participation and retirement of tennis players. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Miguel-Crespo-2/publication/299511023_Sociology_of_tennis/links/56fcd62d08aef6d10d91c41e/Sociology-of-tennis.pdf.