What Now?: What Happens to Athletes After Retirement

What Now?: What Happens to Athletes After Retirement

For athletes, the end of a competitive career is unavoidable. It’s natural to retire after years of physical abuse of their bodies through training and competing. For the few lucky ones, retirement comes after they’ve achieved a lifelong goal, such as a World Championship title or an Olympic gold medal.

After years of dedicating their lives to their sport, a common question hovers in an athlete’s mind: What now?

Taking a Different Career Path

Some athletes find it easy to adjust to life after competing in a sport. After spending most of their lives training and competing extensively, they ease into a “normal” life, one that involves catching up on studies, settling down with their families, or pursuing romantic relationships.

Some retired athletes remain involved in their sport, though in a different way. Several sports figures become coaches and commentators. High-profile athletes remain busy after retirement as they’re booked for autograph signings, endorsements, and event appearances.

Other athletes take a different sport. For example, Michael Jordan played baseball after his first retirement announcement in 1993. Two-time Olympic figure skating silver medalist Elvis Stojko competed in mixed martial arts and motocross racing.

Dealing with Loss

Sports Uniforms

Though some athletes adjust to retired life easily, others struggle to adapt to a life in which they’re no longer in the spotlight. They have spent too much time thinking of training and results, making them less prepared for life after retirement.

For many athletes, sports success occurs when they were young and developing a sense of personal identity. Since they rely excessively on their identities as sportspeople, they struggle with a sense of loss and lack of meaning in their lives when they retire.

Biological factors also play a factor in an athletes’ post-retirement struggle. Sports figures have had regular doses of serotonin for many years, and a sudden decrease or drop means an unfamiliar chemistry of a body.

These factors make retired athletes susceptible to anxiety and depression. Former Burnley F.C. defender Clarke Carlisle shared that the end of his sports career is one of the reasons he has been struggling with mental health issues. High-profile athletes such as boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard and multiple Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe have also made their depression public after their retirement from professional sport.

Assisting Athletes with Post-Retirement Blues

Since athletes are seen as mentally tough individuals for undergoing years of rigorous training and competition, the stereotype has made it difficult for them to ask for help. Fortunately, a number of programs seek to help athletes to make a transition into a post-athletic life. The Athlete365 Career+ program by the International Olympic Committee directs retiring athletes toward education or new careers and helps them develop life skills relevant to their post-sports life.

The key, though, is to minimize post-retirement blues in its early stages. The responsibility lies in the sports institutions to develop athletes into well-rounded people so their identities do not rely entirely on their sporting skills.

Despite their star-studded careers, many athletes find it difficult to transition to life after their respective sport. The perfectionism and combative mindset required for success in the sport causes sportspeople to struggle with the loss of identity and purpose, leading to anxiety and depression. With the right support from institutions, athletes are better equipped for handling significant changes in their post-competitive life.


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