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Managing the transition into retirement from sport for elite athletes

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PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING / WWW.UKSCA.ORG.UK
ISSUE 53 / JUNE 2019
Introduction
The transition into retirement represents
a challenging part of athletes’ careers as
they enter a new period of their life after
sport.1 Unlike other careers, most athletic
retirement normally occurs relatively early
in life and – because of this – athletes face an
extensive range of psychological, social and
occupational adjustments as their identity
shifts to that of being a former athlete.2,3
Furthermore, although planned retirement
is the most common route into ending an
athletic career, there is also a degree of
uncertainty regarding when retirement
will occur for athletes as retirement can be
forced by injury or deselection.4
In addition to the immediate changes in
an athlete’s life post-retirement, they also
need to be educated to self-manage any
previous medical or physical issues that
may have a lifelong effect, as support will
be substantially reduced when they leave
the high performance system.5,6 Due to the
diverse combination of potential problems
that athletes may face when retiring, it is
essential to review these in order to raise
awareness for athletes and members of the
high performance team.
Planned and unplanned retirement
Competitive sports retirement represents
a unique period of life change, as – unlike
retirement from other careers – it usually
occurs early in life.7 Although retirement is
an inevitable part of any athletic career, the
unpredictable nature of elite sport means
that there is usually a degree of uncertainty
as to when this will occur, with athletes
undertaking planned retirement when
their sporting career has run its course, or
else forced retirement through either injury
or deselection.4,5 Planned retirement is
associated with less adjustment difficulties,
whereas forced retirement is associated
with an increased risk of mental health
problems.8,9 Retirement that is forced
upon an athlete by injury or deselection is
associated with a substantial psychological
effect due to the lack of an adjustment
period.5 The degree of voluntariness during
sporting retirement is highly associated
with better outcomes as there has normally
been time to pursue other interests and
prepare for life after sport.10 Although this
is usually the case, ultimately the impact
of adjustment difficulties depends on the
individual’s coping and support resources,
as well as the degree to which they have
Managing the transition
into retirement from sport
for elite athletes
OVERVIEW
The aim of this article is to raise awareness, among strength and conditioning
(S&C) coaches, of the challenges that may be encountered by elite athletes as
they transition into retirement from their sport. This will include a discussion of
common themes identified in the athlete well-being literature, as well as a review
of the athlete support systems for a range of sports. The aim of both of these
perspectives is to enhance the welfare of athletes throughout this period of their
athletic careers.
RETIREMENT TRANSITION
By Chris Hattersley, MSc, MSc, ASCC, CSCS,
Dave Hembrough, MSc, PGDip, ASCC, Kaseem Khan, MSc, CSCS, Andy Picken, MRSPH,
Tom Maden-Wilkinson, PhD, James Rumbold, MSc, PhD, Sheffield Hallam University
12 PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING / WWW.UKSCA.ORG.UK
ISSUE 53 / JUNE 2019
planned for occupational alternatives before
they retire.3,7 For these reasons, an increasing
demand is being placed on sports clubs and
government bodies to bring these issues to
the attention of athletes and to provide the
necessary support both during and after the
sporting career.
Athletic identity
Elite athletes dedicate themselves to their
chosen sport physically and mentally from a
young age in order to achieve their athletic
goals and it is due to this that they attribute
a large proportion of their self-identity
to the sporting version of themselves.6,11
This often results in sacrificing commit-
ments towards education, peers, family and
romantic relationships, which do, however,
become prominent safeguards during the
retirement process.38 It is widely reported
that those athletes who identify themselves
strongly and exclusively with their athletic
identity experience more adjustment
difficulties than athletes who have less ‘self-
narrowing’ of their identity.8,9,12 This is due to
the adjustment challenges of re-organising
one’s personal and social goals once sport
is no longer the main ‘priority’ in a person’s
life. Any psychological problems faced by
athletes after retirement, either through
forced or unforced retirement, are believed
to be heightened according to the degree to
which an athlete associates their self-identity
with the athletic version of themselves.8
Athletes who associate themselves
strongly with their sporting identity in
this way undergo an initial stage of shock
and a grieving process that represents an
experience comparable to a bereavement
of their former selves.9,11 Due to this, it is
RETIREMENT TRANSITION
Gary Lineker has demonstrated
only too clearly how easily an
elite athlete can find a new
career pathway after sport
13
PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING / WWW.UKSCA.ORG.UK
ISSUE 53 / JUNE 2019
important for athletes to better balance
their interests outside of the sporting world
in order to safeguard themselves from the
potential issues associated with exclusively
identifying with themselves as ‘the athlete’.13
Those athletes who do not do this will need
to prepare for redefining their identity, in
order to help restore and maintain a positive
self-image, which may be important to
reduce the negative external influences that
can occur.
Sense of personal control
The highly structured nature of elite sports
may also limit athletes’ sense of control
outside of the sporting world as their
daily routines, behaviours and decision-
making processes are often made by their
coaches or sports associations.7 This lack
of personal control may cause problems
for athletes when adjusting to their non-
sporting identity after retirement, due to the
loss of structure, routine and discipline to
which they were previously accustomed.4,7
Indeed, the intensive and enduring training
schedules to which athletes adhere and also
enjoy during their careers are also often
difficult to duplicate outside of sport.39
Many athletes report that being excluded
from the social practices of their sport, as
well as the loss of camaraderie with team-
mates and the joy of competition, were
key parts of their sporting life which they
struggled to replace after retirement.6,9 It has
also been reported that the loss of identity
and prestige of being an elite athlete can
lead to problems with an athlete’s sense of
personal control.8,9 However, many athletes
are happy to be free from the stresses of
high performance and look forward to their
lives after sport.8 Team-mates, coaches and
sport organisations can play a key role in
discussing their feelings about the athlete’s
looming retirement and help them to plan
accordingly. This can give retiring athletes
a greater sense of personal control over the
transition.
Occupational adjustments
One of the primary challenges associated
with the early retirement age of former
elite athletes is how and/or whether they
need to transition into a new career.1,5,14
A unique consideration for athletes during
this process is that some may have to retrain
for a new occupation, whereas other athletes
may have the financial security not to have
to work.3,10,14 There are potential issues with
either route, as the athletes undertaking
a new career have to reconstruct a new
sense of self, whereas the financially secure
athlete has to work out how to fill the times
and routines of their previous sporting
schedule.5,14 A lack of formal qualifications
for many former athletes has been shown
to be a problem that is encountered during
their transition into a new career; and for
those athletes who are wealthy enough not
to have to work, poor financial advice has
led to several issues.14,15
It is important to note that although
problems are experienced by a substantial
number of athletes when starting a new
career, there are many athletes who use
the skills and experiences developed
during their sporting life to flourish in
other roles.14 Therefore, it is important for
sporting organisations to offer mentoring
opportunities and life skills education
during athletes’ careers in order to help
athletes to develop a stronger understanding
of how their skills in sport can be transferred
in to other vocations, which will smooth the
transition into retirement.3
Medical and lifestyle self-management
The demands of training at an elite level
over an extended period of time put an
athlete at an increased risk of sustaining
a musculoskeletal injury.16 In particular,
musculoskeletal injuries to the upper and
lower limbs are widely reported in elite
athletes.17,18 During a sports career, these
injuries might be recurrent and may lead
to surgical treatments and long-lasting
rehabilitation programmes.19,20 The injuries
sustained during a sporting career have
a lifelong effect, with elite athletes being
shown to have an increased risk of
osteoarthritis compared to the general
population and other occupational
sectors.16,21 In later life, 65% of former athletes
with osteoarthritis have reported being in
pain during activities of daily living and 37%
reported having anxiety or depression due
to this.16 Furthermore, contact sports that
involve repeated collisions to the head put
athletes at the risk of sustaining repeated
concussions and this is associated with
a potential risk of acquiring neurological
conditions, such as chronic traumatic
encephalopathy, dementia and depression
post-retirement.22,23,24,25
As well as any medical issues encountered
during retirement, athletes also report
experiencing problems managing their
physical condition and nutritional practices
after they have finished competing.26
RETIREMENT TRANSITION
‘The injuries
sustained
during a
sporting
career have
a lifelong
effect’
14 PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING / WWW.UKSCA.ORG.UK
ISSUE 53 / JUNE 2019
Athletes receive limited support with
these issues when they leave the high
performance system, which can be a further
source of psychological stress.4,5 Due to this,
governing bodies should consider a medical
consultation as an essential part of an
athlete’s exit strategy from sport to increase
awareness of the appropriate medical
options for managing their long term health.
Mental health
The multiple changes that occur in both an
athlete’s lifestyle and in his/her self-identity
during the retirement process can place
them at a relatively high risk of developing
a mental health problem.6,27,31 Failure to cope
with retirement can lead to psychological
pathologies, substance abuse and financial
problems.9,13 This can manifest itself in
conditions such as anxiety, depression or
post-traumatic stress disorder and can have
a significant impact on the athlete and his/
her family’s quality of life.13
It is important to note that these issues are
not only limited to the athletic world and
that a substantial proportion of mental
health problems in general are related to
employment.34 Employment and meaningful
occupation is seen as an essential component
of good health, areas where many of our
fundamental psychological needs are
met.32 As such, people who experience
redundancy or unemployment display
a 50% increase in the risk of developing
psychological problems in comparison
to individuals in employment.33 Although
no comparison between mental health
problems in athletes and people in general
employment is currently available, Hughes
and Leavey31 argue that elite athletes are
placed under a unique combination of
stress factors which may compromise
their well-being and therefore require
more support from governing bodies. This
problem is evidenced by Grove et al,9 who
reported that 20% of athletes experienced
a distressing psychological reaction during
the process of retirement. Furthermore,
a recent State of Sport Survey in the UK
reported that 50% of former athletes
had concerns over their mental and
emotional well-being and did not
feel in control of their lives within
two years of finishing their careers.28
In response to this, a ‘Mental Health and
Elite Sport Action Plan’ has been devised
by the UK government, which requires all
elite sport groups to have mental health
procedures embedded in their performance
plans by the year 2024.29
Effective strategies for athletes
Not all athletes experience distressful
reactions during their transition into
retirement, but there are numerous potential
problems for which athletes need to be made
aware and prepared. Various strategies have
been suggested in the literature in order
to ease the elite athlete’s transition into
retirement. Lally et al6 suggest investing
time in other dimensions of athletes’
identity by pursuing educational, social
and occupational interests outside of the
sporting world. This is consistent with
recommendations by other studies,6,8,13
which reported that athletes who decreased
the prominence of their athletic identity and
developed a new focus prior to retirement
made smoother transitions.
Although support is extremely varied,
depending on which country an athlete is
from and which sport they competed in,
it is recommended that athletes enquire
within their respective sporting governing
bodies as to whether they have a retirement
transition programme.5 Athletes may be
able to undertake an end-of-career health
consultation in order to enable self-
management of any issues identified and
also to gain an understanding of any career
services on offer.4,8 It is also advised that
athletes should talk to other former athletes,
team-mates and coaches about how they
handled their transition into retirement.4,5
In addition to this, many former athletes
also use coaching as a way to stay involved
with their previous sport and to maintain
their social relationships.5,11,13 For a variety
of reasons, retiring athletes can feel a
loss of social functioning, isolation and
sometimes ostracism during the remaining
time involved in sport prior to retirement.
Therefore, it is important to encourage these
athletes to start exploring and identifying
a new focus, as well as encouraging the
seeking of informational and emotional
support inside and outside of the sport.
Finally, athletes who are experiencing
psychological difficulties during their
transition into retirement can also seek
interventions with a sport psychologist.30
Existing programmes
Due to the issues discussed throughout
this article, sporting governing bodies are
beginning to increase the support they
provide to athletes. This includes a range of
services, from welfare staff being employed
in organisations, career transition seminars
and access to hardship and medical
RETIREMENT TRANSITION
‘athletes
also report
... problems
managing
their physical
condition and
nutritional
practices
after they
have finished
competing’
15
PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING / WWW.UKSCA.ORG.UK
ISSUE 53 / JUNE 2019 RETIREMENT TRANSITION
CHRIS HATTERSLEY, MSC, MSC, BSC, ASCC, CSCS
Chris is a qualified physiotherapist and strength
and conditioning coach. He specialises in
integrating the practices of these professions to
improve health and physical performance for a
variety of demographics.
ANDY PICKEN, BA, MRSPH
Andy is an occupational health and well-being
specialist. He implements strategies to improve
mental and physical health for a diverse range of job
roles and is a member of the Royal Society for Public
Health.
DR TOM MADEN-WILKINSON, PHD
Tom is a lecturer in exercise physiology at Sheffield
Hallam University. His research focuses on the
underlying mechanisms behind strength training
adaptations across the lifespan.
DR JAMES RUMBOLD, PHD
James is a senior lecturer in sport and performance
psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.
His research focuses on facilitating effective
performance environments, as well as developing
programmes to optimise well-being and
productivity for individuals and groups.
DAVE HEMBROUGH, MSC, PGDIP, BSC, ASCC
Dave is the lead strength and conditioning coach
at Sheffield Hallam University, where he delivers
wide-ranging strength training programmes to elite
athletes and different community groups.
KASEEM KHAN, MSC, BSC, CSCS
Kaseem is a qualified physiotherapist, occupational
therapist and strength and conditioning coach.
He uses his unique background to deliver strength
training interventions with person-centred
therapeutic techniques.
AUTHORS’ BIOGRAPHIES
grants.28,36,37,38 UK Sport, the English Institute
of Sport, the British Olympic Association
and the British Paralympic Association
all offer a collective programme called
‘Athlete Futures’, which provides career
and lifestyle support to athletes. This
programme began in September 2017 and
is open to past and current members of UK
Sport’s World Class Programme, dating
back to 1997.36 The Professional Footballers
Association (PFA) provides advice and
support to members for a range of issues
including the transition into retirement.
Their services include paying 50% of the
costs for accredited training courses to
support the career development of its
members. As well as this, the PFA also
provide early access to pension funds and
financial support during times of hardship
or medical need.37 A similar service is
offered by the Rugby Players Association
(RPA), where there is support available
from personal development managers, who
proactively work with players to prepare
them for the transition in to retirement.
In addition to this, the RPA also have an
open access helpline and support network
for lifestyle-related issues including career
transitions and mental health.
Finally, the Professional Cricketers’
Association has six regional personal
development managers who work full-
time from academy level through to former
players.40 They provide support to players
for a range of lifestyle-related issues and
also host regular career transition seminars
to help players recently leaving the game.
Practical suggestions
Educate athletes on the potential
difficulties that may occur during the
transition into retirement
Encourage strategies to be developed
that enable athletes to self-manage their
previous injuries and lifestyle when they
are outside of the high performance system
Aim to increase understanding and
discussion of these issues throughout the
high performance team and through this
to filter down for the benefit of athletes
Raise awareness for governing bodies to
improve the post-retirement support of
athletes
Encourage athletes to use their ‘down-time’
effectively during their careers, optimising
the development of a broader range of
social identities outside of sport, to provide
a stronger social support network before
and during retirement
Encourage athletes to develop life skills
and lifestyle management within sport
organisations throughout their athletic
career
Find ways to keep previously retired
athletes in the sport system, because of
the knowledge and skillset that they have.
Coaching and ad-hoc mentoring are viable
options that sport organisations could
fund.
16 PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING / WWW.UKSCA.ORG.UK
ISSUE 53 / JUNE 2019RETIREMENT TRANSITION
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