Professional sport is a career that provides many highs and lows. It predominantly provides a stable lifestyle financially and can catapult sports stars into the news headlines as somewhat celebrities. However, the average sporting career is short. So what happens to sports stars when they inevitably retire?
The demands of elite sport can cause problems for athletes once their careers end. Waking up every day with a goal, an aim, or a target to achieve brings a determination and drive to each day. The intensity of training, planning and performing at an elite level requires certain characteristics such as competitiveness, discipline and focus. When the day comes that an athlete can no longer perform, many of these characteristics can not be displayed in day-to-day life which can cause retired athletes to suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Research carried out by the Professional Players’ Federation (PPF) between 2017 and 2018 revealed that one in two ex-players out of the 800 that filled in the survey, did not feel in control of their lives within two years of finishing their careers. Going from a livelihood that is filled with high-pressure situations to potentially a livelihood with little to no stimulation proves difficult to deal with.
An interesting part of this research is that only “29% of players were able to choose when they stopped playing professional sport. For the rest, retirement was due to injuries, general wear and tear or being unable to get a contract.” Having your career taken away from you is a different situation to deal with compared to retiring due to age.
In an exclusive interview with ex-GB bobsleigh athlete Annabel Chaffey, she revealed how women’s funding was cut by The British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (BBSA) just five months before the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“It happened at the worst of times for me, I’d made a big life decision in not going to university, I’d planned a career in sport. It’s something I’ve massively struggled with and have only just started to process it this year.”Annabel Chaffey
The 21-year-old from Berkshire, was called up to train with the GB squad whilst at school in 2014 and continued to do so for more than four years. She was ranked as World Number One for the 2014/2015 and World Number Two for the 2015/2016 seasons. Unlike many retired athletes, Chaffey had her career taken away from her through no fault of her own.
The BBSA had an overspend of £50,000, which led to their funding cut in September 2017. Chaffey had to start all over again, looking for a new career which she didn’t find easy.
“It was devastating. I’d been told for three years that I had so much potential and that I could make it to a senior games. To then have it taken away like that, it was heart-breaking.”Annabel Chaffey
Chaffey has made a successful career, working as an Account Executive at Lane4, which has a program which helps retired athletes such as herself with their transition into ‘normal life’. Many others aren’t as successful when it comes to dealing with such issues, spiralling into personal deterioration.
“It’s been difficult resetting dreams and aspirations. I’ve tried to continue my education by doing my degree at the Open University, but it’s been hard. My life’s been very different from what I imagined, understanding who I am, not as ‘Annabel the athlete’. That’s something I’ve really struggled with, like who am I now?”Annabel Chaffey
This resetting of dreams and aspirations seems to be one of the main stumbling blocks that retired athletes come across. Once your sporting career has finished, they must begin to create new goals and targets for a life they may have never envisaged or thought about. Many elite athletes begin their sporting careers at an early age, they can become professional athletes as soon as leaving school. Therefore, they have not been conditioned to set goals outside of sport, as sport is all they have known.
After Chaffey’s early retirement, she was left with no support from governing body The BBSA. “There was very little support for me, initially it came from just my family and friends, they did what they could. It wasn’t until I started working at Lane4 and had access to the Athlete Transition Programme there that I got the support I needed, ”she said.
Programmes such as this provided by Lane4 are vital in the transitioning of sports stars. Sometimes it takes extra education and support to be able to adapt to so-called ‘normal life’ after a career in the headlines.
“It’s something that’s an issue with elite sport, as soon as you aren’t needed or retire that’s it you’re very rarely supported with your transition into ‘normal life’. I think an acknowledgement from governing bodies that there is a life after sport would be a great start, there needs to be the finances in place to support people like me.”Annabel Chaffey
Many sports stars struggle with resetting goals and aspirations once retiring. Ex-Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand worked alognside Betfair and took up boxing in order to compete professionally. Ex-England cricketer Andrew Flintoff also took up boxing like Ferdinand. Once retiring it seems some sports stars crave the high intensity, adrenaline filled activity of competing. This could be for several reasons. One idea is that training and working towards something is what they live for, regardless of the sport or discipline.
Sport career termination induces dramatic changes in athletes’ personal, social and occupational lives, this can in turn potentially affect individuals cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally.(Taylor & Ogilvie, 1994)
Double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes and former professional footballer Clarke Carlisle are two high-profile cases of professional athletes admitting they have depression after retiring. Year-on-year more former sports stars are coming out and talking about their mental health struggles since retiring, which shows the support is there for them to have the courage to speak about it but this is more likely to come from family and friends than associations.
Many athletes struggle with their career transition. However, in an exclusive interview with ex-Wales rugby player Owain Williams, the importance of the ability to prepare for a life after sport becomes clear. Having studied Design at university and a post-graduate degree in Film and Television Design, Williams was prepared for a career after sport. He captained the Welsh Sevens side, spent four seasons playing for Bridgend before moving to Cardiff where he spent a decade, scoring 41 tries in 223 matches. He gained one senior international cap for Wales in 1990.
After this illustrious sporting career had ended, Williams went on to become the Series Production Designer for BBC’s Casualty and has worked on the sets of Doctor Who and Holby City. The 54-year-old was prepared for his next career but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t affected by his retirement from rugby.
“I always thought it would be an easy transition back into civilian life and although the work was plentiful I did struggle with certain aspects of life. I had turned my back on the professional sport – I think I probably was angry with the fact that I couldn’t play it any more – a difficult realisation that age had caught up with me and I wasn’t invincible.”Owain Williams
“The realisation that we’re not immortal and that maybe our ’15 minutes of fame’ has come and gone can be a bitter pill to swallow. Without realising it at the time I needed to grieve what I had lost.”Owain Williams
It seems that despite the makeup of the character behind the sports star, retirement will have an affect on all athletes regardless of the path their careers go down. The question ‘What can be done?’ rises. Sports associations such as the BBSA need to do more to support athletes during and after their careers. As Annabel Chaffey highlighted, she had little help and it wasn’t until she worked for Lane4 that she has access to support. Funding of such access is always in question in sport but with more and more revenue coming into sport through sponsorship and TV, more money needs to be put in place to make sure athletes can cope in society after sport.