Oct 4, 2017

On today’s Show, we speak with Australia’s most capped Rugby player, Hall of Fame Hero, commentator, businessman and all-round good guy, George Gregan; about heritage, family, career, the state of Australian Rugby, player welfare, life after professional sport, health, booze and business.

The big thing is they give a big boost of raw energy and enthusiasm and you see the absolute excitement and joy of being part of the national team and it just reinforces to everyone the special sort of place we’re in. – George Gregan

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Background – Life after sport: Depression in the retired athlete

Written by Emma Vickers

It is often said that a sports star will die twice, the first time at retirement. For elite athletes who have dedicated their lives to sport, what happens when your time comes to an end, if you aren’t an athlete, then who are you?

Elite athletes train extensively for years, in many cases, consuming the majority of their young lives, often making extensive personal sacrifices in order to pursue their dreams of glory. These may include making huge financial sacrifices, moving away from family to train full-time in academies, calling time on their academic studies and sacrificing personal or romantic relationships. For many athletes, retirement is a concept that they do not wish to think about in great detail. However, whether they have achieved Olympic glory or failed to reach the pinnacle in their sport that they had aspired to, all athletes’ careers will eventually come to a close, whether this is through age, injury or exhaustion.

However, what happens to these athletes once they leave the days filled with rigorous training, the extensive time spent travelling and the buzz and adrenaline of competing? This is the time in their lives where they may be susceptible to depression. Team GB Olympic Champion cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, expressed her extreme relief of retirement after the London Games, citing that she couldn’t wait to go on to new ventures in her life and was much happier now that the pressure of competing was no longer a burden. However, not all athletes will enter retirement with such ease and willingness, many will struggle with adapting to a “regular life” where they are no longer in the limelight and perhaps in their eyes, become forgotten members of society. 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). The social and professional changes induced by retirement from sport can in effect cause distressful reactions (Allison & Meyer, 1988; Lavallee, Gordon, & Grove, 1997). These retired athletes express a feeling of emptiness in their lives (Stambulova, 1997) and one of the main stakes of this transition is to therefore reconstruct and adjust themselves on the basis of a new life style.

The transition that is made by professional athletes from a full-time athletic career to that of retirement has received considerable comments in the sports media, however, it only in recent years that it has warranted formal academic study. Schwenk et al. (2007) stated that the transition is often found to be difficult because of the sudden cessation of intense demands of elite athletic performance, compounded by the sudden loss of the athlete’s intense devotion to professional athletic competition and its attendant rewards.

Multiple Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe, Celtic FC Manager Neil Lennon and double Olympic Champion Dame Kelly Holmes are just a few of the high-profile athletes who have made their depression public after their retirement from professional sport. Andrew Flintoff, Paul Gascoigne and Frank Bruno are a further few who have been afflicted by the illness and have been open and willing to share their issues to help raise the profile of depression in athletic retirement.

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” Leonard’s struggles with retirement were well documented, leading him to suffer from extreme bouts of depression and eventually making repeated comebacks. However, for some, the depression becomes all too encompassing and over the years, there have been a number of cases of athlete’s committing suicide following their retirement from professional sport. This includes the shocking story of Russian judoka Elena Ivashchenko, who is believed to have committed suicide following depression brought on by her failure to win gold at the 2012 games.

What exactly is it that often leads retired professional athletes to spiral into depression once they leave the days filled with rigorous training, the pressure of competition and the glory days behind them?

Loss of Identity

An individual’s identity may contain numerous dimensions; however, it is possible for one in particular to become dominant or preferred and a lens through which the others are viewed. Athletic identity is described as the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role and looks to others for acknowledgement of that role (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). The neglect or atrophy of other roles as a consequence of the ascendancy of a single role may therefore expose the individual to subsequent identity issues. It has been hypothesised that the loss of a preferred or dominant role may subsequently effect a person’s overall self-concept (Markus, 1977; Stryker,1978).

Lavallee & Grove (1997) identified that individuals with a high athletic identity at the time of retirement were more likely to experience a higher degree of emotional adjustment difficulties. Bill Cole, a world-renowned peak performance coach who has worked with many athletes who have struggled to come to terms with their retirement, noted that an important factor was this profound sense of loss in their lives that athletes may experience after putting their competing days behind them.

Tunnel Vision Syndrome

A “tunnel vision syndrome” affects many elite athletes to varying degrees at some stage of their careers. It is often the case that coaches, parents, professional sports agents and general managers are able to see it, however, athletes who are unaware that they suffer from tunnel vision spend far too much time thinking only of training, competition and results. As a result, athletes are left ill-prepared for the balanced perspective required of “real world” career opportunities. Britain’s double Olympic rowing champion James Cracknell stated, “I think people suffer from depression after retiring from sport because they aren’t sure where to apply that focus…there is a lot of focus and a lot of selfishness in sportsmen.” Athletes often cannot see their lives following another career path and as soon as the dreaded retirement looms, with this, brings a void that the comfort of a training routine once filled.

Potential Biological Factors

Bill Cole also noted the importance that biological factors may play in an athlete who is struggling in their retirement. Athletes have had regular doses of serotonin daily for many years, when this is suddenly decreased or stopped outright, we see a huge upset to the chemistry of the body. A causal link between an imbalance in serotonin levels and depression has been explored by a number of researchers, however, more research in retired athletes posits exploration.

What Next?

There are a number of ways that athletes can help to reduce the chances of depression after retirement from sport, these include:

  • Reduce your exclusive identification with your sporting role and expand your self-identity to other pursuits
  • Discover interests and competences for other activities beyond sport (perhaps considering coaching or the mentoring of other athletes)
  • Acquiring stress management and time management skills (such skills will represent tools that help you better reconcile sport with your other roles)
  • Encourage strong relationships with coaches, family, friends and managers who care about your sporting success as well as your personal growth. Being supported by significant others to consider other avenues in life will help you keep an open mind and diversify your identity
  • Consult with a sport psychologist to help explore further avenues and adaptation techniques

Athletes by nature are mentally tough individuals and are often perceived by the public to be fitter, healthier and happier than others. It is this attitude and stereotyping that can make it more difficult for them to approach someone for help. Therefore, it is highly important for close family, friends, team mates and coaches to understand that depression cannot always be seen and the athlete may indeed never admit to how they feel for fear of shame and embarrassment. The most important take home message is to understand that despite their incredible success in their hard-fought and dedicated careers, the process of retirement is a difficult one and it is in this time that social support and communication is of vital importance if the athlete is to avoid the dreaded post-retirement blues.

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