Dr Josephine Perry explains how elite and competitive amateur athletes can face retirement positively

If being a successful athlete is all about confidence, self-belief and doing ‘whatever it takes’ to succeed, then planning for your retirement seems contradictory.

Athletes fear it will distract them and show they expect to fail. Yet athletes rarely retire when they are at the top of their sport. Most are forced out of sport by injury, deselection, financial stress, motivational burnout, age, or no longer being competitive. Not only does it have a huge impact physically and mentally but, with research saying 90% of professional athletes need to find paid work post retirement, financially too.

For a few athletes, retirement from competition will be embraced. If they achieved their sporting goals and feel they did all that they could, then moving on from their sport may give them a sense of relief and optimism. The Athens and Beijing Olympic marathoner Liz Yelling was one of these athletes and she says: “For me it was a huge relief, I was happy about not pushing my fragile body to the edge all the time, I was relieved to not have to perform at that level anymore. It was nice to have a defined end.”

For others though, and when it is not on their terms (research suggests 70% of retirements are forced), then it can be far more traumatic. In fact, recent research found that more than half of former professional sportsmen and women have had concerns about their mental or emotional wellbeing since retiring.

“Even though the regimes athletes followed throughout their training may have felt limiting at the time, it can be scary to suddenly find yourself without them”

Whether professional or high achieving amateurs, athletes who stop competing at a high-level risk losing structure, focus and purpose. Even though the regimes they followed throughout their training may have felt limiting at the time, it can be scary to suddenly find yourself without them.

The biggest struggle though is usually losing their sporting identity. If you are known by your friends as ‘the runner’ or ‘the javelin girl’ what is left when you no longer do that? If you aren’t an athlete, who are you?

A great social support system can help with this, but often it is set within the sport you are leaving. If you have invested all your time in your sport you go from feeling part of everything, in the middle of excitement and the limelight, to nothing. Overnight.

These issues have caused many retiring athletes to suffer from depression as they struggle to find a new purpose and adapt to a different type of life. So, to protect yourself and have a positive transition, here are some tactics to consider.

Plan

Research finds those who transition best are those, like Liz Yelling, who formally plan their retirement and get to do so on their own terms.

Yelling, pictured above (left) with fellow former athletes Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi, is now an interior designer, while Radcliffe is a TV commentator and Yamauchi coaches, writes and is a public speaker.

Leon Lloyd, a former rugby player and now chief executive of Switch the Play, an agency focused on helping athletes transition out of competitive sport, says athletes should think about their long-term development.

“Training, education or career development guidance should become compulsory and included within athletes’ contracts,” he says.

But if this isn’t in place for you, plan your own development.

Reflect

The first step to begin transitioning out of competition is to reflect. Sophie Minter is an athlete welfare coach who suggests athletes think about what they love both within their sport and life in general.

“Once you recognise this it may help you find and nurture it elsewhere. Then work out what you don’t love about competing and look forward to no longer having to deal with that,” she says.

Become more than an athlete

Being a serious athlete is all consuming. But if our athletics identity is too dominant and overrides every other role in life we can feel very fragile in our sport now and struggle to adjust when we retire.

Jo Harrison, head of performance lifestyle at the English Institute of Sport, says: “Athletes anecdotally tell us that doing something else that fits around training and competition can really help them to feel balanced and refreshed. So, increase the number of things in your life about which you feel passionate.”

Yelling, who is now pursuing her love of interior design, suggests athletes try and do something that complements their running.

“You then have your foot in a door should you need to push the door a little wider,” she says: “Use your time as an athlete to explore your entrepreneurial skills and see where they go.”

Identify and use your transferable skills

The CV of a competitive athlete may seem unique but the underlying skills required to succeed in high performance sport – focus, dedication, hard work, commitment to a goal, being coachable and confident – are very popular with employers.

Some transfers such as coaching or commentating are fairly straightforward but these roles are often over-subscribed so becoming clear on which transferable skills you have and working out how to utilise them in a different environment will help you smoothly adapt.

Build a profile

If the career you want to transition to requires any sort of profile; media, business, commentating or coaching, then build up your reputation and social media networks while you have the limelight and opportunities to boost awareness.

And make sure you network, says Harrison. “A strong network can be a very useful asset. Seek out opportunities to learn more about the jobs you think you might be interested in.”

Grow your support network outside of athletics

After years of competing in athletics a large number of your friends will be in your sport. Great while you are in it. Difficult once you’ve left. So, start to build your own network outside of athletics, so when you do retire you have the support you need from friends who care about you, not your times or distances.

Allow time to grieve

Finally, even with all the planning and support, retirement itself can still be difficult. Spend a little time to grieve the life you had before, and then you can start to accept and develop new plans.

Lloyd advises athletes to consider seven stages of transition, from anxiety and denial through to decision and integration. “Allowing yourself space to go through the process is valuable so you can appreciate what you achieved,” he says.

Even if you made the choice to retire yourself – and even if it was not your full-time job – Minter advises that the feelings of loss can still be prevalent.

“Recognise and accept that replacement activities will not be the same as your sport but allow them to become rewarding in different ways,” she says.

» More about Dr Josephine Perry: performanceinmind.co.uk