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The Psychological Hurdle of Sports Retirement

  • October 05, 2020
  • Depression, Patients and Families

Frank Molinaro, a wrestler who finished fifth in the 2016 Olympics, was confident he would medal at the 2020 Tokyo games. Unfortunately, as a father of three, committing to another year of intense training and strain on his family was simply not in the cards with the postponement of the Olympics until 2021. Molinaro decided he will retire without a second chance at Olympic gold.

For that athlete who viewed the 2020 Olympics as the pinnacle of their career, or for that senior in college who was excited to share their last championship with their teammates, the pandemic has brought about an anti-climactic and disappointing end to their season and a forced break from training, and, for some, forced premature retirement.

Sports retirement is often a major life transition for an athlete and can therefore be a major psychological challenge. Feelings of depression and loss, worry about the future, and low life satisfaction are common in retiring athletes. These negative feelings can be compounded by the loss of income, loss of health care, even the loss of an education. Athletes who have an unexpected retirement, like Molinaro, are known to have a more difficult time.

Though “retirement” from any life activity or job can be mentally challenging, there are some reasons why the transition can be especially difficult for athletes:

  • Sports careers tend to be short, given the physical demands. The average career of an NFL player may be as little as 3.5 seasons. For women’s artistic gymnastics, athletes rarely compete past their early 20s. These athletes have their whole lives ahead of them, but they might not feel prepared for it.&
  • Competitive athletes typically begin their sport at a young age and tend to develop their identity around their sport. Athletes with very strong identities tied to their sport are known to have a harder time with retirement.
  • Athletes are often hard-working and success-driven. They may not be used to struggling with learning a new role such as a vocation or family responsibilities.
  • Aside from purely mental challenges, athletes also face physical challenges with retirement as they experience changes in their physique and fitness. Weight gain may lead to mood changes and disordered eating. Highly competitive athletes are also less likely to be familiar with other recreational sports, or even exercise routines outside of the context of their sport, requiring them to develop new habits of fitness.

Despite the challenges of retirement for athletes, many athletes do transition well, and go on to experience very fulfilling lives during their transition and post-sport. Through research, we know some things can help ease the transition:

  • Education and awareness of sports retirement and its challenges
  • Retirement planning
  • Behavioral and cognitive therapy-based workshops and support
  • Access to mental health treatment if needed
  • Access to higher education or vocational training
  • Culture considerations

Many of these strategies require interventions well before retirement and should be viewed in parallel with the athlete’s career. Culturally, shifting towards viewing athletes more holistically is also beneficial. Coaches and staff can help by being aware of the challenges of retirement, being open to interventions, and supporting athletes’ lives outside of sport.

With awareness and appropriate support, more athletes can avoid the negative consequences of retirement and continue to flourish through all phases of their lives, just as they had on the field, the mat, or the balance beam.

By Brittany Anderson,
Medical Student, University of Wisconsin

Reviewed by Claudia Reardon, M.D.,
Associate Professor,
University of Wisconsin,
School of Medicine and Public Health, Department of Psychiatry

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