Depression And The Retired Athlete

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After years of dedication to being the best in a career played out in the media spotlight, adapting to retirement can be an extreme challenge for the toughest of athletes. The sudden transition to a more mundane life poses a sea-change for body and mind.

Unfortunately, we are not yet in a culture which readily embraces - much less understands - the problems retirement can cause for sportstars. When British boxer, Frank Bruno, was sectioned under the mental health act, the press labelled him a “nut” and told the world “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”.

It is no wonder that former athletes are so reluctant to disclose mental health issues when, in the 21st century, the media deems it acceptable to publicly ridicule and stigmatise mental ill-health. The outrage the shameful publicity prompted from mental health charities and readers alike was fully justified.

Other former athletes have since spoken candidly about how they have struggled in retirement. The pitfalls are understood by leading sports psychologist, Andrea Firth-Clark, who says: “The dramatic – not to mention traumatic – change in lifestyle … can affect [athletes] deeply, leading to all kinds of problems both mental and social.”

Firth-Clark is at pains to state how sports professionals are only human, despite their achievements, stating "They should not be denied the same level of understanding and help that anyone else may expect".

Retired boxer, Ricky Hatton, has been open about his battles with depression. The former two-weight world champion initially retired following a brutal defeat at the hands of Manny Pacquiao in May 2009. He fell into substance abuse and depression over a three-year period marred by the torment of feeling he had left the ring with “unfinished business”.

Hatton’s defeat in his subsequent comeback fight convinced him that he had reached the end of the road. While initially “heartbroken”, an emotional Hatton told a post-match press conference, “I needed answers and I found them.” His sincerity strongly suggested that not finding those answers would have been far more painful than the wounds on his bruised face.

Another favourite of the British public, Andrew Flintoff, has said that he turned to boxing to fill the void left by retirement from a first class cricketing career. He admits the period left him drifting, and in “need of the focus of being a sportsman.”

Olympic champion, Dame Kelly Holmes, Australian Olympic swimmer, Ian Thorpe and former England football star, Paul Gascoigne, are just a few of the world-famous sporting heroes who have been spoken out about their struggles with depression following retirement.
Their stories have helped to incrementally raise the profile of an issue which needs so much more attention if it is to be tackled constructively and effectively. Better understanding may have helped avoid the shocking suicide of rugby league legend, Terry Newton, who took his own life in 2010 after events in his personal and professional life sent him into deep depression.

To begin to address the issue, we must look at some of its causes.

Retirement brings with it the perception of a loss of identity. While the identity of the average individual is multi-faceted, for a professional athlete identity is singular, concentrated and therefore inherently fragile.

World-renowned peak performance coach, Bill Cole, has described how a ‘profound sense of loss’ is a constant theme in athletes struggling to put their first career to bed. Cole cites “tunnel vision syndrome” as suffered by those who are conditioned to see personal success through the narrow lenses of “training, competition and results.” Consequently, athletes are by nature not psychologically sensitive to the perspectives of the “real world career opportunities.”

Cole also points to the marked reduction in serotonin which athletes may experience once they are deprived of the emotional highs of elite performance.

Depression and its causes are profoundly complex and the condition has to be tackled on a case-by-case basis. However, there is action that can be taken to help reduce the chances of this affliction occurring:

1) Start to look forwards by acknowledging that your identification, sooner or later, must broaden beyond the parameters of your sporting discipline. Allow yourself to be interested in other things in life, hedge your emotional commitments so that when the time comes to jump career-ship you have foundations in place to hold on to and which will hold on to you.

2) Profession-wise, look at how your competencies might fit a role within your profession, such as coaching or mentoring.

3) Learning stress management techniques and time-management skills will help you calibrate your proven attributes to a different world of work. Becoming ‘more human’ in this way will improve your understanding of how you might fit into your sport in different roles.

4) Family, coaches, friends and all the support staff who have been with you through your professional life cared about your sporting success and personal growth. Care for these relationships; don’t be afraid to lean on people who were always there for you. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to people you don’t know, so remember there are hugely experienced sports waiting specifically to help you through whatever personal problems you may have.

Depression thrives in the mental isolation of the individual. It greatly impinges upon the sufferer’s ability to recognise the problem, even more so on their ability to start fighting back. Crushed between emotional numbness and despair, the victim clings to deep reflection; wrongly perceiving this to be the way out the sufferer is quietly torn apart. The silence this promotes is depression’s trump card.

So we need to shout out about depression. It is our responsibility to actively reach out to victims, because their condition means they cannot make the first move. We need to get the discussion going because there’s still a long way to go before we see any kind of finish line to this terrible affliction.

Ricky Hatton is fortunate to have other strings to his bow, not all our athletes have his business acumen, or are involved in such high profile sports. It is therefore important that we help athletes to plan effectively for their retirement from sport so that they are not left unsupported in their career transition.

Nikki works with Athlete Career Transition. ACT passionately believes that starting to plan an athlete’s future once they have retired is far too late. ACT is a proactive business and works with athletes at an early stage in a bid to develop their career pathway and fully prepare them for what lies ahead, post retirement from sport.

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