What Now? Athletes Coping With Retirement
Retirement is usually something people look forward to and it should be some of the best times of your life. But for elite athletes, this can be quite the opposite.
Many athletes succeed in finding their feet away from professional sports, but it's not an easy adjustment for everyone.
After following a strict schedule, and doing the same thing almost all of their lives, athletes can find themselves struggling through retirement. They see it as a loss of a way of life, and even their identity. A Four Corners report revealed that athletes attempting to transition into the real world after sports can go through a chemical withdrawal similar to coming off hard drugs.
Some of the biggest names in Australian sports have publicly shared their struggle on coping with life after sport on SBS’s Game Over.
AFL star Barry Hall said he personally struggled to transition to the lack of routine that came after retirement.
"I had two or three months that I really struggled. I didn't get out of bed. I didn't answer mates' phone calls, I was eating terribly, drinking heavily. A tough time. And look, I didn't know at that stage it was a form of depression," he told the program.
“I didn’t know anything about [depression] because, you know, we’re big tough burly men who don’t get depressed.”
Olympian and 8 time WNBA All Star Lauren Jackson was forced into early retirement due to injury but says she wasn’t ready and found it “really difficult” to leave the game.
She revealed that she was on pain killers and sleeping pills while playing basketball and described it as a “nightmare”. She relied on her family's support after being told she would never play again.
“I did go into a shell. I stayed with my parents, I didn’t leave the house, and they really just took care of me. Without them I hate to think what would have happened.”
Jackson said it was hard to deal with life without professional sports and that she didn’t have the support from sporting organisations.
“When I retired, it’s really interesting; it felt like I was put out to pasture. Literally, I’d been one of their greatest resources and then all of a sudden it was over, you don’t hear from them.”
Mental health for elite athletes
The stresses and pressure to perform weighs heavy on the mind of an elite athlete. A study on Australian elite athletes found that the most common mental health issues experienced were depression, eating disorders and general psychological distress.
It also found that almost half of A-League players found their transition from playing to retirement “difficult to very difficult” and that one in five had experienced mental health problems.
Kate Wensley, a psychologist working with the Australian Institute of Sports told Huffington Post that mental health issues are often overlooked in sports as physical injuries take precedence.
"Players don’t like to talk about mental health. It is almost a sign of weakness to mention it,” she said.
“If they perceive that as a weakness, they are less likely to ask for help. They think it is humiliating or shameful.”
Many Aussie sports tars, including Lance Franklin, Mitch Clark and Grant Hackett, have publicly revealed their battle with mental illness and are trying to raise awareness. Their busy schedules, relentless training and competition takes a large toll on elite athletes and with the public nature of their lives, this makes the struggle even more challenging.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
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