Life after sport - how athletes handle the transition to retirement

Retirement happens to every athlete in every sport. At the end of each season or Olympic cycle, countless athletes are faced with the most difficult decision of their careers. And those in a position to make that decision for themselves are the lucky ones.

Steven Gerrard and Jenson Button both bowed out of their sports this week - football and Formula 1 respectively. Both have achieved huge success, with a few pounds in their pockets and to a certain extent were in control of the decision. But that doesn’t make the process, and it should be looked at as a process, easy.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s psychologists such as Schlossberg and Haerle began to take notice of retirement from sport as it became apparent that athletes struggled mentally with what they termed the ‘transition’. Understanding of the difficulties faced by athletes following this major transition has now broadened, and you will all be able to think of your own examples of athletes that have suffered from occupational/financial worries, family and social problems, and in many cases substance and gambling abuses.

Many athletes, don’t have the same opportunities as Gerrard and Button will have. That is not to diminish the challenge they both face, but when your funding is cut as part of the Olympic programme, or your cricket county decides your services are no longer needed, the traditional options such as media work or coaching just aren’t as forthcoming. 

Sophie Knights and her team conducted a major review study looking at athlete transitions earlier this year. They outlined how an athlete being able to accept the new chapter in their life and the degree to which this is done voluntarily seems to play a significant role in how successful athletes are. In essence, if you can retire on your terms and have achieved your major performance goals, this is much easier than suffering a major injury or not having a contract renewed. 

Gerrard and Button, both look as though they are in a good place to make a successful transition to the next stage of their careers. Both started the process some time ago, with Gerrard leaving Liverpool to play in the USA, a very obvious first step on the transition ladder.

Button has been talking about his post F1 future for a number of seasons and while he did have a contract to drive next year, it seems as though his agreement with McLaren to act as an ambassador, his strong family support network and interests outside of F1 such as triathlon will make his immediate transition a very smooth one.

Interestingly, Gerrard was interviewed for the manager’s job at MK Dons. He walked away, admitting that “the opportunity had come too soon”. This shows a high level of emotional control, as many athletes suffering from symptoms of loss, would snatch at the first chance to return to the game.

Towards the end of his career at Liverpool, Gerrard worked with Steve Peters, the much-touted psychiatrist, which again shows a level of emotional maturity that will stand him in good stead as he explores his options. Lavellee (2005) highlighted how, in early retirement, an athlete’s network can play a key role in developing a new career path. Liverpool FC and Brendan Rodgers, now at Celtic FC, have extended an open invitation to Gerrard.

In Gerrard and Button, we have two high-profile and seemingly well-equipped athletes ready to move to the next stage of their careers. This though is not always the case. So next time a player is being released, an athlete is having their funding removed, or a career is cut short due to injury, consider how they will cope with retirement - dealing with a transition of status and leaving behind a lifestyle that has helped to shape their identity.