You’ve dedicated so much of your life to your sport. You’ve invested your time, energy, resources and made a lot of personal sacrifices to get to this level.
You’ve spent countless hours (and literal blood, sweat, and tears) at practice, in the weight room, in the athletic trainer’s office, and in competition.
Your entire day is structured and scheduled around your sport.
Your social network likely consists of your teammates, and family members and coaches who’ve supported you along the way.
You find meaning and purpose in being an athlete.
You enjoy competition. You love the spotlight.
For better or worse, your identity is wrapped up around being an athlete.
And then — suddenly — it all ends.
Now what? What happens when the cheers fade, the spotlight dims, and the sport you love continues without you?
Beyond the glory of winning lies the silent struggle that many retired athletes face: the battle for their mental well-being.
Whether the retirement was voluntary (e.g., family or social commitments, new career trajectory) or involuntary (e.g., age, serious injury, dropped from the team) (Montero et al., 2022), the transition from athletic life can be really hard.
These transitions fall under two categories: successful and crisis. When the demands of the transition are met, it’s considered to be successful, however, when ineffective coping emerges, it’s considered to be crisis (Montero et al., 2022).
Going from structure to the unknown future can be scary. Many struggle to adjust to a life without the routine and structure that sports provide. The loss of identity tied to your role as an athlete can lead to feelings of emptiness and purposelessness. You may start to ask yourself, “if I’m no longer an athlete, WHO AM I?”.
You’re not alone.
Here are some athletes who’ve talked about the struggles of retirement and their mental health.
“Depression is real in the NBA for retired players. It’s the one thing that validates you, and now you don’t have that. The game, this make-believe-world we have been in, consumes you and as a result of that, you don’t necessarily have time to develop other skills for the real world. For me, I’m going to stay busy.”
— Grant Hill, seven-time NBA All-Star
“A lot of athletes fall into a deep depression after the Olympics. Athletes post-Olympics or post-retirement need a lot of support, a lot of people reminding them of their worth beyond just their athletic achievements and results.”
— Holly Brooks, two-time Olympic cross-country skier
“You go from one world to a whole different world and that’s a culture shock. Guys get depressed. It’s like you’re lost. It’s like who are you?” You have to have a strong will, strong support system and you have to have stuff going on that keeps you busy.”
— Baron Davis, two-time NBA All-Star
Common Mental Health Issues Among Retired Athletes
If you’ve found yourself dealing with depression, anxiety, sleep problems, disordered eating, turning to substances more and more, or even questioning “what’s the point in all of this?” — you’re not alone. Research shows that athletic retirement can elicit a host of mental health issues (Montero et al., 2022).
And yet despite dealing with these mental health issues, retired athletes experiencing psychological distress often don’t seek treatment (Mannes et al., 2018).
Ok, so you’re reading this and you might be thinking to yourself, “that kinda feels in line with what I’ve been experiencing. Now what?”.
Coping Mechanisms and Support Systems
It’s important for retired athletes to adopt healthy coping mechanisms to navigate the challenges of post-sports life successfully. Here are some ideas:
- Allow yourself to grieve your loss
You have lost something that has meant so much to you. It may even feel like you’re mourning the loss of someone you loved, someone who was an integral part of your life. Allow yourself to acknowledge and accept the gravity of that loss.
- Expand your identity beyond your role as an athlete
Engage in new hobbies, pursue education or find alternative career paths that can help you create a sense of purpose beyond your athletic persona (if you want to stay sport-adjacent, maybe consider coaching or mentoring athletes).
- Find an enjoyable way to stay active
Inactivity following retirement creates greater transition struggles. You may feel like you have nothing to do, but it’s important to find a way to stay active since greater physical activity decreases the risk of depression (Mannes et al., 2018). Try to find physical activities that are enjoyable or try something that you can do with others.
- Build a strong support system
Stay in touch with sports peers to maintain those connections AND also find time to spend with people outside of the sport community. Reach out to friends and family and let them know what you’ve been dealing with, and allow them to be there for you. You may also want to consider working with a mental health professional who can provide you with necessary support during this time of transition.
And remember — it’s not a sign of weakness but of great courage to take a step towards reclaiming your mental well-being! You don’t have to go through this alone.
Mannes, Z. L., Waxenberg, L. B., Cottler, L. B., Perlstein, W. M., Burrell, L. E. II, Ferguson, E. G., et al. (2018). Prevalence and correlates of psychological distress among retired elite athletes: a systematic review. Int. Rev. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 12, 265–294. doi: 10.1080/1750984X.2018.1469162
Montero, A., Stevens, D., Adams, R., & Drummond, M. (2022). Sleep and mental health issues in current and former athletes: A mini review. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.868614
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