What Now? Post Career Challenges for Elite Athletes

Performance Psychologist ‘David Barracosa’ looks at one of the biggest mental challenges faced by elite sportspeople – what to do after they retire.

Do You Know What You'll Do Once You Retire ?
Do You Know What You’ll Do Once You Retire ?

The processes and challenges of adjusting to life after sport for elite athletes were highlighted in a recent episode of 4 Corners that aired on the ABC in Australia; After The Game. The episode made it clear that improvements aren’t just needed during the period after retirement, but also in the work done with athletes during their career in order to prepare them for the inevitable.

One of the interesting things the athletes discussed was the juggling act between investing the necessary time and energy into achieving their sporting goals while also making sure there were avenues and pathways in place when they either chose to retire or were forced to do so. This is a common concern for anyone chasing a significant and challenging goal, but the work we do with people on goal setting acknowledges this exact point.

One of the suggestions we make for people when setting their long-term or season goal is that it can be a good idea to make it more holistic rather than just focusing on sport. So, instead of the long-term goal being “sign a professional contract with an English Premier League club” or “be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft” it might be more meaningful to target “life satisfaction” as the long-term goal. We are in no way ignoring the importance of an individual’s sporting goal because it would make up one of the monthly checks that would be reviewed and evaluated to ensure that progress is made and is leading towards life satisfaction or happiness. This is a valuable adjustment because it acknowledges that sport is a key contributor to your overall well being, but also asks the question of what else contributes to this experience. Examples of these other monthly checks might be improving health, building stronger relationships, or even the concept of TOTIWBEA.

TOTIWBEA stands for The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At and it can be anything you want it to be. It can be another sport, an alternate career, pathway of education, relationship, or anything else you can come up with. The reason it’s so important is that it prevents an athlete or coach from being defined solely by their sport. This is dangerous because when the sport is gone, so to is an individual’s identity unless they have other meaningful areas in their life which TOTIWBEA can help create. To use an old cliche, we simply don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.

The balance that can be created through a pursuit of TOTIWBEA or just reformatting someone’s goals to acknowledge sport as part of a bigger picture can be critical to on-field performance. People who have multiple passions and gain meaning/value from different areas of their lives are less likely to be significantly impacted by pressures as their experience of it is spread out across several areas of their life. What this means is that if you happen to be struck down by injury or are on the cusp of being dropped from the first team, for example, and sport is the sole focus and contributor to your well being, the stress of this is going to have a more significant impact than on an individual who places similar importance on building relationships or their pursuit of education. These other areas can provide support and structure for you to manage the stress while still moving in a positive direction in your life. It’s probably worth saying that a lot of people do have these other areas but if they aren’t given the recognition or highlighted as important then their benefits can be missed.

The other factor in helping on-field performance is that the stress experienced through a lack of balance can also impact on an athlete’s quality and quantity of effort. What we tend to notice in individuals is that when their stress becomes significant and they don’t have balance the quality of their effort drops. When this happens they start to increase the quantity that they are putting in to make up the difference, which unfortunately leaves less time for the other areas of their life. This creates further imbalance and makes it more difficult to achieve satisfaction in these other meaningful domains. One advantage of setting up your Four Improvment Areas so that sport along with the other meaningful areas makes up the monthly checks is that you are able to make decisions regarding how much time each of these areas receives in a week.

The final suggestion about managing this important area of an athlete’s performance is not for them but actually for coaches, administrators and potentially other psychologists. While our role is to help athletes work towards creating the best opportunities to achieve their sporting goals, we can’t ignore the fact that it is not forever. In a lot of sports, playing professionally at 40 years of age is an anomaly. There a lot of years post-retirement for an athlete to continue to have a meaningful life. We need to have honest conversations and point out the importance of balance because this may be lost for an athlete in their pursuit of excellence. They aren’t easy conversations, but they may prove to be the most important.