The processes and challenges of adjusting to life after sport for elite athletes is starting to get some limelight. These issues were highlighted in a 2017 episode of 4 Corners called After The Game that is really worth watching. The episode made it clear that vast improvements are needed in this space. Not only during the period after retirement, but also with athletes during their career in order to prepare them for the inevitable. Yes, that’s right all sporting careers will come to an end. But not all athletes will suffer from what we call Post Sporting Career Depression (PSCD). Unlike other depressions that can follow events such as birth (Post Natal Depression) PSCD is yet to be officially recognised.
Juggling Life and Sporting Goals
Elite athletes often struggle with the juggling act between their sport and their life. How much time and energy for sporting goals versus the years following “the glory days”. This is a common concern for anyone chasing a significant and challenging goal, not just athletes. Think about the young medical intern who also has small children at home.
As sport and performance psychologists we often assist our client with this very delicate balancing act.
When setting goals it can be a good idea to make them more holistic rather than just focusing on sport. So, instead of “to sign a professional contract with an EPL club” it might be more meaningful to target “life satisfaction” for example. After all it’s likely that these sporting goals are being targeted as a means to be happy.
Sporting Successful Without Happiness is Not A Win
We are in no way ignoring the importance of an individual’s sporting goals. But maybe these achievements are better “KPIs” to be reviewed. 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 it also asks the question of what else contributes to this experience. Examples of other KPIs might be improving health, building stronger relationships. Or even the concept of TOTIWBEA.
The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At
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.
To use an old cliche, we simply don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket.Unknown
The balance that can be created through a pursuit of TOTIWBEA can be critical to on-field performance. People who have multiple passions and gain meaning from different areas are less likely to be significantly impacted by pressures from one of these areas.
Think about it for a second. If you are a cricketer who only has cricket in your life how will you feel during a ‘form slump’ compared with a more balanced teammate going through the same?
Or you are struck down by injury or are on the cusp of being dropped from the first team? 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 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. 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.
Off Field Areas Impacting On Field Performances
Another factor linked to on-field performance is stress. Stress experienced through a lack of balance can impact on an athlete’s quality and quantity of effort. What we tend to notice in individuals is that when their stress becomes significant their training output drops. When this happens they start to increase the quantity that they are putting in to make up the difference. This 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. It’s a classic viscous cycle.
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.
If you’d like to email me personally regarding any of the above or any other performance psychology topic then feel free to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to reply as quickly as possible. Cheers, David.
Please note that this post was originally published in 2017 but was recently updated and improved. Since then an amazing book called Range by David Epstein has been published which I’d highly recommend.