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Disorientation, depression and danger: retirement in sport

The corrosive loss experienced by athletes post-career are damaging and dangerous, explains Sports Editor Michael Jones as he pens the third piece in his 'Sporting Psychology' column.

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“I’m  35 and I still don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am as a person.” Such candid remarks are likely to painfully resonate with many. The name Jason Brown is rarely recognised, but he enjoyed a relatively successful goalkeeping career, representing Wales and a string of football league clubs. A traditional journeyman, Brown’s story – one of depression – will not have been heard.

It is not an indictment on attitudes surrounding mental health, though there certainly exists parameters for such a discussion, but rather a reflection on the attention or lack thereof afforded to athletes who are not constantly in the public’s immediate consciousness. Brown has done much to promote awareness of mental health, but his initiatives do not receive the coverage they deserve.

Whilst one can lament such anonymity, one can also appreciate the private life it affords. We are no longer surprised when a former sports star descends into various traumas; Tiger Woods’ drink-driving charge being the most recent example. There lies a very valid argument to suggest that such media attention can accelerate latent illness, the hounding and criticism a catalyst for further destruction. None more so is this relevant than the regrettable example of one of England’s beloved sons, Paul Gascoigne.

“the debilitating monsters of mental illness do not discriminate”

Like Brown, Gazza’s individual demons overwhelmed him upon retirement. Both lived in polar lights, Brown’s isolated pain and Gazza’s well-documented alcoholism, but both endured similar feelings of depression. The debilitating monsters of mental illness do not discriminate between high and low earners. Thus, we must ask the question: why do so many sportsmen and women suffer in retirement?

Lewis Moody, a World Cup winning ex-England rugby international, offers some explanation: “It was hard to wake up to the realisation you wouldn’t have a set routine. It was so structured and then all of a sudden it was like having a guillotine cut off part of your body. The next day you wake up and go ‘what happens now?’” Moody’s example is indicative of a profession that revolves around organisation and commitment, and if these epithets of

Moody’s example is indicative of a profession that revolves around organisation and commitment, and if these epithets of a sport are neglected then top-level achievement is prohibited. For years a sports person’s days are preordained, either geared for optimum performance come match-day or for subtle yet significant improvements – such training programmes being the collective products of nutritionists, coaches and sports scientists. You will train, you will listen, you will learn. Every day for a number of decades your week revolves around preparing yourself for a gruelling tennis match, a 100m sprint, or in Moody’s case 80 minutes of unrelenting physicality.

” an idendity is guillotined”

A whole identity is constructed. A sporting identity. Brown describes how he knows who “Jason Brown the athlete is: he’s mentally strong, confident”, but is still searching for who he is “as a person”. Therein lies one explanation: an athlete’s conception of who they are is often intimately bound up with their sport. They dedicate so much time to training that they have little time to conceive of themselves as someone distinct from their sport. When that sport and its associated structure is – to borrow the vivid and confrontational words of Moody – “guillotined”, so is one’s identity.

Aptly named Stephen Rowbotham, who achieved Olympic honours rowing competitively, invites further reasoning: “in sport, you’re in control of your own destiny, but it is not reality”. It is evidently intoxicating, to feel in complete control, to know that years of sacrifice has enabled you to enter into a tranquil moment of certainty – in a sporting environment that is naturally volatile and unpredictable, this must be the apex. To then be stripped of control upon retirement must be suffocating and disorientating.

“mercilessly vulnerable”

When you have known only one thing for your whole life – your particular sport – you are not well equipped for retirement. Sport “is not reality”. No longer was Rowbotham engineering his own fate, but he was now the victim of a life streamlined for temporary success, mercilessly vulnerable to the harsh dynamics of “real life”.

There are of course exceptions to the rule, but elite level athletes have not had to the educational opportunities of their real-world peers, as academia takes a back-seat in their pursuit of glory. Thus, when those who are not fortunate to have earned enough for a lifetime are left searching for a livelihood after retirement, they come up stuck. For the first time in their lives, there is a devastating powerlessness – the polar experience of being in control of one’s fate. This, too, must go some way in explaining the endemic of mental illness in retired sports people.

Ray Charles Leonard, one of the greats of modern boxing, provides another glimpse into the despairing world of retirement. For “Sugar Ray”, as he was affectionately known, “nothing could satisfy [him] outside the ring”. “There was nothing in life that could compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.”

“the promise of a high written into these toxic substances”

Whilst sporting fans can share the sense of euphoria pervasive upon an individual or team’s success it is not a feeling that perfectly mirrors the emotions surging through the actual athletes. Fans will be introduced to this glory, but will never experience its truly addictive effects – this is not a slight on the commitment, passion and loyalty of a fan, but a simple reality that reflects the individual euphoria of those who actually “won”. Becoming a champion or being a crucial part of a team of champions is something exclusive to the sporting premiership – but so are its eventual ramifications, consequences that do not immediately materialise, but lurk malevolently behind a screen of triumph. For many athletes winning in sport is a high that simply cannot be met in the “real world”. It is perhaps why some turn to drugs or alcohol: the promise of a high written into those toxic substances. Sadly, like sporting glory, the long-term effects can be irretrievably damaging.

Emerging bewildered and vulnerable, with something missing, retirement for those who have dedicated decades to a sport can be a frightening prospect. We arrive at our conclusion with an indisputable sense of melancholy, for this investigation has been saturated in regretful stories and concerning outcomes. Underwriting all of what has been discussed by these former athletes is the notion of absence. Be it one’s identity, one’s daily structure or the inability to conjure up the moments of glory and euphoria experienced during a career, these reasons – and there are much, much more – are connected by one corrosive ingredient: loss.

 

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