With the football season now in full swing post lockdown, many supporters are delighted to be watching their favourite teams. First the excitement of the FA cup final in Wembley and now the Euros – what could be better? But have you ever considered what happens to professional sports players once they retire?
In the UK, sports professionals represent around 1.3% of all employment[i]. A BBC study on the ‘state of sport’ investigated what happens to players and athletes beyond their sports career, and found that few decide when to retire: ‘only three in 10 former players were able to choose when they stopped playing professional sport.’ [ii] The second interesting point about these individuals is their age – as a rule, players or athletes are at their prime in their twenties; although it does vary depending on the discipline. Statistics on the ages of Olympic medallists indicate that horse dressage has the oldest competitors at around 37 years; and gymnastics the youngest at just 18.[iii]
Increased longevity and the possibility of a ‘100 year life’ means that a 50 year career will soon become the norm. Given the majority of sports professionals retire between the ages of 30-35, most will have more than half their career to fulfil.
Gail Emms, former badminton Olympic champion, bravely spoke about her struggles nine years after retirement. She explained that: ‘everyone assumes you are made for life’; however the reality is very different. Despite getting opportunities to speak at events in the short term, she struggled with long term career direction and focus, as well as with poor mental health and financial issues: ‘ I am just struggling with what to do. How can I train myself for this? I’m in a world I don’t know’.[iv]
Whilst it’s common for those undergoing a career transition to experience the ‘grief curve’; there are some specific challenges associated with this profession including:
- Loss of identity – absence of a sports persona and public attention can leave former sports people suddenly feeling unvalued and unsure who they are.
- Financial difficulties – without a decent income; ‘just over half of respondents reported financial difficulties in the five years after stopping playing’.
- Mental health impact – some report issues with depression and others with addiction – ‘It is not unusual to hear players speak about feelings of mourning and grief when they retire” (Simon Taylor, Chief Executive of the PPF).
- Unprepared for transition – pressures to perform and compete can hinder their ability to focus on career planning until after retirement; and some may not have tertiary qualifications or other work experience.
- Loss of structure/focus – the absence of a rigid training regime can leave individuals feeling disoriented and ‘at sea’.
Governing bodies and associations such as UK Sport are taking a much more pro-active role in preparing individuals for retirement; but more could be done to make this transition smoother. Ex-sports professionals need dedicated support to empower them to:
- Re-identify their sense of self – define who they are without sport (their intrinsic value).
- Assess their skills and talents – understand the value of their salient transferable skills and attributes such as discipline, determination, resilience and team playing.
- Explore their options – network and gain insights to different career pathways and understand their interests.
- Build their vocational portfolio – undertake paid or voluntary work to discover what they enjoy and build a new track record.
- Re-train/upskill – undertake development training or a qualification in a new vocational area e.g. physio therapy.
- Career plan – develop manageable short and medium term action plans to focus activity on a weekly basis.
- Find solidarity – join support communities and networks with others who understand what they’re experiencing.
- Look after their wellbeing – assess the psychological impact and find personalised support both during the immediate ‘grief cycle’, as well as longer term as they find their feet.
The Activate Programme provides dedicated career transition support for individuals undergoing a major career transition. Modules are delivered in an interactive and supportive group format (4-10), as well as in personalised 1:1 sessions.
If you’d like to find out more email me to arrange a confidential chat – Liz@empoweringinsights.co.uk