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The several stages of athlete retirement

For years, elite athletes train extensively, making many personal sacrifices and commitments in order to pursue their life-long dreams of sporting success. As they chase after their athletic aspirations, they’re often left with the decision to put certain things on hold and such tremendous commitment to their chosen sport can sometimes mean family life, romantic relationships and even academic endeavours are left on a back burner. For elite athletes, at the prime of their careers and indeed, on the journey towards getting there – sport is at the centre of everything they do; and in the midst of the highs and lows, the daunting concept of retirement slips far from the mind. However, like all good things must, the journey will come to an end and the time must come for an athlete to bid farewell to the sporting career they’ve nurtured for so many years.

So, what happens next and what does retirement mean for the high-performance sportsperson? Athlete retirement is a truly unique experience, during which an entire transitional process takes place. As athletes move on to pastures new, they often do so with feelings of apprehension, fear and uncertainty. Many athletes are unsure of what to expect and as they transition towards life after sport, it becomes more apparent that there are several stages to the process of retirement– and it’s never as simple as just learning to let go. SHOCK

Naturally, even the sole thought of walking away can invoke emotions of grief and the initial reaction may be one of shock. It’s plausible that an athlete may not have even considered retirement by the time it happens; injury, exhaustion and many other unexpected events can see this happen much sooner than anticipated. For those unexpecting athletes, shock will be perhaps the first emotion they’ll need to process and learning to accept the end when they were least prepared for it, can be a challenging experience. At times, athletes may be fully aware of their impending retirement and while the actual decision may not come as a shock, the aftereffects still may. Suddenly, the high-performance athlete is no longer expected to train, practice or perform and as usual regimes become a thing of the past, many will be left feeling there is nothing more to aim for. This instantaneous change of direction can be enough to create a sense of shock – an emotion often behind the very first stage of athlete retirement.


Much like the natural grieving process of losing someone you love, denial swiftly follows. For elite athletes, leaving their sport can very much feel like losing their identity. Over years, even decades, these are people who have become renowned and recognised for the sport they practice. In the first few weeks following official retirement, athletes may experience denial in several instances. Elite athletes and high-performing sportspeople are predominantly mentally resilient. Through several years of tough practice, challenging endurance and occasional defeat, they have learned to handle emotions well, and at times – they will have been taught not to show emotion or express weakness, particularly when faced with opposition. Here, at this crucial and early stage of retirement, they may revert to hiding their emotion as they transition through to the next phase.

WITHDRAWAL Suddenly, the elite athlete is transitioned into a quieter stage of life. It’s farewell to the early wake up calls and day-break gym sessions, and a much-needed break from the tabloids and regular public relation events. It’s the simplicity of a less pressured life and the controls around what they eat, drink and how often they exercise, are no longer so confining. For many athletes, this may initially be a welcomed experience as they allow themselves the opportunity to relax and unwind – something they have long deserved. However, it is certain that some feelings of withdrawal will be felt here as they suddenly find themselves adapting to a new way of life, that requires much less from them – both physically and mentally.


A confusing and reflective stage of retirement, this is the very time where an athlete will ask so many questions. They may range from the more negative spectrum of questions such as “Why has this happened?” and “Could I have changed this?”. Statements of vulnerability may flash through the athlete mind, “If only….” in an emotional bid to try and bargain with the inevitable situation. Quite soon, these questions will reform and change direction and the athlete will start to question the future. “What do I want to do next, and how will I get there?” are quite often the first questions to indicate the positive step of moving forwards. They may find themselves asking about transitional support and the help available to them when it comes to navigating through the next stage of retirement. This will be the ideal time and opportunity for them to really start thinking about life goals, aspirations and dreams outside of the realms of sport.


Once those more positive and forward-thinking questions have been asked, its symbolic of acceptance of the situation. The athlete is now ready to move on and progress to the next stage of retirement, this is where they may utilise the full support of transitional services and programs such as those offered by ACT. At this point, the athlete may be ready to take on new challenges, such as building a new CV, attending interviews and searching for new and exciting career roles. This may be the opportunity for embracing family life to its fullest and investing in relationships that until now, had been somewhat neglected. This is often the most remarkable experience as the elite athlete almost becomes reborn, finding new facets of their personality as they unleash skills and talents they may have unconsciously not acknowledged before and they may realise, this is just the very beginning of something truly spectacular.

Remember, the journey for each retiring athlete will differ and retirement comes with no defined end date, but here, at Athlete Career Transition, we are committed to supporting our athletes through each stage of the process as they transition into new adventures. Find out more about who we are here.


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