When Elite Athletes Retire: A Mental, Physical and Emotional Minefield

By Clare BruceMonday 20 Feb 2017Hope Mornings

Listen: Katrina Roe interviews former Olympian Gearoid Towey, founder of Crossing The Line Sport.

Elite athletes often face a rude awakening after retiring from sport, struggling with lack of direction, mental battles and at times drug dependency.

The issue has made headlines this week with the tragic death of former Wallaby Dan Vickerman at age 37, and the very public troubles of former Olympic swimmer Grant Hackett, who has faced drug addiction, divorce and mental illness in recent years.

Gearoid Towey, a former World champion and Olympian, is the founder of Crossing The Line Sport, an organisation dedicated to helping athletes transition emotionally into life outside sport.

He told Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe that he knows only too well the kind of struggles sportspeople like Dan Vickerman and Grant Hackett have faced.

He went through it himself.

“Nobody Told me it’s Tough on the Other Side”: Former Olympian

Tough transition: Irish rower Gearoid Towey (right) struggled to find motivation outside of elite competition.

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When he retired from elite level rowing after the Beijing Olympic Games, Gearoid said he had no idea what to expect. He found himself experiencing laziness, depression and a lack of motivation and purpose.

“At the time I had no idea what was happening, but it’s pretty obvious now exactly what was going on,” he said. “I stopped training and found it easy to stop, to be honest. I never thought that would happen. That’s one of the things about my retirement that has shocked me—I got lazy very fast.

“Having that purpose to get up and train for an Olympic games, you don’t even question it. Whereas now I ask myself all the time, why I’m doing this. So I did feel that change. I got a little bit down, and I was down for a while, and operating at about 40 percent.”

Grant Hackett: Making Headlines for the Wrong Reasons

In the headlines: Elite swimmer Grant Hackett has found work in sports commentary, yet has still faced many personal struggles after retiring from international competition. 

Former Olympic swimmer Grant Hacket has made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years, having struggled with drug dependency, and mental issues causing trauma in his family. After his arrest for abusive behaviour at his parents’ house last week, as well as a brief disappearance, brother Craig told journalists that his family were in despair over Grant’s mental state.

“To see someone who was so dominant and he had the world at his feet to now really we don’t know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t look encouraging,” Craig said. “But if he gets the right type of treatment maybe he might be able to claw himself out of it…Hes’ there in body but he’s not there in mind or soul or spirit.”

Athletes Need to be Better Prepared for Life After Sport

In his interview with Hope 103.2, Gearoid Towey said he believes it would have made a big difference to his own transition to post-sporting life, if he’d been told what to expect.

“Being more aware would have helped,” he said. Nobody ever said to me, ‘It’s tough on the other side, be ready’.

“I had a degree and was actually ready for work, but I guess what I wasn’t ready for was that physical change and that whole loss of purpose and passion, and realising how my identity was very much tied into my sport.

“You can kind of trick yourself or cheat yourself into thinking that you are a very rounded and balanced human being but in fact I wasn’t.”

The Emotional Fallout of Leaving Elite Competition

A shock to the rugby world: Former Wallaby Dan Vickerman died over the weekend.

When former sport stars and international athletes are no longer surrounded by schedules, coaches, team mates and fans, they often struggle to find meaning and direction. It’s something Gearoid calls ‘no man’s land’.

“It’s a very complex range of issues they face,” he said.

“First of all, athletes have been, since they were very young, doing sport to a high level every single day. Some of them from the age of eight or nine years old. And with that they get their happy drugs, every day – the dopamine that gives them a really good sense of who they are, what they’re doing, focus, concentration.

To compound their problems, elite athletes are often “too proud or too shy” to ask for help, says Tour de France cyclist Joerg Jaksche.

“Athletes are actually ahead of their peers a lot of the time through their teens and early 20s, because they know exactly what they’re doing where a lot of their peers don’t. Then when the time comes to retire, if people stop completely, then those happy feel-good chemicals are stopped as well. So the way they can regulate their mood has changed.”

Gearoid said world champions aren’t the only ones who struggle with these difficulties; there are also those who don’t quite make it onto the world stage.

“Even after years of training you could be a massive talent who’s just about to explode onto the scene, and it could just be cut short by injury,” he said. “There’s thousands and thousands of people like that out there.”

“The thing about them is they feel like they don’t have an outlet or can’t admit to feeling down about that, even years later.”

To compound their problems, elite athletes are often “too proud or too shy” to ask for help, according to Tour de France cyclist Joerg Jaksche.

Finding Employment Outside Sport a Struggle

Battling demons: Grant Hackett pictured before a race in the 2016 Australian Swimming Championships. 

Another challenge elite athletes face after retirement is unemployment, with many not knowing where to start in finding a new purpose for their life. Yet the irony is that high-level sportsmen and women have so much to offer the world, says Gearoid.

“There’s a multitude of skills [they have],” he said. “There’s the obvious ones like focus, good work ethic, time keeping and that kind of stuff. Athletes are never late.

“Then there’s leadership qualities with some of them, being good team players. They do it really naturally in the sporting environment, and don’t even realise they’re being good leaders. All it takes is a bit of work to recognise those transferable skills and implement them in a new sphere.”

Help for Former Athletes

Gearoid’s organisation Crossing The Line Sport offers resources, workshops and events helping athletes adjust to a more normal life.

After their first summit in Dublin, Gearoid said many athletes came away greatly encouraged.

“We found that lots of people who had their careers cut short because of injury came to our summit, and found it so releasing that they could actually feel the grief of losing their sporting careers and feel ok about that,” he said.

This Saturday Crossing The Line Sport will host a summit in Sydney with speakers including Olympic swimmer Daniel Kowalski, champion cyclist Kate Bates, Olympic rower Kim Brennan and many more. The event will include talks for transitioning out of sport for men and for women, career transitioning, and an anti-doping panel.

For Support

If you’re going through depression or struggling in some other way and need to talk, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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