WINNERS Never Can Quit

24 November 2020

WINNERS never can quit: helping elite athletes adapt to life after sport


Retired athletes are susceptible to psychological distress after stopping sports. If we spoke more openly about what happens after people quit, the experience wouldn’t be so isolating.

We all hear about the everyday struggles of the elite athlete. Marketing material, films and television shows glorify the act of “getting up after you fall” and “continuing on” no matter the cost.

The idea that anyone can achieve their goals through persistence is inspiring, yet often misleading. This message doesn’t acknowledge that pressing on often isn’t the best option.

The reality of high-performance sport is that it requires an immense amount of time, energy and willpower. Athletes continually weigh up their performance potential and the sacrifices required in other areas of life, performing an ever-changing equation of sacrifice and reward.

Recently, I was unable to justify why I was still rowing. After seven years of waking up at 4:45am to fit in training twice a day, six days a week, I had nothing left to give. My equation wasn’t producing the results that it used to.

I achieved goals in other areas of life during this stint as an athlete. I’d finished high school as academic Dux, completed my undergraduate degree, started a master’s, completed internships and maintained a casual job.

However, my training load had become more demanding as this new program sought to progress athletes to national selection. The idea of committing to almost three daily sessions, on top of my academic workload, made my stomach leap. Anxious thoughts plagued me as I crammed more training into an already packed schedule: you need to train harder; you’re not fast enough; this will all be a waste; you’ll never make a national team. 

The pressure of elite sport is paralysing. Once an athlete achieves a goal, there inevitably comes another, more elusive objective. The satisfaction of improvement is short-lived and immediately replaced with the pursuit of a more prestigious milestone.

Having spent several years in the company of Olympic and World Championship athletes, I admire their perseverance and have the highest respect for their achievements.

Having said that, observing the intensity of their focus is a clear indicator that elite sporting success is not possible, or fulfilling, for everyone.

Upon quitting rowing, one of my friends admitted that he was simply “sick of hurting himself”. The will to push oneself to the point of physical and psychological agony is what’s ultimately required to achieve.

Representations of sport in black and white terms—such as “winners” and “quitters”—prompts retired athletes to view their experience as a disappointment. Athletes are incredibly motivated and ambitious, which is often accompanied by high expectations.

Many retired athletes experience poor mental health. On SBS Insight, renowned athletes such as former Sydney Swans captain Barry Hall and former Olympians Matthew Mitcham, Jana Pittman, Libby Trickett and Lauren Jackson, described their difficulties in redefining their identities after sport.

Jackson, a basketball great, spoke about her sudden retirement in 2016 due to injury, confessing: “I went into a shell. I stayed with my parents. I didn’t leave the house. They really just took care of me.”

An Australian study conducted in 2015 found the most common mental health symptoms experienced by retired athletes are: depression (27.2 per cent), eating disorders (22.8 per cent), psychological distress (16.5 per cent), social anxiety (14.7 per cent), generalised anxiety (7.1 per cent), and panic disorders (4.5%).

Retired athletes are often left in the dark with limited career experience. It’s common for individuals to be cherry-picked by selectors in childhood and funnelled into high-performance competition, with little consideration of alternative paths.

Others quit before their commitment to sport detracts from external opportunities or for monetary reasons. Instead of deeming these athletes as “failures”, we should understand why they quit.

If we stopped viewing sporting achievement as the pinnacle of success, participation in casual sport would likely increase. A study by George Washington University found that children often quit sport entirely due to external pressure and training demands.

Nine out of ten children said that fun was the main reason they participated in sport. “Winning” was ranked 30th out of 81 qualities that the children found enjoyable.

Open conversations about the nuances of elite sport would increase acceptance of athletes who quit. For those feeling trapped in highly competitive environments, discussion about flexible options may provide pathways to casually enjoy sport.

Greater inclusion of retired athletes would encourage them to take on other crucial roles, such as coaching, umpiring and mentoring. These supporting positions are vital to facilitate the participation of future generations.

Let’s be mindful of athletes. Let’s ask them how they’re going and make sure they have space to discuss their experience. Let’s steer away from simplistic portrayals of the “sporting hero”, and remember that we’re all just people, even elite athletes.

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