Olympic athlete Chris Hoy, 37, recently announced his retirement from competitive cycling after winning 11 world titles. Retirement is often treated as a taboo subject in the world of sport so what happens to sports figures when they retire and why do so many struggle to cope?
Unfortunately for many people their job is not their dream but this is not the case with athletes. World class athletes have dedicated their whole lives, from a very early age, to being the best and succeeding. At some point, an athlete has to give up their dream, not because they have had a lifetime of it but because they are forced to, generally because they are deemed too old in the sporting world or because they have suffered an injury and are not as fit as they used to be. It can also be a matter of timing with athletes leaving the sport while they are still on top.
This can be incredibly damaging at a psychological level, especially as many athletes retire when they are still young. Retired athletes can face a huge challenge at an identity level; they have always been associated with their chosen sport and even in retirement they will be known as 'John the sprinter' or 'Jane the rower'. The problem is that when you retire your identity changes and it can be hard to reconcile yourself with this.
Athletes have also been used to a very tough routine which has been regimented in terms of when they get up, what they eat and when they train. In retirement this rigid structure is stripped away and athletes are suddenly faced with large expanses of time to fill. Athletes' social networks also change when they retire and the strong friendships, and sometimes relationships, they have formed in their training circles can be difficult to maintain as they remove themselves from the sport.
Of course not all athletes struggle with retirement and it very much depends on how they leave the sport, whether this is on a high or a low. A small minority of athletes secure multi-million pound sponsoring deals so upon retirement they can relax as it is not as urgent for them to enter a new business. However, the majority who have competed as full-time athletes, despite working very hard, will actually have very little saved and will not be rewarded with a financial pay off or sponsorship. For these athletes, they now need to find a job and this can be quite daunting when all they have known is competitive sport.
I have worked with many retired athletes to help them cope with this transition. Through coaching, I have helped athletes to commercialise their ideas by identifying what skill set they have and what they are passionate about. Many choose to enter jobs in the world of sport; going on to be sports commentators, coach youth sport or become personal trainers. Whereas others choose to build and put their name to a business from scratch like George Forman, the former boxer who set up the George Foreman Grill company which is doing extremely well.
Retired athletes of Olympic status often become motivational speakers like Ben Hunt-Davis, the Olympic rower who won gold at the Sydney Olympics. I have worked with Ben and love what he has done; he has written a book called Will it Make the Boat Go Faster? which applies his experiences of rowing and teamwork to all walks of working life. Using his book, he delivers training and motivational speeches to companies by linking business with the lessons he learnt from sport.
From working with retired athletes I have found that a lot of them have very high career goals and want to excel in their new careers. In fact if you list the qualities and skills of an entrepreneur, and the qualities and behaviours you need to be a successful athlete you will find that they are extremely similar in terms of being focused, determined and resilient, with a go-for-it attitude.
There are support networks in place to help athletes cope and The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust is a brilliant example of this. What is unique about the Trust is that it is not only committed to inspiring young people but to helping retired athletes too by organising for them to mentor young people across the country, essentially paying it forward.
I have known many retired athletes go on to achieve great things in business and one thing is for sure, you should never underestimate them. I wish Chris Hoy every success and look forward to seeing his future achievements.
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