THE BLOG

Finding A Sense Of Meaning As An Ex-Athlete

13/04/2017 15:45 BST | Updated 13/04/2017 15:45 BST
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I'm now into my third year as an ex-athlete.

Some days, I feel a real sense of purpose, others I'm still a little lost.

I'm now left to my own devices after years of being told what to do, where to go, even what to wear, as a professional footballer.

The world outside of sport does not have those same restrictions, which taken as a standalone point, is ultimately great, but I had gradually become institutionalised by the whole process.

I spent over two decades of my life desperately trying to get people to like me; managers to pick me, to buy me, to believe in me. And now, it doesn't really matter what those people think about me as I try to move forward.

Within sport we judge ourselves in light of how others judge us; is that how we should judge ourselves when we are retired from sport? For me, what matters most, now, is how I feel about myself.

We have more choices than we think.

At times, we may not feel that way, we may feel constrained by certain circumstances or expectations, but if you take a step back and think, there is a big world out there to be explored.

As an athlete, you have probably only explored one very small part of it through being an athlete. But now you are an adult, instead of a young athlete trying to achieve success, and you have a choice in how you spend the rest of your life.

Reflecting back, of course I was going to be a footballer, that's what everyone expected; I just rode the wave. And maybe you are influenced by the media depiction of footballers, their fame, income and all those trappings.

Well, to dispel the myth, now, I'm earning around minimum wage from a university bursary, all of my savings have gone, and I feel like I work very hard. I tell you this not for sympathy, it would not be accepted were you to offer it.

But it allows me to talk about my next steps.

Everybody I interact with earns more than me, and it's so tempting to join them. Perhaps, some people approach their work as a way to earn, to provide, to make their life better in some way by having more things and by doing more stuff.

Throughout my journey of retirement I've realised that, for me, I just can't do it, I can't subscribe to that view, and that is centrally what this blog asks you to think about, finding a sense of meaning in what you do when sport ends.

A sense of meaning, detached from family/parenthood perhaps, does not just fall on to your lap, in my opinion. You find it at the culmination of a process of reflection, of asking yourself some really difficult questions. Like, who am I? What is important to me? How do I want to look back on my life?

Asking yourself such questions is simultaneously terrifying and exciting. The temptation is to take the quick fix job, the easy opportunity. You might be like me and feel like your new work cycle is completely out of sync with your life cycle.

At 35, I would prefer to have a settled job, income and pension, like my friends. Not to be starting again. But I know that if I take something that isn't right for me, that doesn't align with who I am, I will never be happy for long enough to enjoy the stability.

So, the question appears to be, who are you? Well, I am still figuring this out, but I know that what is central to who I am, what is central to the meaning I attach to life, is to be found in helping other people. This is why I take great satisfaction in being able to mentor young people and help them to lead a positive life.

In thinking of creative and compassionate ways to support them, to let them know that others care about them, and to encourage them to strive to be all they can be. But to find it for them, not for anyone else, or to pay a bill. There will always be more bills to pay, that is for sure!

A palliative care nurse wrote a book about her patients as they contemplated their ill-health and reflected on their lives. Again, a central theme was that people hadn't found their sense of meaning, of purpose, or they hadn't been brave enough to go for it when they had. Powerful stuff.

So, my advice is this - take the time, mentally, to figure these big questions out. Don't lack the courage to ask yourself the questions and use the answers to create new meaning.

Otherwise, it could be you quoted in the palliative nurse's book in the future...

Chris is an athlete mentor for Dame Kelly Holmes Trust - a UK charity that trains and develops world class athletes to empower young people facing disadvantage. The Trust's programmes target young people most in need of help and enables them to lead a healthy lifestyle, enjoy career success, achieve in education and become involved in meaningful activities. Last year they ran programmes for care leavers, homeless people, young offenders, women at risk of sexual exploitation and those living within isolated communities. For more information visit www.damekellyholmestrust.org.