Retirement from sport: does the winner really take it all?

There are few topics that spark greater debate than money. “Money doesn’t grow on trees”, “the best things in life are free”, “you can’t take it with you” are just some of the sayings that come to mind when you mention money. As a morning person myself, my favourite is “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a person healthy, wealthy and wise”! Even the Swedish supergroup Abba claims that “money must be funny in the rich man’s world”.

In the past sport and money didn’t really mix. People competed at the highest level for glory rather than cash. However, over the last thirty-five years, sport has become big business. The significant increase in amounts paid for television rights for sporting events like the Olympic Games as well as developments in the FIFA World Cup and UEFA Champions League formats have made the world of sport more competitive than ever. Many other sports have followed this trend, leading to a circle of elite sporting professionals who have made a lot of money from sport, with no need to work afterwards.

“Always sunny in the rich man’s world” sing Abba. So why do we continue to hear of stars who have fallen on hard times? Whether it be anecdotal evidence from social media or official studies, such as the research published by the world players’ union FIFPro in 2015 which found that depression and anxiety issues affect over one third of former footballers, it is clear that there is an ever-growing problem which needs to be addressed urgently.

Studies into the lives of lottery winners before and after their win show us that money doesn’t change our happiness levels. Initially, we may be happier after the windfall than before. But we soon go back to the same level of happiness. If you were unhappy before the lottery win, there is every chance that you will return to that same emotional state within a year. So how does this relate to athletes?

If you are a retiring sports star, does an abundance of money really guarantee sunshine in your world, as Abba would like you to believe, or do you need something else to fulfil you when you stop competing? Is money really the answer to all your problems or do you need to look for other things to cope with the challenging transition?

Despite walking away with their financial future assured, many sports stars still have a lot to give up when they leave the field of play for good. Success in sport offers far more than financial rewards alone. The list of what retiring athletes stand to lose is long: status, entitlement, self identity, camaraderie, routine, goals to strive towards, social support, security, self-esteem, self-belief, and a feeling of being better than anyone else at what they do. The adoring fans may still recognize them for a while but interest soon wanes as they move on to the next big name. Over time the motivation to get up in the morning may disappear, together with the dwindling number of true friends and, at a deeper level, feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. Is it no wonder that ex-sports stars often experience a rollercoaster of emotions including loneliness, sadness, frustration, emptiness, fear and anger?

If money doesn’t ensure permanent sunshine in your world, metaphorically speaking of course, what can you do to cope? Transition out of sport can be challenging. Just as you wouldn’t go into a race or a match without ensuring that you had done everything to optimize your chance of success, retirement from sport should be no different. It requires preparation.

So, if you are due to retire in the coming years or have already retired but have no clear plan for the future, take a step back and ask yourself what you need to do today to help yourself. Contact a specialized career coach or someone who has already successfully retired from sport. Seek advice from people who know what you could be going through and how to assist you. Importantly, if you are feeling really anxious or overwhelmed by your situation, seeking help from a medical professional should be your first port of call.

If you are retiring from sport and you imagine that life will always be sunny, think again. Make sure that you get the support you need. After all, it is an undeniable fact that life is way more complicated and challenging than the lyrics of an Abba song would have you believe!



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