While some athletes still have jobs outside the sport world, more and more professional athletes train for a living. While that creates a uniquely focused environment that allows athletes to concentrate on their performance goals, it also sets them up for a rude awakening.
The reality is that all sporting careers end, and life after sports must begin. Some end sooner than others, but eventually every Olympian has to face the question of what to do after the games. The most obvious choices include coaching and public speaking – both flow naturally out of an Olympic career, and allow the athlete to capitalize on their existing skills and a measure of fame. However, high-paying coaching slots are few and far between. Speaking engagements, while initially lucrative, can dry up over the years because event organizers tend to focus on more recent medalists.
As a result, many athletes look outside the sports world when considering their next steps. The transition isn’t always easy. Here are some factors that can make adjusting to post-Olympic life and life after sports difficult.
Shock of transition to a less-structured life
An athlete’s life is highly regimented. There is a tight schedule for each day’s training, and everything from weight to food intake is logged and monitored. One might imagine that relaxing the rigid structure would feel liberating, but many athletes report feeling lost without it.
Lack of immediate feedback
When training for the Olympics, an athlete’s efforts are constantly recognized. It’s clear what must be done each day to move closer to the ultimate goal. Dates of competitions are known. Speed, height, force, and distance are carefully measured and compared with yesterday’s results.
The world outside of sports does not often grant this degree of goal clarity and immediate feedback. If an Olympian decides to become an elementary school teacher, feedback on performance may take years – something that would never happen on the track or ice.
Moving from a job that closely tracks and monitors performance to a more relaxed environment may sound heavenly, but can create an initial sense of confusion.
Loss of identity
Many Olympians have trained for competition for much of their conscious lives, and their personal and professional identities have become closely linked to the sport. If a swimmer does not see himself as anything but a swimmer, choosing a new career outside of the sport amounts to burying the old identity and reinventing who he is. That experience can be rather traumatic if not managed well.
Melancholy or retirement depression
Olympians in particular report a sense that they were on top of the world performance-wise, and likely will never have that feeling again after retirement. Doug Gardner, a California-based sports psychologist, observed that the experience could be “extremely daunting.” It is not uncommon for winning athletes to grieve over career endings, he said. Keep in mind that a lot of Olympic careers end before the athlete turns 30. That is a lot to deal with at such a young age.