Mara Yamauchi in the London Marathon (© Getty Images)
The period of time immediately after an Olympic Games is when we often see elite athletes retire from their sport. The Olympics is the pinnacle of competition for many athletes, perhaps even the dream of a lifetime. It makes sense to put your heart and soul into competing on this world stage, and then use the time that follows to think about what comes next and move on to pastures new.
Continuing to train hard for another four years – or in the case of the postponed Tokyo Games, five – is a long time for athletes who may be coming to the end of their careers. With the Games over, the post-Olympic period is an obvious time to call it a day.
Retirement, however, is not an easy process for many elite athletes. Competing at world-class level often calls for total devotion to your sport. The time, mental energy, physical exertion and sacrifices required to be competitive at this level are considerable. Your entire existence can become wrapped up with being an elite athlete. It certainly is a vocation and all-consuming.
When this life comes to an end, many things abruptly stop: your daily routine, training with your friends and teammates, an aspiring goal that fires you up, the guidance of a coach, your income, possibly… and many others besides. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in essence, what defined you as a person – your entire identity as an athlete – comes to an end.
Mara Yamauchi speaks at a conference in 2017 (© Getty Images)
Some athletes might make this transition seamlessly, but for many it is difficult. For every athlete who has made a fortune, built a successful brand, or become instantly recognisable, there will be huge numbers who have none of these things, even though they may have worked just as hard as the medal-winners and champions.
Mental ill health often accompanies retirement for elite athletes but thankfully, talking about mental health is no longer as taboo as it once was. Last month we marked World Mental Health Day on 10 October, and Mental Health Awareness Week occurs in May every year. These landmark events remind us to look out for people in our lives who may be suffering. The need for support for retiring athletes is now much better recognised than in the past, and more athletes are finding the courage to speak up about their experiences. This has led to the appearance of a variety of organisations which provide help to retiring athletes, including recruitment companies matching employers with former athletes.
My own experience of retiring from elite competition was certainly difficult. The void left behind, which my marathon career had previously filled, felt enormous. I felt bereft of solutions for replacing what I’d worked so hard at and enjoyed over many years.
However, one positive aspect of retiring from the marathon was a memorable conversation I had with a friend about it. She commented: “It seems wrong to use the word ‘retirement’ for athletes, who are mostly still young; a word like ‘reinvention’ is surely a much better alternative.” I could not disagree. ‘Retirement’ suggests a coming to an end, or something being over; whereas ‘reinvention’ evokes new beginnings and the ‘recycling’ of valuable skills, experience and attributes. I tried to hold on to this thought as I navigated the journey from world-class athlete to ordinary person. I was also struck by how this different way of viewing a move from one way of life to another might also be useful in adjusting to other life-changing events, such as children leaving home.
An example of an athlete who has successfully reinvented herself is Goldie Sayers, the 2008 Beijing Olympic javelin bronze medallist and British record-holder, who founded and runs a property development business.
“Retiring from sport is challenging for every athlete but I tried to see it as an opportunity to learn new things while having the time and headspace to do something new,” Sayers explains. “As athletes we tend to be addicted to progress and challenge, so running my own business was a good way to achieve both those things. I had experience of renting property while I was an athlete, and running a business seems to fill the identity void that was left when I retired.” Sayers also suggests that athletes who have retired before you might be a useful source of advice as mentors.
If I could go back and give my younger self some advice about leaving elite sport behind and reinventing myself, this is what it would be.
1. Be aware of grief
Saying goodbye to an entire way of life as an elite athlete is a major loss, and, like all losses, grieving for it might be necessary. The sense of something valuable that is gone forever, being unable to get it back, and feeling the emptiness of its departure are all signs of grief which could easily affect athletes. Grief, though painful, helps us humans to process the loss of things dear to us. Grief might not hit you, but being aware that it is a possibility could help to explain any feelings of sadness.
2. Seek help
Being willing and able to admit you need help is important. Help, in whatever form is necessary for you at the time, might be the difference between setting off on a new, positive path, and spending a long time unable to move forward and flourish. Help could take any number of forms and it might take time to figure out what exactly you need. There is no shame in asking for help.
3. Plan ahead
While still competing, acquire skills, work experience or education that will smooth the way to a life after sport. Thinking ahead, while you are still an athlete, to what you might do afterwards gives you time to put plans in place and prepare. This may seem obvious, but it’s tempting, while you are an invincible athlete, to imagine that this life will never end. All sporting careers do come to an end eventually. Having thought ahead to what will come afterwards saves time and avoids having to make important decisions at what may be a difficult period.
4. Engagement with purpose
Work or activities that are fully absorbing and engaging will go a long way to fill the gap left by a sporting career. Being an elite athlete doing the sport you love and are good at is a very special, unique privilege. Few things can match it in terms of generating motivation and energising you. But if you can come close, that fire and inspiration can be rekindled.
5. Focus on your daily routine
What you do every day can have a major influence on how you feel as you embark on reinventing yourself after sport. Doing some physical exercise, connecting with people, having something which provides a little routine each day, doing kind things for other people, and sleep and dietary habits that are fit for purpose will all help to keep your daily life on an even keel.
One model for elite sport which perhaps should be adopted by more nations around the world involves major national organisations such as the armed forces, the police and private sector corporations employing athletes. Italy, Kenya and Japan use this model. While competing and training at elite level, athletes often have reduced work duties. In return, their employers benefit from the prestige and, in effect, advertising, from their employee athletes performing on the world stage. Once their sporting careers are over, athletes can work in ‘normal’ jobs with these organisations. This gives the employers a supply of well-respected and trained employees, and the athletes a job without the worry of deciding what they will do next.
There is no magic recipe for successfully navigating the end of an elite sporting career and finding a new life. We are all individuals and what works for one will be different for another. At least nowadays there is some recognition that this transition is difficult for many athletes. The more we can have an open, honest and positive debate about it, the better athletes of the future will be served.
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active