When you have been an athlete for as long as you can remember, it is hard to imagine a life without competing on a day-to-day basis. It is even harder to comprehend the amount of change that accompanies athletic retirement.
Any life transition isn’t easy to navigate but one that happens so early in life when you are still trying to figure out who you are is especially difficult to manage. With it, come a period of confusion and uncertainty.
If you or someone you know is transitioning out of competitive sports, head to the Athletes Soul page for interactive help throughout the process.
For me, that period of confusion came after a career as a competitive swimmer. I spent the majority of my teens and twenties in the water, pushing myself to be the best. But after finally stepping away from the sport, I had to face the unknowns of no longer being an athlete.
One morning, you will wake up and you won’t have to go to the pool. Your coach won’t tell you what to do. And just like that, your world will be changed. You will have to decide what to do with your time and how to organize your days. You will experiment and try to figure out who you want to be and what you want to do. And this will take time.
With retirement from any sport, the mental and physical struggle that joins the decision is the same.
Your body will change. You will experiment with exercise. You may continue to train intensely because, after all, you call yourself an athlete and you still want to look like one. Or you will stop completely because you trained so much for so many years. You will feel bad about yourself for not exercising and you will go through the fitness yoyo until you eventually find some balance.
Your appetite might be different. You might indulge in things you weren’t allowed to eat before or you will continue to tightly control what you eat. The later may give you comfort that all isn’t lost and that after all you do have some control. Or you might feel guilty for indulging. Adjusting your nutrition, like everything else, will take time, trial and errors and learning what it means to be healthy as a “normal human”.
Your teammates will continue their daily training routine. They will continue to go to the pool and to live the dream. But the charm will be broken for you. You will want to stay involved but being on the pool deck and around your teammates will not help. It will be a constant reminder that you do not belong anymore.
Transitioning away from sport isn’t easy and it won’t happen overnight. You will experience a range of new emotions that will leave you confused and uncertain: frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, isolation, emptiness, insecurity, fear, inadequacy, indifference, bitterness, anxiety. You didn’t even know you could experience all these things. Sometimes it will be difficult to comprehend all your emotions and you will be surprised that you can feel sad and happy at once.
Prior to this experience, your world was simple and organized. You had clear goals and you knew what you had to do to achieve those goals. You were an athlete, a swimmer. You had a purpose. But now, that this is gone, what are you supposed to do?
Periods of chaos are usually great opportunities for growth and development and, believe me, there is a lot to accomplish and to enjoy outside of the pool. But to get there, you will need to figure things out for yourself and make choices that you didn’t even have to consider before.
But you don’t have to do this on your own and there are ways to facilitate the process so that you can come out of your transition with clarity, purpose and direction. First, talk to people, open up about how you feel. Even if, like any athlete, you think you can deal with this on your own and you believe that you have everything under control. Most likely, you don’t. This is a huge life transition and talking about it will help you come to terms with everything in a healthy way. You do not want to carry over negative feelings to your next chapter in life.
I am encouraging you to be pro-active though. Don’t wait for someone to come save you. Also, it is much easier to build your support network before you are in a difficult place. Think about who you trust, identity different roles you want people to play for you (mentor, confident, champion), select individuals who can hold those roles and communicate what you expect from them, how and when. This is how you build an intentional support system. That way when things get tough, you can just reach out and they will immediately know you need their help.
Check this event out: Athletes Soul: Your Team Beyond Sports
Additionally, set some time to reflect on your overall journey as an athlete while you are still competing. I have seen too many athletes carrying disappointment about their career years after it ended. It is such a shame. After having spent so much time in your sport, you don’t want to look back with bitterness and regrets.
But in order to let go, you will really need to take the time to release negative emotions and even more time to celebrate what you have achieved through your sport. It isn’t all negative, far from it! If you look at your entire journey, no doubts that there are many fond memories of teammates, coaches, training camps, competitions, and travel. Focus on these, cherish and celebrate them and let go of the less enjoyable ones.
This is also a good time to articulate what you have learned: emotional skills, technical expertise, physical aptitudes. This should help you gain some perspective and slowly shift to a more positive mindset post-athletics.
My advice: select one positive memory or skill to remember and celebrate each day until you feel that your negative feelings have dissipated. At some point, you will be able to accept all aspects of your sporting career including your failures and understand that, along with your successes, they contribute to who you are today. Then you will finally be able to move forward.
As a swimmer, you certainly have worked on your mental performance skills. You may have done it naturally or practiced them with a mental coach. These techniques (visualization, positive self-talk, resiliency, emotion regulation) will come handy throughout your whole life and it is good to learn early on how to transfer them from sport to life situations. Check out some of the Swim Like A Fish webinar and blog post on How To Train Your Mental Game.
And don’t forget to take care of yourself, wellness is half the battle when it comes to a successful transition. Eat well, try to exercise a little bit every day, don’t compromise on sleep and keep some structure to your day. Entirely losing your routine and exercise regimen will result in dramatic chemistry changes in your body that could impact your mental health.
Myriam Glez is a former Olympic swimmer and Chairman of Athletes Soul, a support solution for retiring athletes from every sport.