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Why Professional Athletes Struggle with Retirement

With all of the hype surrounding around Ian Thorpe’s comeback, you might have missed the latest announcement of another former Australian ‘super-fish’ Michael Klim returning to the Aussie swim team for London.

At 33, he is a three-time Olympian who started his own range of skincare products after announcing his retirement in 2007 (when he was still the World Champion.)

Although Klim’s medal count isn’t as impressive as Thorpe’s, he is significantly older than Thorpe and there are many questions surrounding his comeback. A devout family man who is expecting his third child this year,Klim will be running/ promoting a business and balancing family life all the while training full time and competing overseas in his bid for a fourth Olympics.

Is it money, boredom, success or just the desire to be recognized again that drives so many ‘retired’ professional athletes  back to the arena?  What’s the real motivation?

With this burning question in mind I contacted an old friend of mine in Hawaii, Annette Huygens-Tholen, to help me delve into the deeper psychological reasoning behind why so many professional athletes struggle to let go of elite sport (or their attachment to their sporting identity.)

A former Olympian, author, success coach and speaker, Annette specializes in helping athletes to make the transition for life post-pro. Annette literally wrote a book on the subject (Success Beyond Sport) after she tried retiring from international beach volleyball three times over a period of six years .

Annette believes there can be quite a few reasons why athletes return to their sport, but her main belief is that many athletes miss the ‘achievement’ factor after they’ve retired. Where’s the recognition, the fame, the adoration? The only way most professional athletes know how to obtain this is through their sport.

“When an athlete competes they are connected to their purpose and their passion. If they haven’t found this feeling outside of their chosen sport they may feel like they have lost their identity and meaning in life. i.e.. I’m a swimmer/footballer/athlete…”

“Most athletes retire when they have a drop in performance or feel they have nothing more to achieve in the sport. Sometimes it is a loss of passion or they might want to raise a family – which is challenging and very hard to do when you are on the road all the time.

“Athletes will also retire if they think they are too old or that the risks outweigh the benefits.”

Annette’s advice for athletes to retire properly is to transition the move smoothly and not to just quit and expect that everything will be fine.

Athletes need to set goals for the future. Even just short term goals if long term goals are too difficult. Athletes need to dare to dream again with what they want to do with their life after sport and find a new passion. Otherwise they will just keep returning to compete in an effort to replace that feeling. Often if a comeback is unsuccessful it can leave the athlete feeling worse than before.

“So develop new skills; get a coach – to help with life planning as well as wealth management. As most professional athletes are used to that kind of direction it’s something simple that can easily be incorporated during competition.”


Image by mtlin

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6 Responses to Why Professional Athletes Struggle with Retirement

  1. artistsedge February 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    I completely agree. But I also think that it’s a lack of longterm thinking while they’re still competing. The same lack of long-term thinking that has them spend all their money and set aside nothing for their retirement. That’s obviously a generalization and some players are better than others in this skill.

    I think a lot of athletes avoid thinking about it – because they don’t want to bring it on any sooner. The superstition that if I plan for retirement something will happen that will force it on me.

    But a coach can definitly help you with moving past that obstacle, finding a way to think about retirement that is positive and empowering and create that long term plan.

    Debra Russell,
    Busines Coach for the Arts & Entertainment Industry

  2. DreamCntrlMedia February 21, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    @artistsedge Hey Debra thanks for the comment. I remember I read somewhere that approximately 80 percent of NBA stars end up broke or in debt post career. Sometimes it’s a challenge thinking ten or twenty years down the track when everything is going so well. Claire

  3. Staysha September 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    I literally jumped out of my chair and danced after reaindg this!


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