The perils of retiring from professional sport

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Thorpe_pool AFP Ian Thorpe has battled crippling depression and alcohol abuse since retiring from swimming. Picture: AFP Photo/files/Greg Wood

Sydney – Elite sportspeople dedicate themselves to being the best but once it's over and the buzz of winning is gone, the transition to regular life can be daunting and in some cases devastating.

The difficulties they can face on retirement were illustrated this week when Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe was admitted to rehab for depression after a mixture of painkillers and anti-depressants left him disoriented on a Sydney street.

The five-time Olympic gold medallist, one of the world's most recognisable sportsmen, has been candid about battling the demons of depression and alcohol abuse since he called it quits in 2006.

Thorpe has dabbled in various business ventures and tried university courses, and he launched a failed comeback attempt in 2011. But he has been unable to find a direction to pursue and at age 31, he is struggling to cope.

As fellow ex-swim star Kieren Perkins said, after learning of Thorpe's troubles: “There would be many of hundreds, if not thousands of athletes that don't have the notoriety who are at any one time contending with the same things.”

Andrew Hughes, an expert in sports marketing and branding at the Australian National University, said dealing with the transition was a problem across all sports.

“When they stop, there's no training regime, no fame, adulation, no adrenaline. It all disappears,” he said.

“A lot of athletes have no idea how to cope and that's why you see some of them wanting to make a comeback. They long for being the best again.

“Nothing in life can replicate it, it is not being replaced by anything as fulfilling or satisfying.”

He said administrators need to ensure athletes are encouraged to view achievement not just in sporting terms, and to be equally proud of getting good grades or working in the community.

He added that it was important they start establishing a plan for life after sport as soon as possible, although many did not.

Most sports in Australia run an Athlete Career and Education Programme to help prepare for life out of sport, but it doesn't always work out, as evidenced by Thorpe.

Some even drift into crime. Fellow former Australian swimmer Scott Miller, a silver and bronze medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, narrowly avoided jail last month on drug charges.

Even Thorpe's long-time rival Grant Hackett has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons, trashing his apartment in an alcohol-fuelled rampage in 2011 that saw his wife leave him.

It is a problem across all sports, with plenty of high-profile cases, notably former English footballer Paul Gascoigne's very public struggle with alcohol and mental issues.

Even yachtsmen find life away from the spotlight hard, as noted by former America's Cup winning skipper John Bertrand, who is now president of Swimming Australia.

“When I retired, I went through something similar after winning the America's Cup, nothing as extreme as what we are seeing with Ian,” said Bertrand, who skippered Australia II to victory in 1983, ending 132 years of US supremacy.

“That is the big challenge for any person coming from the highest of the high: to find a new area of endeavour within their life where they can become passionately involved and loving what they are doing.”

Australian Institute of Sport psychologist Renee Appaneal said it was important to focus on how athletes had coped with big career and personal steps in the past.

“Transition out of sport is just another transition in their life and we encourage them to look back at how they have successfully coped with other transitions, such as from junior to senior level, leaving home for training academies,” she said.

“It's all about having a development pathway and how they manage that, while helping them deal with stress.”

It was also important to have a support network, she added, but conceded this was harder for elite athletes who are the centre of attention.

“It is harder for them to find trusted resources and support. This is not unique to sport, it impacts all people in the limelight.”

Appaneal said while many sports help athletes prepare for retirement, more could always be done in delivering the strategy and skills to cope, and also in raising public awareness on issues such as depression. – Sapa-AFP



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