When we interviewed “Barry” – a former ice hockey player in the National Hockey League – he was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that his career as a professional athlete was over. At 59, he was still waking up every morning believing that he could get back on the ice:
The anxiety and depression and stuff. It was very tough and I still struggle with it… I did try to [take my own life], I was just fed up and nothing was going right and I decided to put some alcohol in my body and drive.
His life after professional sport has been punctuated by several failed marriages, a series of dead end jobs and staring into the bottom of a bottle. Barry (whose name we have changed for privacy reasons) is currently sleeping on a friend’s sofa. This is a man who was a prolific goal scorer, adored by thousands.
Fortunately, Barry’s story is not typical. We interviewed 27 retired male players and 24 current male players, coaches and administrators in rugby union, ice hockey and Australian Rules Football. We also analysed blogs, websites, news stories, autobiographies and biographies of ex-players in the same sports.
A key finding in our study is that players need to start thinking about what to do after sport almost as soon as they start playing.
There are plenty of stories of professional athletes leading fulfilling lives beyond sport. However, some elite players do struggle with the transition to a post-sport career.
Why some professional athletes struggle
Being a professional athlete is all encompassing. To give it up is a struggle. But athletes have to let go and move on at some point, leaving behind a tight knit camaraderie and public adulation few could imagine.
Talking to current players, it’s clear what it means to be part of a winning team, to play your heart out in a sport you love. You can see it in their eyes, the drive, the passion: they’ve got “the best job in the world” and they’re the “luckiest guys alive”.
Our research and other studies highlight the stress and struggle of retirement. The common struggles are due to a loss of a sporting identity, team mateship and the need to organise their own life rather than to have it organised for them.
Some of the professional athletes we studied struggled to find another “calling” or something else to be passionate about. The day to day life changes from the regular routines of a training schedule were also a challenge. One of our study participants said:
I just can’t believe I won’t be throwing the ball around in the sun in pre-season anymore.
How to be successful after sport
We found that most players, especially as they get to their late twenties, do start to think about a future outside of sport. They realise that “the dream job” isn’t going to last forever. They have to decide what comes next and when. For some, a career-ending injury changes everything in a split second.
Our study has shown that in order to make a successful transition, players need to develop personal resilience, skills, an education and professional relationships.
Players who did succeed had resilience, optimism and confidence. They also had a strong internal drive and were open to new experiences. While some players might naturally have more of these traits than others, it can be developed through relevant support and coaching.
Successful careers after professional sport also demand marketable skills and competencies, as well as formal education. For example, we found that those who had studied for a degree or a trade whilst playing transitioned much better than those who had focused exclusively on their performance as a player. Interestingly, players who marketed the skills they had learned in their sport, such as team building and leadership, fared much better than those who didn’t.
Finally, players need broad personal and professional relationships. Those who transitioned more easily had extensive social networks, which helped them find opportunities and experiment with new roles outside of sport.
Family and friends were also a vital source of support. In fact, many current and former players said that they could never have “survived” without their family and friends.
Players’ socioeconomic status, ethnicity, family and education also have a strong influence.
In rugby, Aussie Rules and, to a lesser extent, ice hockey, there is now widespread recognition that players need support. This is why many clubs and players associations are working together to put people, systems and processes in place to ensure that all players can enjoy fulfilling lives after sport.
For example, Australian rugby and AFL clubs now hire personal development managers whose role is to support players in relation to education, future careers, family assistance and connecting with employers. They are also involved in player well-being and health in association with coaches and others at the clubs.
Being a professional athlete may well be a “dream job”, but it really is only the beginning – an incredibly enriching beginning, but a beginning nonetheless.
As for Barry, when we last checked in he was still smiling and looking forward to spending time more time with his grandchildren.