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Former Olympic athletes can battle anxiety, depression

Grey skies lie beyond the colour of the Olympic contest for some competitors. EPA/Geoff Caddick

The perfectionism and combative mindset essential to success for Olympic athletes can also disrupt the transition to life beyond elite sport and cause depression, according to an international study.

While many former Olympians make the adjustment smoothly and eventually excel at new projects, others struggle to cope with life away from intense training and competition.

Based on anonymous interviews with eight former summer and winter Olympians, Steven Rynne, from the University of Queensland’s School of Human Movement Studies, and colleagues from Switzerland and Britain said the process of changing social networks and re-entering the workforce could be overwhelming for competitors who require certain qualities to succeed in their sports.

“Given that Olympians require an exceptional range of characteristics such as determination and patience, one would assume that such characteristics would guarantee success in life after their sporting careers,” Dr Rynne said. “Our research suggests that this is not always the case.

"Some characteristics have proved to be useful beyond sport such as organisation and persistence while others proved less useful. Submissiveness, perfectionism, and competitiveness were identified as the most problematic.”

One former athlete who participated in a “combat sport” said that the “egocentrism” crucial for success in competition was an impediment in later life. “Sport is like this: when you do competition sport, you think about you, what I’m going to do to beat my opponent,” he told the researchers.

“If you quit and you retire from sport, you can’t only think like this and you are not alone anymore, and it’s not only going on success or that you win. You are living with other people and you have to socialise or whatever.”

Another former athlete who described herself as a perfectionist suffered debilitating depression and anxiety for a year after retirement. “In [my sport] you would be training for some intricate little skill that you want to improve or perfect and you had constant goals and you had constant reassurances that you were doing the right thing,” she said.

As a primary school teacher, however, she received little feedback. “I had no measure of how I was going or was I going in the right direction or, of course as an athlete you have very high expectations, so I want to know that it’s going to be there in a fast manner. I kind of thought, I was overwhelmed by the fact that this wasn’t true anymore.”

Dr Rynne said the dramatic shift in day-to-day activities could be tough on some former competitors. “This suggests that it is important to consider who and what shapes the development of Olympians and how this can be improved to foster elite performance as well as adaptive behaviours beyond elite sport.”

Particularly difficult for athletes who do not perform as well as expected is the process of adapting to a new life after falling short of their dream, said Sean McCann, Senior Sport Psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee, who was not involved in the research.

“Many Olympians suffer a post-Olympic let down after the Games,” said Dr McCann. “It is difficult adjusting to life after the Olympic Games.”

Though some athletes have lucrative endorsement deals waiting, many more do not. Those who fare best are the ones who preoccupy themselves with a new challenge, such as a job or higher education. Athletes who wait until after the Olympic Games to think about their future struggle the most.

“The most difficult situation is if an athlete is a medal favourite and does not succeed,” said Dr McCann. “The reality that talent and opportunity don’t guarantee success has led some athletes to lose hope and have difficulty moving on. The best advice is to wait some time before making a decision to quit the sport until the pain of losing is less of a factor in making an important decision.

"Our research has shown that it is a wise decision to build in an Olympic debriefing and focusing and refocusing time after the Games for both coaches and athletes.”

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