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Retiring from elite sport? Consider seeing a psychologist – Andy Murray did

Andy Murray’s announcement that he is contemplating retirement from professional tennis is sad news – as it always is when one of tennis’ greats prepares to leave the game. The reason for his retirement – a persistent pain in his hip that has lasted for the last 20 months – was clearly evident in his first-round loss in the Australian Open. By the end of five sets he was hobbling badly, prompting commentators to speculate whether – if he had won the match – he would have been fit to contest the next round.

This is not a minor pain, but at times, a pain that has prevented him from doing just about anything, including, apparently, putting his own shoes and socks on.

Since his announcement, much has been written about Murray. From how he handles the media and how his legacy will be framed, to his “unabashed feminism” and, of course, how he’s facing his future.

Retirement isn’t easy to face, especially for elite athletes. And especially when it’s brought on by injury. After all, Andy Murray is closing a chapter in his life, a large part of how he sees and understands himself.

Through this experience of oncoming retirement, as he transitions to a new life, Andy Murray has taught us an important lesson: how to seek professional help to ensure good mental health. And the media have been helping us learn this valuable lesson.

All in the mind

In the UK, most people are probably aware that one in four individuals will experience some form of poor mental health in their life. This now oft-repeated statistic speaks to the difficulties individuals will feel with depression, anxiety or profound stress. In fact, poor mental health encompasses all negative psychological aspects that affect our daily living.

Research shows that the more we know about poor mental health, the better equipped we are to do something about it. The field of mental health literacy speaks directly to the knowledge and beliefs we have about poor mental health. This has an impact on our ability to recognise ill mental health, manage it and even prevent it.

In a sense, mental health literacy is about what we know about poor mental health and the various treatments available to us. It is also about what our attitudes are to poor mental health, whether it’s our own or other people’s – and what intentions we have towards seeking professional care. The field of mental health literacy builds on research on health literacy, which examines how individuals access, read, understand, and, ultimately, use information to improve their health.

When the game stops

Our recent research shows that elite athletes struggle when it comes to understanding their mental health and where to turn for support. We also found that many athletes lack the words necessary to describe what they’re feeling. In a sense, athletes are lost, not only in their own minds, but also their environment, uncertain as to where they can go for help.

We also found that elite athletes are not immune to poor mental health – they have rates of prevalence for various symptoms of poor mental health similar to those experienced by the general population. But elite athletes who participate in racquet sports are at particularly high risk – partly because athletes competing in individual sports tend to burden themselves with the full weight of success or failure rather than being able to share these with teammates.

But poor mental health doesn’t end with retirement for elite athletes. In fact, poor mental health often continues into retirement, and in certain circumstances, may even get worse. Research by Vincent Gouttebarge illustrates that former elite athletes face similar rates of poor mental health in comparison to current elite athletes.

Retirement plans

There are some hypotheses as to why some elite athletes become more vulnerable to poor mental health after retirement. Loss of identity is one factor, while changes in levels of physical activity may also play a role. The higher levels of physical activity implicit in being an elite athlete may add a protective effect against poor mental health. In retirement, training regimens change and so do levels of physical activity. Lower levels of activity may not be as protective.

Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, reported recently that Murray had been speaking to psychologists about his life after tennis and how to go about his future. Key to his discussions with the media was how his hip pain had brought along difficulties, physically and psychologically. Murray’s casual depiction of his use of psychological care, his positive framing of mental health care services and his intention to continue to access support helped paint a positive attitude of mental health care and address some of the stigma held around seeking support.

Seeking professional help for poor mental health isn’t easy, especially for elite athletes in times of transition. Murray’s example is a powerful lesson for any athlete who may be experiencing poor mental health or uncertainty in their career or life. Reach out for professional help. Don’t do it alone.

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