When is the right time to retire from sport?

By Caroline Heaney

Katherine Grainger still can’t decide whether or not to retire from rowing – click here. Knowing when to retire from sport isn’t easy and I know that from personal experience as well as from examining the academic research.

I’ve recently written some study material for the Open University module E313 examining retirement from sport (along with other career transitions experienced by athletes) and I have to admit that writing the material has taken me on a bit of a personal journey as I reach a point in my athletics career where my performances are on a slippery slope and injuries to my ageing body are becoming commonplace.

Retiring from sport is hard, whatever level you compete at. I’m not an elite athlete but my sport has been such a major part of my identity over the last 20 years that I’m going to find it hard to let go when the time to retire finally comes. I’m torn – on the one hand I love my sport and don’t want to leave it, but on the other hand I want people to remember me for the athlete I was, not the athlete I’ve become. Masters athletics does have some appeal and allowed me to become a national champion, but it’s hard to come to terms with not being able to run as fast as you used to, so I increasingly wonder if retirement is for me. For now the answer is no.

For many athletes retirement is just too hard, particularly when retirement is forced upon them (e.g. career injury) and evidence shows that depression, addiction and even suicide can be the consequence of retirement from sport. Various retired athletes, including boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, share their experiences of the difficulties in this BBC article. Psychological support for retiring athletes is very important. I say that both as a sport psychologist and an athlete facing retirement. Fortunately, athletes are becoming better prepared for career transitions and hopefully serious negative consequences will be increasingly less frequent.

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