Athlete retirement can trigger ‘grief’

Loss of identity is one of the ‘grief’ stages some athletes go through on giving up their sport, says performance expert Rick Cotgreave. The owner of Mobius Performance identifies 16 possible stages.

1 Loss of identity
There’s a sense of not knowing who you are, of being unable to introduce yourself with genuine congruence. Having to deal with being a ‘former’ something.

2 Lack of clear goals
There’s a sense that life is no longer about four-year cycles, or the next championships or the next season.

3 Lack of structure
Going from a day that has a distinct training programme and schedule of training to going into a world where you don’t have to get up in the morning, where you don’t have to train, and you don’t have to do anything, can be a hard transition to make.

Our training sessions are long and boring. Probably the hardest part was the circuit training in the gym. There were 13-14 different exercises and you had so many reps on each exercise and the peak of that we’d be doing four circuits, so we had over an hour of continuous reps of medium-sized weights, but doing it as quickly as you could.
Five-time Olympic gold medalist in five consecutive Olympic Games, Sir Steve Redgrave. Via Mirror

4 The unknown
You may wonder, ‘Did you achieve all you could? Was your time right? Did you go too early? Could you have done something different?’. There may be a sense of unfinished business.

I’ve decided to retire by the end of the year. Although I’m still able and capable to compete with the best drivers that are around but at some point it’s good to say goodbye and that’s what I’m doing by the end of the season – and it might this time even be for ever!
Legendary Formula 1 driver, Michael Schumacher, announces his retirement from sport for a second time

5 Lack of social network
The community, the culture, the environment you play in also provides your social network – these are the people you spend most of your time with. These are your friends as well as your teammates.

The management weren’t happy but said they accepted these things happen. It’s hardly surprising though is it? Cycling, the team, was my whole life – it’s not as if I went night-clubbing every Saturday – so who else was I going to meet?
Double Olympic gold medalist Victoria Pendleton on falling in love with her trainer. Via Daily Mail

6 Long-term planning issues
Suddenly your whole life is ahead of you as opposed to just the next season or the next cycle.

7 Unaware of transferrable skills
Taking for granted what you’ve had to do to achieve your goals because there’s only a narrow definition of your success – running quickly, jumping far – not recognising skills such as discipline, teamwork and leadership that allows you to get there. You may only define yourself through small parameters for your measurement of success.

I liked going to the gym and lifting bar bells and the clean, clear way you can see yourself getting more powerful with each disc you add.
Double Olympic gold medalist Victoria Pendleton who retired from cycling aged 31. Via Daily Mail

8 Lose black-and-white success evaluation
You may miss the continual feedback, judging and measuring of progress in the sense that you always had accurate and real metrics that you used to measure performance. When you go into the real world, they become much more subjective and much more grey rather than black and white.

It’s a decision that I didn’t take lightly and I thought about it very hard. In sport at the highest level you are dealing in the smallest margins and you can tell when you are good, but not good enough.
Sir Chris Hoy on his retirement from cycling after winning five Olympic gold medals

9 Lack of feedback on performance
The metric you use to judge performance on a day-to-day basis in training is constantly getting feedback – from the speed you’ve done, the weights you’ve lifted, the times you’ve made – they all reveal a good or a bad performance.

Therefore, not only do you clearly understand what success looks like but you’ll also get feedback from your coach, your colleagues and your opposition about whether you’ve been successful. In the real world, feedback is given less willingly and is more ambiguous in terms of the way it’s given.

10 Being normal
As an athlete you have a sense of being different, in the sense being good at sport sets you apart from other people in that you are potentially the best in the world or you’ve been selected above people.

So you have a sense of your talent being recognised and being different and once you’ve removed that talent because you’re no longer a performer, you’re suddenly being judged by the same criteria as everyone else, which is not the one that set you apart from everybody else.

11 Being kept child-like
You may stay in a childish state in your cocooned environment, whereas your peers develop outside of your rarefied environment. They’re developing a broader skill set whereas you may solely identify yourself as an athlete.

Success insulates you from what’s normal. You don’t learn skills to cope with ordinary situations, so you’re always trying to navigate to a place of … what? You didn’t have those tools or develop your own voice to begin with.
Andrea Jaeger, a child tennis prodigy who’s now become a nun

12 Not being surrounded by elite performers
You’re not surrounded by people who have a similar mindset to you in regards to drive and performance and recognising that what set you apart was a mindset that wanted more.

A mindset that had high expectations so that when you go into the real world people may not have the same level of drive and same high standards that you’re used to.

I hate it when others don’t do things to the best of their ability. I hate it in myself – I feel I am letting myself down – and I hate it in others, too. It is a problem. And my insistence on it is a curse .  .  .   a failing. When my fiance, Scott, is doing the dishes I hover over him, cajoling him, knowing I can do it quicker [laughs].
World champion cyclist and two-times Olympic gold  medalist Victoria Pendleton via Daily Mail. Retired aged 31.


I’m not there to make it fun for everyone else. You always get one person on the team who has a laugh with everyone and messes around but I’ve never been that person. If you swim across me during my swim session, I’m just going to swim over the top of you, so you don’t want to get in my way. I think that attitude has helped me to get where I am because I don’t think an athlete can get to the top without being a bit selfish.
Four-time Olympic medalist Rebecca Adlington, including two golds in the 400m and 800m freestyle swim in Beijing

13 Money concerns
As a professional athlete, your payment and your funding has been through your ability to do your sport to a high level. Once you remove that, you remove the security – no longer having your contracts is real.

Taking for granted the money that has come from sport, suddenly you don’t have a mechanism to get paid anymore because it’s not just about sport.

14 You’ve got a gold medal – so what?
Having spent your life chasing a dream and recognising that the dream and your success are not necessarily viewed by the wider community when you go into a work place and people might be looking for different sets of skills.

So you have a sense that the one thing you’ve focused on obsessively is not as important in the outside world as it was to that particular environment and to that particular group of people.

15 Lack of support in transition
Having been so supported in your development I think there’s a genuine surprise that that same level of care is not taken to your exit from the sport.

The sense that the sport coaches and management structure and all the people in the sport suddenly look to your replacement.

People who always told her how great she was and patted her on the back were soon on to the next young star.
Tennis legend Chris Evert on child prodigy Jennifer Capriati

16 Sense of bereavement
There can be just a genuine sense of loss, which is contained in all the above statements. The feeling that something is missing that you might never get hold of again.


Author: Rick Cotgreave

Rick Cotgreave runs Mobius, working across corporate and sporting sectors to help individuals, teams and organisations realise their potential. Find him tweeting at @mobiusperform or go to

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