Sunday 14 May 2017

Retiring from cycle racing and coping with it

We have just come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, a subject matter that people are becoming increasingly aware of, as we try to find ways to address it in our everyday lives.

The mental health benefits of sport are often talked about, particularly the fact that exercise can relieve stress, and release endorphins that can uplift the mood. So wherever we look we see various incentives and initiatives to try to get us into sport - whether it's cycling or some other activity.

However, what about those at the other end of the scale - the ones who do sport at a competitive level, and then have to stop when it's time to retire?

Earlier this year I wrote an article for Cycling Weekly magazine about how retired professional cyclists cope with their new non-competitive lives.

We often see folks like Chris Hoy, Chris Boardman, David Millar and Rochelle Gilmore on television doing their commentating or getting involved in other initiatives. That's great to see, but for some, the transition can be difficult.

As part of my research for the article I talked to a few retired cyclists and there was quite a mixed bag of fortunes in terms of how they had to deal with it.

For instance, talking to Sean Kelly, he said that he gradually wound down his activity in the last year of his career and that gave him time to think about how he would manage life after racing. Luckily he landed on his feet when he was offered the role of commentator on Eurosport, and has been involved in many other projects. But he did see people get into difficulties, particularly as they fell into a spiral of gambling and drinking.

When David Millar retired from professional cycling in 2014 he went straight into writing his autobiography as well as having surgery - a couple of things which kept him busy. But he admitted that adjusting to life was incredibly hard, and he had to adjust to being with his family more frequently, and even fitting into the routine of what was effectively "his wife's house". He summed it up like this:

“The first year was really f***king hard. You spend your whole life being dictated by season, by months, by weeks since when you were a teenager. I Iived on a purely operational basis for twenty years of my life. Then I retire and boom I become a January to December man with no idea about what each month is supposed to mean to me anymore. You’re out in the real world..." 

Jens Voigt, whose career ended with his world-breaking hour record ride had to come to terms with the fact that he would never be this lean and fit again, and worried about the prospect of getting old, fat and slow on a bike.

I spoke to Olympic Silver medallist, Emma Johansson who is in her first year of retirement, and like David Millar, she talks about the establishing of a new relationship with her husband, who was also her coach. She said finding a new rapport with him had its challenges, as well as her finding a new role in life.

Rochelle Gilmore talked about the wish to still be competitive, and to be able to ride as competitively as before, despite no longer being a professional athlete. In particular, you would not do the volume of training you used to do once you are no longer a professional athlete. She has seen fellow cyclists deal with retirement badly.

"I’ve recently been exposed to a friend’s struggle post retirement and the biggest sign is his isolation from his closest friends. He doesn’t feel like the ‘man’ anymore and seems to be uncomfortable socialising as an average ‘joe blow’ or ‘ex’ pro athlete. It’s very sad to see and we all feel helpless. Athletes who are professional and competing at the highest level should be appointed a career/life mentor during their careers." 

Retiring from top level sport can really have a negative effect on mental health, and this has led to depression in some cases, and even worse, to suicide.

Jenny Truman, a sports psychologist based in the Midlands offered some insights into this:

"Retired athletes can feel a huge sense of loss, as a result of losing such things as:

The incredible emotional high of winning and competing
Physical training which is excellent for the body but most     importantly for the mind
Team spirit and camaraderie
Popularity and adulation
Loss of physical form and signalling a “body in decline”
High Achievement and Perfectionism
Support staff to plan practical aspects like travel,      accommodation and financial affairs 

"They will then be faced with a number of issues:
  • Massive loss of self worth through loss of identity
  • Lack of self belief.  
  • Loss of confidence. 
  • Regrets – “If only I had done x, y, z”
  • Huge sense of emptiness
  • Fear for the future
  • Younger retirees don’t have the life experience or              perspective of older who retire
  • Forced retirement like injury can attract huge resentment."  

Jenny Truman gives the following advice around dealing with retiring from sport:

  • "Think of retirement as a new opportunity to do something different rather than seeing it as a loss.   
  • Look back on your sporting days with gratitude and be thankful for the talent you had and take pride in your achievements and dedication.   
  • Look at what you can do with the extra time you have and take with you the benefits that sport has given you.  This could be friends,  skills you have acquired, contacts made and personal attributes which it will have given you.   
  • Make a plan of what you would like to do with your time /career – set yourself  goals - find out everything you can which will help you achieve them – write it down on paper. Use the goal setting skills you had in your sporting career for your new life.  
  • Continue with keeping fit , this is so important for your mental and physical health. 
  • Recognise the wonderful talents you have in being a competitive sports person and  explore ways in which you can use these in your next chosen career.  This doesn’t have to be in sport (although it can be). Attributes like commitment, hard work, dedication, winning mentality, working as a team member, leadership qualities, understanding tactics/ strategy are all valuable attributes for whatever career you choose.
  • Seek advice if you need help on careers, coping with the change. Share your concerns with people you can trust."
One place that offers support and advice to retiring athletes is Crossing the Line, an Australian organisation that supports athletes across the world and in different disciplines. They are currently working with the Cannondale-Drapac team, and getting them thinking about their personal development both during and after their careers.

The more that athletes receive support and advice as they come into retirement, the less likely they will be to fall into a downward spiral of mental health issues once they stop competing.

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