Professional athletes face a high risk of experiencing mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse after they retire. The research shows that elite athletes spend most of their lives focused on perfecting themselves so that they can be the best of the best at their sport. There is usually a specific end goal of winning a championship or even an Olympic medal. Most athletes reach their peak at a young age and retire from their competitive sport early in life. Nowadays, there are a lot of opportunities for athletes to get a degree while pursuing their professional sport so that they are left with other options for a career when they retire. Most professional athletes are used to earning a large income and are given free perks throughout their career. They are used to receiving attention and are noticed by the public. Once they retire this may disappear. They may find it hard to keep up with the lifestyle they once had easy access to. IT can feel devastating to watch your social media follower number decrease over time. These are some factors that can contribute to a retired athlete to feel unfulfilled. This may lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and they may turn to substance use to help mask these feelings.
Anchor Therapy is a counseling center in Hoboken, NJ with psychotherapists specialized to help teens and adults with anxiety, depression, and life transitions.
The first few months after retiring from your professional sport may cause depressed feelings.
You may find yourself feeling depressed and having a hard time getting out of bed. While you were training as an athlete, you had a goal to be the best and you were training daily. When you were not physically training then you were mentally training. You would see specialists such as physical therapists, sports psychologists, etc. to make sure you were in the best physical and mental shape you could be to compete. Once you stop training so vigorously, your days may feel empty. Even if it was 100% your choice to retire and you felt it was the right time you still may feel this emptiness. When you had something to train for, it gave you purpose. Now you no longer are reaching towards a goal and you are not sure how to spend your days. That sense of purpose may be gone and this can leave you feel worthless or hopeless.
You may have a job or new career lined up, but you most likely won’t need to spend as much time and focus you spent on training. If you were previously training for the Olympics or a national championship, then preparing yourself to transition into a desk job may not seem as motivating and exciting. A lot of retired professional athletes will switch careers entirely and/or will coach others in their sport. This can be a very fulfilling career and a lot of retired athletes enjoy it. But it takes time to make the transition. So don’t be hard on yourself if you are feeling down and unfulfilled at first. Allow yourself to feel the feelings you are experiencing now and refocus your time on new hobbies, activities, and a job you enjoy.
What you can do to help you transition into your new life after sports:
Learn how to relax. It is common for professional athletes to retire and go straight on vacation. Whether it’s a fancy, resort on a remote island or a staycation, it is important to take some time off and take care of yourself. This will help the transition process from retiring into figuring out what to do next with your life. Take this time to not only relax, but also to clear your mind. This is important so that when you return from your vacation you can start to think about what your next purpose will be in life. Your new purpose does not have to be a large one . It could be as simple as spending more time with your family, investing money you made, coaching, creating your own business, getting a higher degree, or trying to find a job. Once you have a goal you can then focus your time on balancing how you can reach this goal and how you can also take care of your physical and mental health. You may want to continue workouts and start seeing a professional counselor to help you through the transition and to help with your new goals.
Stop being so hard on yourselF.
It is likely that you will feel some form of depression and/or anxiety when you retire. You may find yourself experiencing having a hard time getting out of bed, appetite changes, moodiness, worried feelings, withdrawing from friends and loved ones, and/or feelings of worthlessness. Some athletes are pushed to retire because of injury and the first few months of retirement may be extra hard. You may be experiencing an episode of depression or anxiety. You may feel physically drained, in pain, and like your body failed you. Which you may then internalize that you have failed yourself. You used to see your coach and other athletes daily, but since your retirement you may hear and see less of them as they continue to train. The beginning of your retirement is an extremely difficult time.
Athletes are not usually educated on what it feels like to retire from a professional sport. It is not talked about in our media even today. So when it happens to you, you feel like there’s something wrong with you and you keep it to yourself even more. You should know that it is more common than not for a retired elite athlete to experience mental health issues at the beginning of their retirement. If more athletes knew this then they may set up a support system ahead of time. This could include family, friends, a mental health counselor, a physical therapist, etc. to help you with this difficult transition. Having a solid support system will help you the most during this time.
Finding your identity after retiring from sports…
This is the biggest obstacle that I see retired elite athletes struggle with. It is finding where they belong, what they should do with all of their new free time, and if they want to start a new career. Most athletes train many hours a day, have a specific diet they follow, and have a daily routine. Once they stop training as vigorously, they may notice that they are gaining weight, feeling lethargic, or lack motivation. This can increase the feelings of shame and low self-esteem. A lot of athletes experienced criticism at all angles during their career already. Once they retire, they are usually their own worst critic. These negative feelings may surface and you may lead you to feel that you have no identity or purpose at this point. These depressive thoughts are just that: depressive thoughts.
You should take some time and write down all the positives about yourself including your physical appearance, your mental capabilities, your skills, the positive aspects of your personality, and what friends/family would say they like about you. If you are feeling down then you may find this activity hard to complete. Take your time on it and ask others for their feedback if you need some help. After you write your list, take a look at it and soak in what the best aspects of you are. This will show you that you are a person and not only an athlete. You may realize you would be a great teacher or coach to help others in your sport, maybe you will find that you have great personal relationships with others and you want to go into sales, maybe you notice that you are happiest when you are helping your community and you want to create a non-profit or spend time volunteering. There really is an endless list of things you can focus your time on.
You don’t have to have this answer right away. Most people find it depressing if they can’t figure out their new purpose right away. As long as you are actively thinking about it and experimenting by seeing if you enjoy certain things then you are on the right track. You want to be realistic with this and that means taking the time to finding your true self and what you want to do next with your life. You may find a professional therapist helpful to work through your depression and/or anxiety first so that you can be your best self.
It is common for a professional athlete to increase their substance use after retiring.
A lot of people turn to substances to help mask certain feelings. If you are experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms then it would make sense that you don’t want to feel that way anymore. By drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, taking pills, etc. you will probably experience an immediate “fix” by pushing away your negative feelings and thoughts. However, once the drug wears off then you will probably feel worse than before. In the long-term, you will need to use more and more drugs to feel the same effects. You then may become dependent on your substance use. With increased substance use, comes other issues such as overdose, D.U.I., injuries, relationship issues, financial problems, and the list goes on. If you realize that you are relying on substances more and more to make you “feel better” then that is a big sign to seek some professional help. You don’t want to throw away your successful life because you are not treating your mental health issues in the right way. There is treatment for mental health symptoms and that includes seeing a mental health therapist and/or a psychiatrist. The combination of talk therapy and medication can treat your depression and anxiety in a healthier, and more effective, way than your substance abuse is. The biggest step would be to acknowledge that you are going through a hard time and you need some help.
The difference between a sports psychologist and a psychotherapist…
Usually a professional athlete will have sessions with a sports psychologist while training. This is especially common for athletes who are training to go to the Olympics. A sports psychologist is usually hired by your coach or the team you are representing/playing for. The sports psychologist’s mission is to make sure you are fully focused on your athletic goals and that your head is 100% focused on winning that gold medal or winning that championship. The difference with seeing a psychotherapist is that they are there to help you in whatever way you need help. So if you are feeling depressed or lost at the moment and you just want to get your bearings then a psychotherapist will help you get there. The psychotherapist is on your side as you are the one paying for your own sessions and everything is completely confidential. There is not a coach or team owner who is checking in with the therapist to make sure their agenda is happening in your sessions. A psychotherapist will be there for you and will help cater to how you need your treatment to go.
Professional Athletes and the stigma of mental health…
This continues to be an issue even today. Some athletes will see getting mental health treatment as a weakness. But it is just the opposite. Some professional athletes and celebrities are speaking more publicly about the hardships of being in the public eye and how seeking mental health services has actually helped improve their life or gotten them out of a depressive episode after they retired. Seeking mental health treatment is starting to shift in the public eye as being seen as a character of strength and even a “treat yourself” item on par with getting a massage.
Having a solid support system in place when you retire from a professional sport is the most important gift you can give yourself.
Courtney Glashow, LCSW
is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in Hoboken, New Jersey. She specializes in helping teens and adults with anxiety, depression, and life transitions through counseling. Courtney can help NY or NJ residents through telehealth (video/phone) therapy sessions as well.