Written by Andrew Thomson
September 20th 2017
The Pressure of Sport: More than an Identity Crisis.
Much of the sporting headlines this week have been devoted to Rio Ferdinand’s decision to come out of retirement, this time to begin a career as a professional boxer. This announcement has been greeted with mixed opinions to say the least from within the sporting world and fans alike.
One article I read, published by Verdict, looked at the wider picture of what athletes do when they have called time on their sporting career. Even the strap line for this article is largely inaccurate in my opinion, most athletes do not get to ‘call time on their career’, their career calls time on them. The decision is made by somebody else due to a lack of funding, not having a contract renewed, injury, or simply not being able to find an employer in an extremely competitive sporting landscape.
The article goes on to say that most ex- athletes will go on to work within their sport after retirement from competition, however, this is not true. There are simply not enough jobs to cater for the thousands that fall out of sport on a yearly basis. Most athletes do not retire with millions in the bank, as the article says they do, and this perception of sport that is continually fed to the public is based on only the elite few. Now it is fair to say that Rio Ferdinand may well be one of these elite few, his hugely successful playing career and his success on the pitch has brought many spin offs away from it, certainly spin offs that would not be achievable to most ex-athletes. He has a regular punditry position with BT Sport along with his very own clothing line and he is the figurehead of his own foundation, the Rio Ferdinand Foundation. However, he has a lifestyle to support and being in the public eye does not come without cost, personally or financially. I do not see any problem with him pursuing a new career path; thousands of people do it in other industries every year, so why not sport? Whilst at Bristol Rovers we would train occasionally at the local boxing club and boy, those guys are seriously fit and seriously strong. I do wonder how far he can progress in boxing starting out at 38 years of age but if it proves to be more about publicity for the betting company involved and Rio earning some money along the way, so be it and good luck to him.
Retirement from sport is hard. Hard for lots of reasons, the sudden lack of identity, lack of routine, sense of belonging and that feeling that you will be forgotten. Former England rugby captain, Catherine Spencer, talks candidly about her feelings post retirement in a recent Mixed Zone article. I understand these feelings completely, having experienced some of them myself, albeit after my retirement was forced upon me due to injury. Catherine talks of being upset at England’s success following her retirement and how it took her six years to begin to change and focus on the future, she has now successfully set up her own business, Inspiring Women, and is now writing her own book. I read lots of stories about the effect retirement has on the mental health of former athletes for all the reasons above, but I believe there is another fundamental reason why athletes develop mental health problems post retirement. One of the major reasons that is often overlooked is that athletes struggle financially when they no longer have their sporting income. It is well known that poor mental health is precipitated by financial worries.
The harsh reality for most athletes is that soon after retirement they must find a job, and fast. Very few will be financially secure, either short term or long term. Very few will have the luxury of opportunities being offered to them once their career ends. Unfortunately, many will not have planned either, having gone through the last few years believing it’s too early to think of retirement or that studying or focusing on anything other than their sport will take away their edge!
The recent article by Gail Emms, admitting her struggles to pay her bills and find work should surely act as a warning to others, let’s not forget that Gail is an Olympic medalist and was at the top of her sport for many years. We all know the effect money problems will have on the mental health of an individual regardless of whether they come from a sporting background.
It is true that a career in sport opens doors, but it is also true that those doors are a lot harder to open once you have retired. Landlord, scaffolder, taxi driver, crop sprayer, gardener, construction worker, these are a few of the jobs former football colleagues of mine are now undertaking to earn a living. Not one of them wanted or wants to be in their current line of work but they had no choice but to take what work was on offer when they retired. This is a more realistic view of life after sport, and let’s not forget these are all ex-footballers, the highest paid and most high profile sport in the UK and certainly the most popular. These are players with hundreds of first team games behind them yet there were no offers of work within their sport and certainly no millions of pounds in the bank to fall back on.