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Sport ends...what next?
Posted by: Ninam91
Posted on: Monday 13th August 2012


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With the Olympic Games over for another four years, as always, there will be a changing of the guard in many sports. For lots of athletes, London 2012 was the culmination of a career and will represent the last time they ever compete. Next stop, 'normal' life. How can a sports person deal with that? They may have spent the last 10/15/20+ years perfecting their art, and with the culmination of the Closing Ceremony, it's over.

Nina McArthur takes a look at some of the issues and questions many Olympians will have to deal with over the coming days, weeks and months.


Cessation of sport, how do you cope?

In my recent article I finally exposed what I went through since stopping triathlon in 2008. Firstly I must say thanks to Tri247 for allowing me to do this and for all the kind comments and messages sent my way, I'm honoured to have inspired anyone in the process. But in terms of retiring from sport, a BBC article earlier last month touched on this concept and I found it of great interest.

Former England Cricket Captain Michael Vaughan talked specifically about the issues a number of athletes deal with when facing the end of their sporting careers. Vaughan discusses the boxer Herol 'Bomber' Graham, and how he went through some quite major issues, "He tried to kill himself because he couldn't cope and he felt worthless". This is an extreme example and whilst also referring to financial issues, it relates to the psychological aspects of your mind and body coping with the sudden change in lifestyle. I for example went from doing in excess of twenty hours of training, morning and night, six days a week to absolutely zero exercise. I had no gradual tapering and didn't even go for social swims, casual commuting or relaxed runs. I did nothing.

Vaughan also mentions the former rugby player Matt Hampson, who was paralysed from the neck down when a scrum collapsed. "He didn't choose to retire, he was forced to and I can only imagine what he goes through. It takes him four hours to get ready each morning."

I can partly sympathise with the concept of being ‘forced' to retire as it was essentially my body that gave up when I stepped off the track unable to run another stride. My head wouldn't allow me to continue, I was mentally drained and so when I forced myself back to the pool a week later I just couldn't swim. A dive, a length, a tumble turn and then I swam my last 25m for three years. I had no mental or physical strength whatsoever to manage any more. Similarly, because I was that scared of losing form and wanted to continually improve and progress, my body was physically drained. My doctor told me to take six months off, put on a little weight, increase my body fat then see how I felt.

Two years later and I still hadn't completed another session. The thought of swimming, cycling, running repelled me, I was sick of it. Not taking on enough fuel for my lifestyle had not helped my energy or sugar levels either and so this may have partly contributed to me not wanting to come back, but equally I now had to refocus the efforts that I had put into triathlon 24/7 for over eight years. I was in the second year of sixth form, so worked nonstop to achieve straight A's in my A Levels. I still wanted to be the best at something. I didn't want to see myself a failure for giving up as I'd always lived by Lance Armstrong's ‘Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever', so you can understand why I felt like a complete hypocrite.

Don't get me wrong, I will never regret my early years in sport as it enabled me to develop so many positive character traits such as motivation, determination and great time management as I'm sure most of you have to fit in work, training and family life!

Successfully gaining a place on a Graduate Scheme in banking to become a Business Relationship Manager was a great moment for me as there was just one other successful applicant who did not have a degree. I felt so much better within myself however I then shifted my focus to putting every ounce of energy into success at work. Ever increasing workloads due to my dedication and desire to progress meant that my downward spiral began. I had found it so hard to cope to effectively being ‘normal' and having no sport to fill my time that I pushed myself to the maximum at everything else and controlling my food intake even further following on my ‘athlete's diet' felt another achievement to me.

It can be difficult also for athletes like myself who stop training at a younger age. I was lucky in that I stopped prior to the completion of my A Levels so still had time to consider my decisions regarding education and work. Many often choose a University based around their training rather than a career, some give everything up to focus on developing into a professional athlete and others simply forget that anything exists outside of their sport, as is easily done. I lived and breathed sport with me falling asleep every evening thinking of my training plans for the next day, my training diary and race calendar. To suddenly not have that lifestyle is a complete shock to the system.

There are however some fantastic examples of athletes who manage to combine both an education or career plans with full time training. Elinor Thorogood for example, who I interviewed a month back, is studying for a degree in Sports Science with Management, Jonathan Brownlee studied for a degree in history and then are those later in life for instance Kelly Holmes who go on to be ambassadors for bodies such as the Youth Sport Trust, or the triple jumper Jonathan Edwards who has progressed successfully into TV & Broadcasting. Vaughan notes that he never really struggled as he used his sport to help your life afterwards so had meetings in the run-up to his retirement for potentially starting a business or media career.

Michelle DillonSimilarly, I spoke to Michelle Dillon, former European Triathlon Champion and two time Olympian. I asked Michelle how she found the experience of suddenly stopping high level sport.

"I found stopping very difficult to start with especially after having major back surgery. I was very restricted on what exercise I could do for 6-12 months and so tried to stay active by walking every day. I think this kept me sane at the time, I am not one to sit around on the lounge everyday. I needed some sort of endorphins from exercise. I was really happy when I could finally start riding my bike again and doing something a bit more intense as I did miss pushing myself. It was a tough time for me!"

So how did Michelle cope with this lifestyle change? Well, she set up Team Dillon Coaching (www.teamdilloncoaching.com) in 2008 that now has six experienced coaches working with over fifty athletes of all ages and abilities. The website includes race results & stories from all their athletes and seems to me to be a true team with motivating, positive updates and photos regularly featuring on twitter.

"I think I coped really well as my mindset is always be as positive as possible. I kept myself very busy with building up my new coaching business so didn't have much time to dwell on the negativity of retiring. I gave myself little goals to get back on the bike and race again which although was short lived helped me in the long run. Coaching also gives me so much pleasure so to be able to still be involved in sport in such a big way was a real positive for me"

Team Dillon

There we have some fantastic examples of those who have managed to keep focused and have a back-up plan for when they were forced or choose to stop sport.

Is it a similar concept to those who constantly do something that they are devoted to, even a job that you love? My uncle decided to retire early a few years ago but found that he was so used to the busy, hectic lifestyle of business management, he couldn't stay in retirement anymore despite his hobbies and charitable interests in the local community. To the family's surprise he returned to work and hasn't considered that choice again since. Your body seems to adapt to the activities that you do and so when suddenly withdrawn from its usual routine, it effectively struggles just like when someone tries to quit smoking.

Sport can be an addiction even when you think you are in control of it and can pick and choose the sessions that you do. Now I am back training again as and when I want to, I am keeping an eye out (as are a few of my Manchester Triathlon Club friends!) to ensure I don't slip into a complete training obsession again. A few PB's and it's very easy to get over-excited, potentially leading to exhaustion or injury.

So whilst sometimes, you are plunged into a sudden change as was I, it is important for us as athletes to ensure we leave another door open in the back of our minds whilst still living the dream of sport. I hope I can work with Governing Bodies, coaches and other sporting charities in the future to raise the awareness of the issues athletes face at certain times given my experiences, but I equally hope to inspire you just from my own words.

‘Take all of your wasted honour, every little past frustration, take all of your so-called problems, better put ‘em in quotations. Say what you need to say'

From the song lyrics ‘Say' by John Mayer. That is why I write and blog.

Keep talking and training.


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