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Life after the Olympics: retirement

Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016

What does the retired life hold for Olympians such as Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps? Can they cope with the change of lifestyle?

The close of the 2016 Olympics bought with them the prospect of the retirement of some of the leading names in sport. Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps, for example, will all be notable absences from the 2020 Olympics, but how will these athletes cope with life after elite sport?

After the thrill of the Olympics many athletes experience a post-Olympic come down and some can even experience depression. It seems logical that after the four-year build-up and the excitement of the event, many athletes are left asking themselves the question of ‘what next’ once the games are over. When an athlete feels that they’ve achieved all that they can achieve in the Olympic environment the answer to that question might be retirement.

Retirement from sport is not an easy transition for any athlete to make. Elite athletes who have dedicated their whole life to their sport and tend to have a strong athletic identity, where being an athlete is a large part of their perception of their identity. To have that part of their identity taken away can be traumatic and lead to an identity crisis. Several high profile athletes have admitted to struggling with retirement and career termination (retirement) is considered to be a significant potential cause of depression and anxiety amongst athletes. Of course, retirement from sport doesn’t have to be a negative experience – some may view it as a ‘rebirth’ rather than a ‘death’. How an athlete copes with retirement can depend on a multitude of factors such as their general resilience, whether they have made plans for life after sport, whether they have fulfilled their potential, and whether their retirement is planned or forced (e.g. a career ending injury).

Let’s examine the case of three Olympic medallists who are reaching the end of their careers and are contemplating retirement in the not too distant future – Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Phelps.

Bolt: The man with a plan

After he achieved the unprecedented ‘triple triple’ (Olympic gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in 2008, 2012 and 2016) Usain Bolt announced that Rio would be his last Olympics. This comes as no surprise as Bolt had identified this as his plan long before the Rio Olympics. Bolt is not retiring just yet and is planning to compete in the World Athletics Championships in London next year. This ‘phased retirement’ may help Bolt with the transition into retirement that many athletes struggle with. The difference between Bolt and some athletes who find retirement difficult is the fact that Usain has achieved everything he possibly could in his sport and is exiting on his terms (a ‘planned’ retirement) – for Usain there will be no unfinished business. This will give Usain a strong sense of control over his retirement. Despite this, retirement must still be a difficult decision for Bolt, particularly when he is viewed by many as the saviour of athletics – a pressure indeed and his absence from the sport will no doubt be felt when his retirement does come.

Ennis-Hill: A decision to be made

Whilst Bolt has a clear plan for his future Jessica Ennis-Hill, after achieving a heptathlon silver medal in Rio, following her Gold in 2012, is taking some time to contemplate her future. After her event she stated “It’s going to be a tough decision, I’m going to go away and think about it… it’s a big decision.” Like Bolt, Ennis-Hill has given a clear message that she will not be at the 2020 Olympics, but has yet to decide whether to draw a line under her career now or at a later date. A home World Championships for the reigning World Champion might be a temptation for a final swansong, but will it live up to a home Olympics? Preparing for a heptathlon competition is no easy task and having twice before won the World Championships Ennis-Hill may decide that the incentive just isn’t great enough. Maybe what Jess needs is a new challenge, such as joining the exclusive 7000-point heptathlon club. Taking her time to reflect on her future and not rushing into a decision in flurry of post-Olympics emotion is a sensible approach as effective retirement decision making can be a complex process. Whatever decision she makes Ennis-Hill has been a fantastic ambassador for her sport and as one of the few women in sport to become a household name her role as female athletic role model should not be underestimated.

Phelps: The comeback king

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history (28 Olympic medals over 5 games), is an example of an athlete who retired, but then came back to swimming. Returning to sport after retirement is often associated with a compulsion to compete and an inability to cope with the sense of loss that occurs following retirement. This appears to have been the case with Phelps who stated that he experienced a tremendous low point after his retirement. Phelps has made no secret of the mental health challenges he has experienced in his life and in sharing these he has helped to overcome the stigma of athletes experiencing mental health conditions such as depression. Having learnt important lessons from his first retirement Phelps felt that he had ‘unfinished business’. His response to his imminent second retirement has been very positive:

“‘I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted. I was able to dedicate myself to this last comeback and that was it. One last hurrah. Looking back, it happened exactly how I wanted it to and exactly how it should have. Now I can hang up my suit and be happy with retiring. During the medal ceremonies, I was more emotional than I ever was before. I think that’s just because I was truly happy with where I am and how everything went.”

Bolt, Ennis-Hill and Phelps have all left their mark in Olympic history and as they move towards new chapters in their lives they face new challenges which they will hopefully take on with the mental strength of an Olympian.

This article was originally published on the OU Sport & Fitness Team Blog

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