Former Australian Team Hockey Player Contemplates How to Transition to a Second Career to Become More Than An Athlete
Australian sports stars battles mental illness. It’s a headline known all to well to the public in recent times; a headline most commonly associated with Ben Cousins and Grant Hackett due to their significant profile. With this much media attention and the recent Crossing the Line Summit focusing on athlete transition, it begs the question; how can we help our athletes maintain their mental health when transitioning to life after sport?
I had nothing outside of hockey to think about or give me purpose
I write this article, not as a professional in the field of psychology but rather an athlete who is currently in the much maligned “transition phase”. It’s a phase that came significantly earlier than I had hoped for; due to injury right before the Rio Olympics, but in sport the opportunity to retire when you are ready and prepared is for the fortunate.
Career ending injuries and non-selection are two experiences athletes know all too well and should expect as it is a reality of our occupation. Seeing we can never really know when our time is up, I am a firm believer that transition needs to start at the onset of one’s athletic career.
It is quite easy to lose sight of who and what else you actually are
Let’s keep in mind that no matter how many interventions and prevention strategies we put into place there will always be a percentage of athletes that will develop a mental health condition. Athlete are not exempt from the reality that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. This heart breaking statistic shouldn’t stop us however from helping our athletes in a phase of their life when stress, anxiety and a lack of direction is very real and prominent.
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I have offered some ideas on strategies below, which I feel are important for athletes to consider at the start of their career. You might agree or disagree but if it triggers a conversation it will go some way to helping athletes find their new path.
Be more than an athlete
From early in my career the phrase: “oh you’re the hockey player”, was one that I heard on a regular basis. It didn’t particularly phase me at the time but upon reflection, after years of only associating yourself with being an athlete, it is quite easy to lose sight of who and what else you actually are.
In 2008, while training for the Beijing Olympic Games I literally gave everything up – my work and studying to be an Occupational Therapist as well as socialising as much as I normally would. Needless to say when I started to perform poorly I had nothing outside of hockey to think about or give me purpose.
When I wasn’t selected to be part of the Olympic team, I lost the one thing that, at the time, defined me as a person. As a result my mental well being and health suffered. I was never diagnosed with depression but it was one of the most unnerving, confusing and stressful periods of my life.
It is vital we assist these athletes from the outset become more than an athlete so when their career is taken away their identity doesn’t go with it
If I was going to have longevity and be happy when I no longer was an athlete finding purpose outside of sport was imperative. When I finished my degree in Occupational Therapy in 2009, I worked casually as a carer, started public speaking and became involved with R U OK? I was building a life around being an athlete so I was not just identified as a hockey player but rather a person in the community who excelled at sport but had more to offer.
I am fortunate that I learned this would be a key factor to being happy later in my career—who would have thought non-selection would have been a good thing! Not all athletes are lucky to have this self awareness. It is vital we assist these athletes from the outset become more than an athlete so when their career is taken away their identity doesn’t go with it.
2. Coaches and athletes finding the balance
One of the biggest relationships an athlete will have in their playing career will be with their coach. It is often a love – hate relationship, which is typical in any close relationship. I have been very fortunate in my time to have been coached by some exceptional coaches, and know just how hard their job must be. What I have also found, however, that there are times when coaches—and some athletes—think more is more when training is concerned.
More value needs to be placed on the mentality; “better people, make better players”. It’s a quote from the book Legacy, which identifies why the All Blacks have been so successful and one that I firmly believe in.
I feel that most coaches understand and agree with this notion but few actively encourage athletes to be accomplished outside the sporting field. Imagine from day one receiving encouragement and opportunity around training to explore outside pursuits for personal growth? Not only would athletes bring new skills to their sporting pursuit but we would see far more athletes finishing their sporting career with alternative career options. A balance must of course be found here, it is no good to have outside pursuits which impact on sports performance when being an athlete is the priority.
With athletes placing great importance on the advice and guidance of their coaches, they therefore have a profound responsibility in encouraging action; while the athlete has the responsibility of taking action.
Being made to feel guilty about engaging in other activities outside of hockey was the bane of my existence. Just because athletes don’t think about the game 100% of time doesn’t meant they aren’t committed. Don’t let your athletes get to the end of their athletic career without having had some “real world experience” whether it be establishing a hobby, becoming a volunteer or a paid job outside of sport.
3. Do we need to establish a physical exit strategy?
We all know the link between exercise and endorphins. After tearing my ACL I went from training six days a week to sitting immobile every day on a couch for an extended period of time. As much as I don’t like running, I noticed very quickly that my body and mind wasn’t too happy about the amount of couch time and no matter how many episodes of Suits I watched my mood wasn’t getting any better. Fortunately rehabilitation started fairly quickly and I was back into an exercise regime, which was more than enough to satisfy my need for activity.
It did however get me thinking that for athletes conditioned over several years to large and intense periods of training, that they need help to prepare them for life after their athletic career to adjust their bodies to less activity?
Will you have a trainer? Do you have a gym you can access? What will you do to be able to motivate yourself to exercise? After years of being in a team, do you need to exercise with others? How might your body change physically with a reduction in training?
Thinking about these questions and having a plan from the outset can help when things go pear shaped. An action plan is a very commonly used strategy to help those who regularly struggle with maintaining their mental health and can be adapted to these situations.
4. Conversations without penalty
As athletes one thing that certainly doesn’t help during our transition is our inability to communicate about how we are feeling psychologically. Communicating how we are feeling is not something that we regularly practice through fear of non-selection or being seen as not “mentally tough”. The sad thing is that for many players by the time they are showing signs of significant mental health problems who are confronted with non-selection the best they can hope for is a supportive partner and family.
We need to get to a point where we create a sporting environment to talk about how we are feeling psychologically just as commonly as how we are feeling physically. Regular check-ins where all athletes feel comfortable to discuss their thoughts can be a great help in de-escalating many situations – an simple RUOK strategy. I have no doubt if I had discussed my self-deprecating thought process during the 2008 period earlier, then I might not have come as close to giving it all away.
By being more in touch with both our body and mind throughout our career we may be able to recognise mental health issues earlier and feel comfortable seeking assistance after our career has ended.
Does the lack of financial support in women’s sport means female athletes are more successful in transitioning to a career outside of sport?
If you’re a coach, parent and athlete, ask the question—what could I be doing now in preparation for the end of my career? See it like superannuation; the more you invest early in your career the more prepared and better off you will be when end your career and most need it.
I would also encourage further investigation into why so many of our athletes with public mental health battles are men? Is it because they are in a high profile sport therefore their battle is newsworthy? Do men turn to more public acts, which prominently display their mental illness? Or does the lack of financial support in women’s sport means female athletes are more successful in transitioning to a career outside of sport?
In time I am sure we will offer more support to our athletes and we might edge a little closer to answering these questions. In the meantime, let’s get the transition process started earlier and help our athletes understand they have much more to offer off the field.