Life after elite sports?

14 May 2018

Dr Christina Ryan.

Our highest performing sports stars can become consumed by their roles as elite athletes, but is it good for them or their sports?

University of Waikato’s Dr Christina Ryan from Te Huataki Waiora Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance has been researching identity construction within New Zealand’s elite sport environment, and she has concluded that more needs to be done to make sure high achievers survive the experience, and perform to the best of their abilities.

Dr Ryan says athletes can completely focus on their sport and pinnacle events, such as world championships, Olympics and the recent Commonwealth Games, due to the importance placed on achieving results at such events by sports' funding agencies. This means an athlete's time, social circles, family and life can end up becoming completely dominated by sport. But what happens if they do not perform, are seriously injured, or simply need to retire? In some cases it leaves them with a future that is a blank canvas, without a social network or career prospects,  increasing their vulnerability to anxiety and depression, risk taking behaviour, and possibly worse.

“If you don’t perform, and you’re getting a lot of public criticism, you can take that to heart," says Dr Ryan. "Overseas there have been some high profile athletes who have committed suicide after failing to cope with life after sport. That is the issue around your whole life being built upon achieving to the highest levels, in a way nothing else will compare with. If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people cheering for you, people wanting to take photos, and then you crawl into obscurity, you can’t replace those feelings.”

The expectations can be incredibly high, and Dr Ryan says while there have been changes in attitude from some sporting bodies, there is still a strong push for athletes to focus almost single-mindedly on their sport. “There are definitely still coaches who believe people shouldn’t be doing anything else." However she says there is an emerging body of evidence suggesting that having a dual focus can actually have a positive effect on an athlete's performance and can enable them to stay at the top of their sport for longer.

Her work is now focusing on providing athletes with more complete identities and lives. Dr Ryan says including education, work experience, and even having a weekend off every few months makes a difference. “It doesn’t have to be a degree, it can be a paper. It doesn’t have to be a demanding job, it can be regular work placements. Things that develop other parts to their identities, and don’t leave them starting from scratch when their sporting careers are over.”

Dr Ryan says we all need to do more. “There are definitely people in high performance sports advocating that athletes be well-rounded people, which is a positive start. But there also needs to be a public shift. We as New Zealanders celebrate their successes as our own, but we also need to care for them, and keep in mind the sacrifices they’ve made and the struggles they face. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”