Retirement, identity and mental health in elite sport
Retirement, identity and mental health in elite sport

Jonny Reid spoke with Paul Hammond at UCB Radio about an article published last week in the Daily Mail which outlined the issue of mental health struggles arising as Olympians transition out of their sport.

Here is an overview of the main points of their conversation about this important topic of the strains of top level sport and the impact it has on mental health.

A major problem for all, especially in sport

The article by David Coverdale in the Daily Mail outlines that a large number of “medal-winning British athletes have opened up about their struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts since quitting and many have raised concerns about the lack of aftercare offered by governing bodies when they come off UK Sport funding.”

Issues to do with mental health are not just consigned to the world of sport, although they may be heightened at certain stages, especially as athletes transition out of their sport at a relatively young age. Mind, the mental health charity, are sponsoring the EFL this year and they state that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem this year. Within other sports we’ve seen top-level Australian cricket players taking prolonged breaks and now we see this research into Olympians. It is a topic that we must be talking about.

With the pressure of performance at the top level of sport, and, for many Olympians, the lack of financial security others might have, transitioning from being a medallist to retirement can be a huge shock.

As Coverdale writes in his research, Olympians “feel a loss of identity and purpose when they finish because of the all-encompassing nature of their career and the comedown from having been among the world’s best in their chosen field.”

At Christians in Sport, as we support hundreds of top level athletes, we recognise this issue and are looking to actively support many elite sportspeople with this transition.

Jonny Reid speaks with Paul Hammond on UCB Radio about this issue.

The wisdom of Martin Lloyd Jones

The great Welsh preacher Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones is very helpful at reminding us that, although the spiritual issue of where we find our identity is at play here, there are also many problems for which expert medical help is needed.

As a doctor he would regularly council that if someone was sick they should go to a doctor. He also wisely said in his book Spiritual Depression that “there is nothing more futile, when dealing with this condition, than to act on the assumption that all Christians are identical in every respect.”

With that said, we do feel that for a Christian the transition from elite level sport to retirement can be made easier as we grasp the amazing truth of the gospel for how we are to view ourselves. Whilst experts are needed to deal with issues of health, physical or mental, the gospel does still speak into all areas of our lives.

The freedom of finding our identity fully wrapped in Christ

American pastor Tim Keller argues that “if we take our meaning in life from our family, our work, a cause, or some achievement other than God, they enslave us.”

For a sportsperson, finding their identity in being ‘a rower’ or ‘a footballer’ is incredibly fragile. Their careers are short, injury may take it away and performances fluctuate. But a Christian athlete can build their identity not in their vocation, their talents or performance, but in the unshakeable love of Jesus.

God doesn’t look at us and see our job, or our medals or lack of them. If we have trusted in Jesus for His work done on the cross, when God looks at us He sees Jesus in us. Our identity as Christians is thus incredibly stable.

There is so much we could say about where the Bible describes what it means to be in Christ and defined as one of God's children. In Galatians 2:20 Paul wonderfully unpacks this as he says:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

So a Christian can find their identity, their worth, their value, in what Christ has done; not in who they are or what they do. For a sportsperson transitioning out of a major career, this is the same.

Whilst not disallowing for the natural grief they will feel and the upheaval which a change of routines will bring, in the midst of retirement Christian athletes can recognise that their identity is fundamentally not changing. Circumstances may be shifting, and that may cause some discomfort in this life, but their fundamental identity is solid and unchanging.

The importance of caring for the whole person

Many governing bodies are working hard to promote mental healthiness and support those who are struggling in different ways. From the FA’s ‘Take a Minute’ campaign to new campaigns from the PFA in Football and ECB in cricket, in the last few years we have definitely seen governing bodies begin to take this more seriously.

The Daily Mail stated that UK Sport athletes “can receive funding and private medical cover for up to three months after they are deselected from UK Sport’s World Class Programme. They have access to the English Institute of Sport (EIS) performance lifestyle advisers for six months after they finish and three months’ access to the EIS’s mental health team, which was established in 2018.” These should all be recognised as superb initiatives, whilst of course acknowledging that more can always be done.

The important thing is these bodies are trying hard to care for the whole athlete as an individual and not just as a commodity. For us at Christians in Sport, as we work with top level sportspeople every week, we help support them as individual people irrespective of their performances or stage of career. This looks different for each athlete, but for those nearing retirement we will look to walk alongside them and help them navigate this major change.

Ultimately in all things, with anyone we work with or speak to, we look to point them towards Jesus, the only person in whom a secure and solid identity can be found.

Where there are serious mental health problems, professional help is needed. But for all of us there is a freedom that can be found by basing our identity in something secure, stable and solid - Christ alone.

If you are a sportsperson navigating some of these issues, we’d love to hear from you. Our Elite Sport team work with over 500 sportspeople like you and would love to help. Please get in touch with them through the email addresses found here. You can listen to our podcast series with people who have been through this transition here.

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