“As long as I can still move and get out of bed in the morning then I’m going to keep trying to get better because I know that once I finish playing there won’t be anything like this to challenge me.”
These are the words of James Anderson in the ECB’s series of short films ‘The Ultimate Test’, released on the eve of England’s summer test series with New Zealand.
Yet finishing playing might prove to be the greatest challenge yet, and perhaps Jimmy knows it. The reality is that retirement, be it a looming prospect, or a past chapter, is brutally tough for elite sportspeople. It’s incredibly difficult to step away from the excitement of top-level competition, and worse to be forced to retire through injury or deselection.
Supporting elite sportspeople as they navigate retirement is therefore something we take seriously at Christians in Sport, we’ve previously made a whole podcast series with Christian former top-level athletes reflecting on their experience of retirement. So, what have we learned about retirement through this work? How can the Bible shape our response to the challenge it presents?
All the research suggests that there are three major factors that sportspeople have as points of reference throughout their careers. These are their relationship with coaches (how that impacts their career), injury (the consequences and pain of not being involved) and retirement. The first two are preparatory for the third in many ways, because through them an athlete must come to terms with rejection and isolation, let’s dive in to why that is.
When your coach doesn’t pick you, that’s a real feeling of rejection. You have to go to work, but the person with the overall responsibility for putting out the best team doesn’t want to put you on the field. If you have become a top level athlete then you probably were the best player, runner, jumper etc in your town, county or even the country as you grew up. But most athletes hit a point where they are no longer good enough. Good enough to be selected, to progress to the next level or to continue being successful at their current level. It’s a devastating blow when you’ve spent all your life with the identity of being the best. There is uncertainty in who you are.
This is distinctly different to rejection, and often arises due to injury, or circumstances that are difficult or impossible to control. When you have a long-term injury, you feel like you’re a useless part of the group. You’re not contributing anything. You can’t even be available to be a reserve or be on the bench. It’s not so much rejection of who you are, it’s the feeling that you’re completely useless to the group. The longer that injury goes on, the more you feel you don’t have anything to offer.
We have two tasters in our careers, preludes to retirement, in the experiences of being dropped and injured . But now it’s much worse because you can’t go to work. You’re no longer known as the best player.
This hits your sense of identity. Now you’re someone who used to be a brilliant tennis player or footballer and that’s painful. You can no longer be there with your teammates and everyone else you know is at work, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere you’re meant to be every day. The longer you are out of it, if you turn up at the stadium or training ground where you used to play, someone may not even know who you are. It’s a dreaded isolation.
In any walk of life, it’s so easy for our self-esteem to determine our identity. So, if you feel rejected and isolated, you question the identity that you once felt so secure in - that of an elite sportsperson.
It is therefore no great surprise that many professional sportspeople struggle to make that transition to the next stage of their lives. And that struggle doesn’t go away just because you’re a follower of Jesus, so how can we respond?
Whilst retirement from sport is not specifically mentioned, the Bible does give us clear principles when it comes to identity and vocation, and these are fundamental to our response to retirement – let’s explain.
When an elite sportsperson retires, one of the things they often grapple with is replacing, or somehow coming to terms with, their former identity as an athlete.
Genesis 1:27 tells us that we are made in the image of God. That image is not something which lasts for a set time like a top-level sporting career, or its legacy in the form of records - it is an amazing, lifelong reality. It doesn’t depend on how others perceive you as a player, or your physical fitness, or your level of motivation. Whilst your circumstances change in retirement, this great identity does not.
Further still, for the Christian, identity as a saved sinner depends on grace alone, paid for by Christ’s blood.
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."
When so much of elite sporting culture is about performing to achieve a place on a team, or to gain a result in a race, this is a great reminder of God’s grace and how we can respond. When you retire, you are no less able to live your life in response to what God has done for you. Your context may have changed, but not God’s grace.
Retirement hits your sense of vocation hard, the quote we began with brings to life the reality of that challenge. Being used to having a job that means performing in front of thousands makes it difficult to get used to living a ‘normal life’.
The book ‘Why the Reformation still matters’ explores the biblical themes that shaped Martin Luther’s thinking, including that of calling and vocation. Luther took 1 Corinthians 7:20 as his key text here. He made the point that your calling is your current circumstances. It is in them that we’re able to serve God. The book’s authors, Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, write: “Luther’s point is not that you cannot change your role, but that you need not. You do not have to stop being a baker and become a monk if you truly want to serve God.” Conversely, if you’ve been an elite athlete, this is not the only circumstance in which you can serve God. We are saved to work, in whatever form that takes, not saved by work.
Furthermore in Romans 12:1 Paul writes:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
As followers of Jesus, we are called to offer our bodies as living sacrifices because of the mercy God has shown us. This means whatever we do with our bodies can be worship - giving our all to God, this is just as true as an athlete as it is in retirement. Going forward, whether we remain in the world of elite sport after retirement through coaching, working as support staff or in another role; or work takes us away from elite sport - we can still work and serve God with the gifts he has given us for this new stage in life. We are saved to work, in whatever form that takes, not saved by work.
Retirement is, and will always be, a big issue for elite sportspeople and one we will continue to address at Christians in Sport. If you would like to find out more about the support we can offer in this area, get in touch with our team who work with elite sportspeople by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in June 2022
Get the perfect start every
A weekly devotional for sports people