Olympian Stephanie Rice has opened up about her struggle with transitioning to everyday life since retiring from swimming, as experts compare a sportsperson’s retirement to that of a soldier returning from war.
The three-time Olympic gold medal winner admitted it was difficult to find a purpose in life after sport, revealing her mental and physical battles.
Rice, 28, said after receiving huge praise for her sporting accomplishments, she had begun to base her self-worth on succeeding as a swimmer.
But after she pulled the pin on her professional career in April 2014, everything changed.
“When I finished swimming I thought ‘I’m no longer good at anything’, and you are, it’s just that you place so much focus on your external achievements,” Rice told My Body+Soul.
“I burst into tears the first year of asking myself ‘who I am’ for sure. Especially when I knew who I was was so defined by swimming, but when it’s not about that anymore, to ask yourself ‘who is Stephanie Rice’ is really confronting.”
Rice said she even found it difficult to stay physically active, going from seven hours a day and over-training for 15 years to almost no motivation to do any exercise at all.
It took her two years to find enjoyment in exercise again, she said.
Sports psychologist Jeff Bond said Rice, and almost all professional athletes, go through what is called a “response to trauma curve”, as sportspeople try to assimilate back into everyday life, much like soldiers.
“They go through the ‘response to trauma curve’ where they become isolated, depressed, they feel lost, they feel without purpose and don’t feel like there’s a lot of life left,” Bond told The New Daily.
“It’s a bit like soldiers coming back with PTSD syndrome, it’s very dangerous and very debilitating.
“Athletes are the same, they’re used to saying to people ‘yeah I’m ok, I’m all over this’, and they’ll say that when they retire but deep down they’re not but they won’t admit that, because they’ve been taught as athletes not to admit weakness.
“They are conflicted people in some ways … when they retire they feel a great loss, a lot of them are traumatised by the change.”
Bond said elite athletes struggled to fit back into a normal life after sport because they dedicated themselves to their sport so much that nothing else approximates that.
He said many top-level athletes struggle because much of their self-worth and values were formulated around the external gratification of being a great sportsperson.
‘Sport exacerbates the problem’
Bond, a former AIS psychologist, noted that the win-at-all-costs culture in sport was a big part of the problem when it comes to the mentality of professional athletes.
He said sportspeople who focused on their career 24/7 was a “recipe for going crazy”, and exacerbated the problem.
“Sport attracts certain types of personality characteristics. We want people who are professionalistic (sic) and somewhat obsessive, we want people who are aggressive competitors, we want people who are prepared to hurt themselves, we want people who are prepared to make sacrifices to win. And so sports tend to attract those kinds of people,” he said.
“We want people who are pretty egocentric, in other words we want them to be so focused on themselves they drop everything else.
“And not only do we attract those people and recruit them, the sports system actually exacerbates that.”
How athletes overcome post-retirement trauma
For Stephanie Rice, it was pulling back from her media and public figure commitments that gave her time to recover, and says she felt more fulfilled than ever because of it.
But for many other athletes, the solution starts prior to retirement.
“The reality is athletes need to prepare themselves for retirement,” Bond said.
He said preventative measures like developing an alternative career path during an athletes career was one surefire way to overcome potential post-retirement trauma.
“We always want to make sure athletes have a parallel pathway so we encourage them to go to school, university, or get part-time jobs, not just for a plan B but for their own mental wellbeing so they have something else to focus on,” he said.