Photo by Josh Calabrese
Build your resilience to bounce back
Written by Richard Reid. 13 January 2019.
Andy Murray’s recent heart-rendering retirement announcement, is a stark reminder that the transition into a post-sport life isn’t always easy, particularly when the retirement is abrupt and enforced by external factors such as physical injury
Extensive research has shown that when participation in professional sport comes to a halt, either temporarily or permanently, elite athletes often encounter the same psychological cycle as those people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. These include shock, denial, anger, depression and eventually, in most cases, acceptance.
Retirement from sport is a huge loss for an athlete. Often, they are forced to retire from a sport that they still love participating in and in which they still hold unfulfilled aspirations.
Research on retired athletes highlights that the emotional loss associated with separation from coaches, colleagues and structure, coupled with a reduction in exercise, can prompt intense feelings of depression. Indeed, regular exercise is known to generate the endorphins which help to reduce the depression and anxiety which can emerge with such a significant change in life circumstances.
Retirement can also have serious ramifications for our sense of self-identity and self-esteem. Until, we have properly grieved and begun to find new purpose and direction in life, there is a tendency to focus largely on the absence of something rather than the opportunity for new growth.
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard once said about retirement: “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring. There is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.”
When you have been successful in any arena in life, it can often be extremely challenging to acknowledge internally, or to admit to others, that we may be struggling or have vulnerabilities. There is often an unspoken imperative to maintain a stoic portrayal of infallibility – particularly for men where mental health issues are concerned.
Being proactive about mental health is important in any walk of life. It means that significant issues can either be pre-empted or managed before they become entrenched. Whether you are a sports person facing enforced retirement or simply a regular person experiencing significant and unexpected life change, here are a few tips to build your resilience:
1. Be connected
Neurobiological research suggests that we are wired to seek out connection. Seek out ways to deepen connections with friends, family, significant others and the wider community.
2. Be authentic
Sharing vulnerabilities allows us to be closer to our true selves and to connect with others at a deeper level. In doing so, it can also prove to be highly cathartic in terms of dissipating the build-up of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings – little and often is the key. We need to allow ourselves to be seen in order to connect. Do not be afraid to be honest with people about your hopes, fears and dreams.
Transitioning is a process; to suppress it or to become frustrated with it, is to deny the reality of the situation. Instead, try to make peace with your achievements. Accept that any uncomfortable feelings are a normal part of the healing process and will pass in time if you allow yourself to acknowledge them. In the meantime, it can often be helpful to seek out opportunities which utilise key mental and physical attributes albeit perhaps in a slightly different context. For instance, many former athletes either become coaches in their chosen sport (with the emphasis on helping others) or turn the key mental strengths of their discipline to other pursuits such as business. Taking this approach can help to mitigate any feelings of despair, whilst also creating space for new forms of purpose and inspiration to emerge.
4. Be open
Seeking professional support from a GP, Therapist or Coach can often take a tremendous amount of courage. Even now, there is still a tremendous amount of stigma attached to mental health issues. However, those people who seek help generally benefit tremendously. Sharing with another can often help us to identify other perspectives or practical solutions which can be difficult to recognise when we are at the centre of the situation.
5. Be active
Keeping physically engaged is vitally important in terms of ensuring healthy chemical balances within the body, maintaining some daily routine and generating positive self-regard. When we are struggling, we invariably look at situations in “all or nothing” terms. Even if exercise is at a substantially reduced level to the past, any exercise at all is shown to have net positive benefits for our overall physical and mental wellbeing. There is also a significant body of evidence which shows that being in and around green open spaces, such as a park, is inherently good for our mental wellbeing.