I’ve spoken in previous blogs about my time in sport and the practicalities of the transition process but, having been out of the pool for three months now, I’m starting to understand some of the key emotions that have accompanied hanging up my goggles for good. This blog started out as a personal psychological exercise but I’ve shared it because I think it offers an interesting insight into the thought processes and emotions associated with managing major change.
Many of the emotions were to be expected, but some really were entirely unforeseen and have taken me by surprise. Many I expect other athletes (and people going through different major transitions in their lives) will be able to relate to immediately; a couple may be unique to me. They are conflicting, very often occurring simultaneously, and they change day to day, week to week. There aren’t many areas of life previously where I have experienced such a genuine discordance of emotions—most situations I have either felt distinctly happy or sad, excited or scared, sympathetic or angry. I’m having to learn that it’s OK to feel many different things at once, and to not always be able to make sense of them!
This one wasn’t unexpected (I’d been pre-warned), but it’s still strange, because logically I know that I haven’t really lost anything, apart from the relentless essence of chlorine. But there is still an unnerving sense of something missing—a purpose, a motive, an identity. Since my early teens I’ve relied on ambition in sport to drive my everyday functionality, to get me up in the morning, to give me reason to act and train the way I did. I know I am, and will continue to be, ambitious in other areas of life, but I’d apparently come to take for granted the innate ability to self-motivate. I won’t, and can’t, profess to claim that this feels anything near the emotions of a ‘real-life’ bereavement, but it’s still gut-wrenching at times, because it feels like a physical part of me has been misplaced. Athletes become comfortable in the uncomfortable world of sport; removing myself from that space feels a little bit like being kicked out of my own home.
There are so many opportunities in this world, but when you have a single-minded pursuit of one goal, it can be easy to miss, or side-step, other things that are going on. For the last fifteen years I haven’t really committed fully to anything other than my sport. I muddled through GCSE’s, A-Levels, half a university degree, and a few other vocational pursuits, but the priority has always been swimming and engaging exhaustively with a lifestyle that gave me the best possible chance of succeeding in the pool. Now that I don’t have the same devotion to training and competition, it’s astonishing to realise what the world has to offer. It’s like regaining colour vision after fifteen years in black and white, and that realisation often leaves me feeling giddy and childlike, exhilarated to be alive on this planet.
This is an odd one and creeps up on me at the most unexpected of times. I never thought that transitioning out of elite sport would leave me feeling like I’d done something wrong, but when I look a bit closer, it’s relatively easy to rationalise. For whatever reason (now isn’t the time for the ‘talent vs hard work’ debate) I am, or was, an exceptionally good swimmer. Exceptional enough to win international medals and compete for my country at multiple Olympics. Exceptional enough to stand out amongst the very highest fraction of performance percentages. Exceptional enough to make a career out of spinning my arms backwards. Millions of people can only dream of those achievements, many thousands of other athletes striving for the same goals will never get close. I wasn’t forced out of sport because of circumstances—injury, illness, or financial difficulty—rather, I made the choice to step away. This is arguably the ideal way to transition, on my own terms and without regret, but I occasionally feel a twinge of culpability for actively choosing to suspend my potential, albeit knowing it was part of a justifiable decision at the end of a long and arduous journey!
It’s only by stepping away from sport that I have started to see any kind of real perspective on my career and achievements. When you are in the ‘bubble’ it’s almost impossible to do anything other than continue to strive for bigger, better and faster goals. You don’t think back to the aspirations that you had as a bright-eyed ten-year-old, don’t see how you’ve smashed most of your wildest dreams, don’t offer yourself a pat on the back for reaching the top of the podium. Sport is based around marginal gains, and we become hungry for them, so hungry that we have little to no concept of what we are achieving on a daily basis—it’s all about pushing continually for improvement. Athletes are hard on themselves, it’s often why they’re so successful. Only through shifting out of that environment can I start to recognise the dedication and tenacity necessary to succeed in sport, and what it takes to get to the top. The irony is that a lot of athletes would benefit from a little more perspective and self-congratulation along the way! Now that I’m ‘out’, I’m starting to accept some semblance of pride for the role I’ve played over the last few years, though admittedly it’s still tangled with a heady cocktail of self-directed interrogation, questioning “But how could I have been better?!” Maybe some things will never change!
Another odd one! At the moment I’m doing a lot of things for the first time, trying to find direction in a different world to the one I’ve been part of for so long. There are new challenges, and to transition successfully I know I can’t deviate from proactively applying myself these challenges. I’m having to access a hugely extended support network (plus Google) to ask a multitude of questions about the ‘real’ world: ‘How do I set up a company?’, ‘How does a business operate?’, ‘What does this mean?’, How do I apply that to my life?’, ‘How can I demonstrate this skill?’
It’s new and exciting, but also strange to have gone from being an ‘expert’ in one field, to a novice elsewhere. It takes a bit of self-assurance to accept that it’s OK to be new at navigating these unfamiliar disciplines.
Denial & Jealousy
It seems like denial is the emotional side of my brain not wanting to accept being vulnerable. It’s often mixed with jealousy, seeing other athletes succeed in major competitions across the world—the World Cup, Tour de France and the European Championships. I love watching other sports and I’m enjoying the position of spectator, but there’s definitely part of me that feels envious that I won’t get to experience competing at a major again. I can mostly negate these thoughts, but I do keep experiencing a nagging voice in the back of my head, ‘helpfully’ suggesting that it’s not too late to go and get back in the pool, to get back into training and be ready for Tokyo! Apparently bashing yourself on the head with a heavy book is an ineffective psychological tool, so I’ve settled on countering these thoughts with logic—that I made the decision to stop, that I can and will be exceptional in other areas of life. It’s a tricky one though, especially in this heatwave—the water just looks so tempting…
After thinking about retirement and the risks that come with transition for so long, a concern I’ve had for a while is whether I’d be able to find a renewed sense of purpose and ambition. It’s taking some time (and I expect it to take a lot longer still), but I’m slowly learning how to set new goals and apply myself to those, in much the same way I did my sporting aspirations. My motivation at the moment? To ‘succeed’ at transition! To keep myself in check, to learn how to be kind to myself, to achieve a balance—managing to find time for both the novelty of leisure activities, and career development pursuits. Sport is unique, but many of the positions and skills athletes develop are not unique. There will be leadership, teams and competitive environments in other areas of life. There will be situations in which complete, uncompromising application and commitment will be required in different fields. The challenge for me is to let go of my pre-conceptions that sport is the only place I can succeed, to embrace vulnerability and become receptive to discovering the next thing to yank me out of my comfort zone.
As you can probably tell, it’s a real mix of thoughts on any given day, but my hope is that, with time, the positive emotions will develop and stabilise, and the more negatively charged ones will start to dissipate. Transition, in any area of life, is a huge challenge to navigate—it’s easy to feel isolated, but I know I’m not the only one who has experienced these sentiments. It’s not often spoken about, certainly not amongst the sporting community, but I think we need to accept that only through talking can we realise that we are not alone on this journey.
Top tips to remember if you’re working through a transition (from sport, the army, a job, a relationship etc):
- It’s OK to have conflicting, transient emotions. It doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong choice, just that your brain is taking some time to process the change.
- You don’t have to make sense of everything. Your brain is doing a systems update—some stuff is going to be saved into encrypted folders, other information and memories are going straight to the trash. Soon you’ll have a shiny new desktop background and things will be clear again, but if you try and rush the process you’re going to end up with a frozen hard drive requiring a sketchy safe mode reboot (which is a tenuous analogy for saying that you might end up needing counselling!)
- It’s OK to have made the decision to change, be actively transitioning, and yet still be yearning for what you’ve left behind. You shouldn’t feel ashamed of feeling nostalgic/jealous/empty/(insert other negative emotion here) without the old routine—it doesn’t make you a bad person or mean you made the wrong choice.
- Actively pursuing a new routine, something that is fresh and exciting (just like your old lifestyle was at the very beginning), is key to feeling positive about the change. The worst thing you can do is sit at home and ‘mourn’ all day. Having said that, it can help to schedule some time to work through your feelings (with a loved one, friend, piece of paper).
- Be accepting of yourself—don’t berate yourself for experiencing an emotion that you determine is undesirable.
- Don’t deny that it is happening. Change is unsettling and that is OK. Telling everyone that you’re fine when you’re not is a one-way ticket to more misery. Share your feelings, ask for advice and help.
- Take notice of your internal monologue—what you’re telling yourself on a daily basis will have huge impact on your perspective. The other day I caught myself telling myself, “You’re just a nobody now.” Avoid self-inflicting derogation. I’ve started a list in the ‘notes’ on my phone filled with positive self-talk. I feel like an idiot needing to use it, but it works.
…and, most importantly…
- Get excited. Look at your new situation as an opportunity—to grow, to learn, to evolve, to transcend who you thought you were. To excel at new challenges and become an even better version of you. Change is hard, but it’s a choice to see it as a negative—the sooner you can view your new circumstances as an opportunity, the quicker you’ll thrive.