One of the most common issues for athletes transitioning out of sport is the loss of identity that inevitably accompanies the hanging up of your goggles, boots, spikes, oars or racquet for good. After retiring 9 months ago, it’s something that I have struggled with too, and after a bit of reflection, it’s not too difficult to see why—after all, identifying as an athlete is pretty much all I’ve ever known.
There are of course exceptions, but the majority of athletes are consumed by sport from a fairly young age (I swum a mile when I was 6 years old, and my hair barely dried for the next twenty years). Going through your teenage years as an elite, or semi-elite athlete, has some challenges, such as correctly managing your education and social development alongside sport, but it is usually a hugely positive commitment for a young adult. At an age when most kids are messing around with their mates, playing on their Xbox, or Snapchatting every two or three minutes, the young athlete goes on a pretty intensive course of learning how to optimally prioritise tasks, time and energy.
Whilst many teenagers have to be dragged out of bed in the morning, a young athlete will be up before sunrise, dragging their parents out of bed to take them to the pool, track or gym. Whilst their friends moan about homework, a young athlete will have a routine that allows them to complete their homework and train after school, with enough time leftover to relax and watch that latest episode of Love Island. Whilst their schoolmates are happy to grab a bag of chips for lunch, a young athlete will be learning about correctly fuelling their body, choosing their food carefully to optimise recovery from the morning’s session, or to prepare for the afternoon’s. It’s a steep learning curve, and not all those who begin the journey make it through to the end, but the skills that young athletes acquire during those developmental years—the dedication, focus, commitment to excellence, time management, communication—undoubtedly give them the foundations for being successful, not only in sport, but in their schooling, hobbies and future careers.
What young athletes also develop is a strong identity: “I am an athlete”. Four powerful words that will be the beginning of many Olympic and Paralympic dreams, Grand Slam smashes, or Tour de France wins. Of course, we had goals too—to become the best in the county, then regional champion, then national champion. To beat the older kids, to qualify for senior domestic competitions, and then, finally, to compete as a senior athlete for your chance to stand up and represent your country at an international event. No athlete, young or old, is immune to the intoxicating draw of high-level competition, and the drive for success and progression fuels many of those early morning training wake-up calls, the brutal training sessions, and that tormented decision between chicken nuggets or vegetable stir fry.
But what really keeps a young sportsperson driving forwards, week in, week out, without compromise, is the identity they have started to forge. Let me explain how this works. The majority of training is somewhat tired, rough round the edges and slow…. that’s the point of training! Push yourself out of your comfort zone, hurt your body, and then, when it comes to rested competition, you will hopefully be able to fire faster and stronger than you’ve ever been before. But that means, by its very nature, that the majority of training does not involve fast times, fresh legs or shiny PB’s. If athletes relied on always seeing tangible progress, in order to keep motivation and momentum, then many of us would have quit years ago. You don’t get feedback every day that you’re on track to reach your goals, you don’t always get times that tell you that you’re world-leading, and you don’t often get information that tells you you’re in perfect form to win medals and break records. So, we don’t rely solely on tangible progress markers. Instead, we have our identity. Being an elite athlete gives us impetus to push through those tough sessions and difficult choices. Yes, the Olympic dream gives us vision, but it is this identity that gives us our security, motivation and drive, and in turn dictates the everyday actions we take. We don’t question getting up in the morning or pushing ourselves to tears. We are merely acting in accordance with the identity we have created. We don’t always get it right—numerous mistakes will be made along the way—but we gradually evolve from a regular teenager into a dedicated, focused athletic being.
Over the years, a young sportsman or woman will continue to substantiate this identity, with our sporting successes—medals, records, personal bests and qualification standards—reconfirming ‘the athlete’ we are becoming. Other interests and pursuits will often fall at the wayside, as we begin to eat, sleep and breathe our sport. Our daily routines prioritise training and recovery; our calendar is scheduled around competition seasons. When things get tough, we will stand in the mirror and say, “This is what I do. This is what it means to be an athlete. This is who I am. I can do this”. Through the inevitable ups and downs, the wins and losses, we will never lose this identity. That is, until we retire…
Elite sport is a strange vocation because, once an athlete retires, we can’t really just ‘dip’ back in to our profession at a later date. Many of the identity associations above also ring true for other industries. I imagine a musically talented youngster would also start to build a strong identification with being a musician. A young chess prodigy would begin to say, “I am a Chess Player”. A youngster who shows serious promise in the acting arena would gradually start to identify as an actor. Any pursuit of excellence requires hours of dedication and focus. But most people who make a career out of music, or chess, or acting even, can usually do this for their entire life. Even if they choose other careers later on, they could still feasibly return to their previous vocation relatively easily. Sport is different. There will come a point in every athlete’s life where they cannot feasibly continue, whether this is due to injury, performance or motivation. Whereas the musician, chess player and actor can all reasonably adopt that permanent identity, once an athlete transitions out of sport, we technically cease to be athletes any more.
To make things even harder, we’ve often sacrificed the ‘experimental’ stage of our lives, whilst we pursued our dreams in sport. For most people, their teenage years and twenties are basically spent finding out who they are and what they like. These are the years spent in school, in college, university, on grad schemes, internships, first jobs, second jobs, third jobs. Not everybody has their life figured out by the age of thirty, but most people have enjoyed at least a decade of experimentation, travel, socialising, working and, crucially, figuring out who they are. Every young person goes on a necessary journey of identity formation, with their experiences, interactions and environment all shaping the future person they become.
Young athletes are equally malleable, but this identity ‘forging’ often happens in a more focused, single-minded way. We travel with our sport, we socialise with our teammates, we experiment with our training programmes and we work bloody hard to reach the top of the game. But not many spend a whole lot of time trying new things and experiencing different environments. Being a sportsperson defined almost my entire existence, so, as an athlete retiring from sport at the age of 27, I inevitably felt more of an identity loss than a non-sporting peer would if they had left their career path.
And loss is exactly how it felt.
Identity is a hugely important part of the human psyche, and when it’s taken away, or abruptly changed, the resulting emotion is grief. For year sport defined me. In school there were two Lizzies in our class, so I was known to some ‘hilarious’ teachers as “Damp Lizzie” because my hair was always wet (not very flattering, I know!) Later on, I would retain sports-related nicknames from my non-sporting peers, with “Swimmo” still being a firm favourite for many of my social group. Our identity is one of the most important parts of us—it’s defines me as me, and you as you. It’s what separates individuals, and our ability to self-identify is one of the things that makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom. So, it’s unsurprising that I still stumble when people ask me what I do for a living, because my automated response is to tell them about my preparations for the next major competition. And it makes sense of why I feel slightly weird about people calling me “Swimmo”, when the most swimming I do these days is the occasional half hour splash in the public lane…
So, how can us athletes manage this abrupt change in direction and identity?
Well, that depends on where an athlete might find themselves in their particular sporting journey…
For athletes still competing
You are an athlete. That identity will define many of the decisions you make on a daily basis, and your purpose will be driven by acting in accordance with this. There is a good chance that it will be the strongest driving force you will feel each day. You’ll have goals, targets and objectives that give you vision, but you will also rely on your identity to help you push through when things get tough. This is a huge part of sport, and adopting this all-encompassing identity is part of what makes you great at what you do.
But it isn’t everything.
Although you may not recognise it at the time, you are much more than you think, beyond your performance on the pitch, field, track etc. Even though sport may occupy most of your waking thoughts and actions, you don’t have to limit yourself to a singular existence. So, ask yourself what are the other components that make you, well, you? To begin with you are a son, or a daughter. You may be a sibling. You may be a partner. You may be a parent or a carer. You will undoubtedly be a teammate and a friend. You may be a coach to others, or a captain. You will be an influencer and a leader. You will be a role model. You will be an ambassador for sponsors, a representative for your sport. You will be a speaker, a tweeter, a blogger, a vlogger. You may be a mentor to other athletes, or a voice campaigning for change. You may be a travel enthusiast, a photographer, an artist. You may be a student, or a teacher. You may be a cook, a chef or a baker. You may be an academic, a director, an employee, or a contractor. Yes, you are an athlete. But you are so much more as well. Recognise that, whilst sport plays a hugely significantly part in defining you, it doesn’t define your entirety.
So, start to consider your interests outside sport. This doesn’t mean missing training sessions or getting distracted from your goals, but begin to use your down time to explore the other things that make you tick. It doesn’t have to be a traditional academic studying route, but experiment with your hobbies and with your ideas. Find an online course, or an evening class, or just begin by watching YouTube videos about things that interest you. Photography, web design, business, clay modelling, chess, guitar, chemical engineering, journalism, coaching, charcoal drawing, architecture, pastry, yoga instructing, opera singing, calligraphy. Pick one, pick ten, pick all of them. Sometimes, when we’re excelling at sport, it can be hard to pursue other interests as an ‘amateur’—to be average at something, and to be ordinary at other skills. Whilst the likelihood is, that given practise in many of these other activities you will also start to excel, the goal here isn’t to be the best in the world at guitar or calligraphy—the objective is to extend your identity to more than just your sporting performance. Continue doing this alongside your sporting career, and you will begin to forge an identity that is centred around you as a human being, and not just you as an athlete.
For athletes who have retired
First of all, understand that your sporting results were only an outcome. It was you and your dedication, focus and commitment that created those results. Even though it’s difficult to leave behind the fast-paced world of elite sport, those attributes and skills are not lost. You still have the ability to do extraordinary things, and all the attributes that led to your success in sport are still a part of you. If you can see retirement with this perspective, then you can begin to understand that your athletic identity isn’t lost completely when you ‘hang up’ your team kit. Yes, you’ve transitioned out of the environment in which you can win medals and titles, but you can still identify as an athlete, because all the qualities, skills and idiosyncrasies that you honed during sport are still absolutely a part of who you are. Being an athlete may no longer drive your everyday direction and motivation, but it will always be a part of you.
Secondly, after sport, it can be unnerving not to be exceptional at one thing, especially if that’s all you’ve ever really done. It can feel overwhelming to even think of replacing the strength of that single, unyielding identity that you had as an athlete. But trying to replace it completely isn’t realistic, or constructive. Now it’s your turn to do what most kids did in their teenage years, or early twenties. It’s time to experiment. It’s time to give yourself a break, to stop demanding excellence, and to accept being a newcomer to many different pursuits. It’s time to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, to experience new industries, to develop new skills, to hang around outside of your comfort zone. And it’s time to do all of this with objective perspective, making notes and keeping records of what gives you motivation and purpose.
Not everything you do will give you fulfilment, and not all of the ideas you have will materialise. But to expect that the first thing you dive into will fully replace the purpose and satisfaction that sport gave you is just unrealistic. As an athlete, you are familiar with setting yourself challenging goals. So, do exactly the same here—continually track your progress in new endeavours, re-assessing the next target as you go. In this instance, however, the goal isn’t to be immediately world-leading at your new pursuits, it’s to take the pressure off yourself, and to go on a journey of self-discovery in which you stop assuming your identity has been lost to sport, and start allowing yourself to get excited by the opportunity of creating a whole host of new identities. Being an elite athlete is super cool, but, project forward 60 years and look back on your life. If elite sport was the only thing you had accomplished, I guarantee you’d feel a bit wasted. Your journey in sport has helped shape the person you are, but it is not because you were an athlete that you achieved results. It is because of the person you are, and that is something you won’t ever leave behind, even when you close the door to sport.