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Whilst the media concentrates on one aspect of Ian Thorpe’s recent interview regarding his private life, I was more interested in his struggles with depression. For me it begs the question…why have so many Australian athletes, particularly swimmers, struggled since their retirement?
Is it possible that elite athletes are more vulnerable than the general population to problems when they return to “civilian” life? Is it possible that what makes them so good as athletes, could work against them later in life?
Consider the spate of incidences we have had among retired swimmers -Grant Hackett, Geoff Huegill and Ian Thorpe all having very public personal struggles. And making the papers for all of the wrong reasons.
So what is going on?
Let’s look at the problem in context. To be an elite athlete, especially a swimmer, requires enormous discipline and a huge amount of structure, purpose and determination in your life.
Your diet is controlled. Your social life is controlled. Your day is highly regimented. And, for most of them, this dedication starts before they are teens.
For many, they are also retired before the age of 30.
Now, in order to function in this extreme way effectively, most athletes lean towards something called dichotomous thinking. To lay people, this is referred to as black or white thinking or all or nothing thinking.
In the world of elite athletes, this is a huge advantage because when they are on, they are on, and nothing stops them. They push past pain, past injury, past fatigue. They won’t give up because they’re tired or feeling low or tempted by other pursuits.
The down side is, that when they’re off, they’re off!
When they retire, their lives change completely overnight. From having so much structure imposed on them to…nothing, unless they organize it themselves. They become ordinary ‘Joes’ and have to deal with immense uncertainties regarding their future, relationships and ordinary daily life. For the first time for many of them, they also have to deal with their emotions.
And of course, the dichotomist (black and white) way of thinking they’ve been applauded for until now doesn’t work well in the ‘real world’. Most of the world doesn’t operate in a black or white way. It’s all shades of grey.
There may be some active press, or requests for charity and media appearances but not for long. And it’s time to consider a normal job, further education, a career. If by now they haven’t made a decision or invested their earnings to create an income, what is the next step?
Now many become stuck, as they wonder, ‘what do I do next? I’ve been training for this my whole life, I hadn’t thought beyond this. What do I do?’
This sudden loss of structure (quite early as many athletes retire in their early to mid 20’s) causes many to turn to drugs or excess binging. And it’s this point where depression may become a problem.
‘Real life’ requires cognitive flexibility
Elite athletes risk falling into levels of anxiety and or depression as they struggle to cope with their new unstructured life. There must be more support and a gradual removal of structure as they mourn the number one relationship they’ve had in their life until now. Between them and their sport.
The vulnerability to emotional issues in elite athletes has certainly been drawn to our attention over the years as time and time again, they are found and exposed (often by the relentless media) engaging in self-destructive activities.
I believe that these elite sportsmen and women are, as a group, particularly vulnerable to depression and anxiety. And I question whether this aspect of their lives, that of returning to ‘normal life’ after retirement, is addressed realistically and properly by their management and the sporting associations to which they belong.
Ian Thorpe has struggled since retiring from swimming with returning to ‘real life’ for the reasons outlined above. We wish him all the best for the future.