How to deal with the emotional challenges of retirement

World champion rower Gearoid Towey struggled with a loss of identity after competing for Ireland for the last time at the 2008 Olympic Games. Here, he explains how he managed the transition and gives his advice for how you can do the same.

  • Do your research and plan ahead, advises the former international rower
  • The things you’re scared to lose can be found in other careers
  • Talking to others is one of the best things you can do
  • With the right mindset, what will seem painful at first will quickly become refreshing

When I retired, I was determined not to be one of those people who repeatedly came back to the sport for ‘one more go’ purely because I knew I could with a few months of training. My instincts told me it was over and I didn’t want my head to overrule that.

As a measure against that, I completely flipped my life upside down, to get as far away from sport as possible, to get myself to the point of no return. I auditioned for drama school in London and got in; I started that about one month after Beijing 2008.

A new stage
Acting life was similar in terms of discipline and focus, and doing a performance in a play did feel like competing in a race: meticulous preparation, build-up, nervous energy, adrenaline, performance… But it also came with a nightlife culture that I embraced and I had great fun that year. The things you are scared to lose as an athlete can be found in other walks of life, and you also get the opportunity to try new things.

After one year I didn’t feel anything like an athlete anymore, and that was part of my plan. However, I decided after 18 months that acting at that level was going to require a lot of focus and graft, and at that point, I wasn’t up for it. The other factor was money – stage actors don’t get paid a lot and I needed to survive!

Loss of identity
I am someone who doesn’t believe in over-planning, so that was the stage at which I asked myself the question: ‘Now what? What do I want to do now?’ For the first time in my life, I didn’t have the answer right away.

That affected me way more than I ever imagined it would. I felt destabilised for the first time in my life, a little bit directionless and realised that finding something else as satisfying as rowing was going to be a longer process than I imagined.

Find your next purpose
Moving away from the sporting world can be overwhelming. Everything you knew is now gone; the training schedules, the travel plans, the competition dates, the crowds, the attention – the loss of purpose or control are common feelings.

Many athletes say how surprised they were to find the change so challenging – even those with secondary careers and educations. It can be a very complex process and it is advisable to learn as much as you can about the potential areas of difficulty so that, when the time comes, you have the tools and knowledge to deal with them.

It is for this reason that I am the founder of Crossing the Line – a not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to helping athletes navigate the transition to life after sport. It’s run by athletes for athletes; people sharing their experiences for others to learn from.

Ride the extremes
Having a degree wasn’t enough. If I could do it again, I probably would have spoken to more ex-athletes while I was still competing, just to get a flavour for what might be in store: some warning signs of potential pitfalls, things that went well for people, things that didn’t. This is definitely a good thing to do and I advise that you try to talk to people who have been through what you’re about to do. We all have our own journey to take but learning from others who have walked the path is always useful.

The best piece of advice I got was to imagine your retirement from sport is like doing a bungee jump. At the beginning, it might seem like you are stretching the bungee cord extremely at either end, with lots of major changes and feelings, but gradually you come to a balanced spot when your future life makes a bit more sense.

Just ride the extremes for a while and hopefully, you finish the bungee jump with a smile on your face! Transitioning to a new career should be one of excitement, not fear. Gain peace with your sports career and then give yourself the opportunity to be excellent at something else.

Want to get more advice on your career switch? Click here to take the Athlete365 ‘Career Transition: Life After Sport’ course, presented by Gearoid.