Once the closing ceremony is over there are new choices for the athletes who have competed in Rio. For some it will be to start making plans for Tokyo in 2020 for others it will be to start looking at the reality of a life beyond the competition, a journey to discover success and fulfilment outside of sport.
Whether Rio was a chance to realise childhood dreams or to reflect on what could have been the challenges of retirement can often catch athletes unaware. Change brings with it both a sense of loss and the opportunity for new beginnings but it takes time to process the many emotions that are associated with the transition. The Kubler-Ross grief cycle1 gives us a framework to understand the journey. The initial euphoria of a sense of release and freedom is followed by denial and resistance until an acceptance is discovered providing the opportunity for exploration and growth. Whilst this journey is well documented it is often not a linear process with athletes regressing or getting stuck at different points as they try and make sense of the new world they find themselves in.
The smoothest transitions take place when an athlete has prepared in advance, has control of the timing of the decision and is satisfied with their career. Unfortunately, this is not always possible and even when all those conditions are met there is no guarantee of a straightforward transition. After London 2012 Michael Phelps retired from swimming as the most successful Olympian in history, yet two years later after well documented challenges in his private life he made the decision to return to the pool and the life he was familiar with to compete in Rio.
“I only saw myself as a swimmer. That’s it. Nothing else. I had no self-worth, no self-love; I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just a swimmer, I don’t have anything else’.”2
Even with control and success behind him there has been a very real challenge to shift his identity and discover a version of himself that could achieve and thrive outside of the sporting environment.
The neuroscience of change helps us understand how the transition out of sport can cause anxiety. David Rock’s SCARF model3 recognises five factors that contribute to stresses associated with making significant changes:
STATUS – as a successful athlete status is well understood, within the world of sport the better you are the higher status you receive, there is a large network of people helping to keep you moving in an upwards direction and the pecking order is well established. With the decision to retire comes the fall. The old adage “The King is dead, long live the King” recognises the shift in focus towards the next generation of champions, outside of sport it can become a challenge to be relevant and noticed in a world where different qualities are valued, and of course gold medals don’t automatically guarantee a world class performance in an another arena.
CERTAINTY – the four-year Olympic cycle, the routine of the domestic and international competitive calendar provides a predictability, a sense of stability and an element of security that the athlete can plan for. Outside of sport there are less predictable routines. The sense of the unknown as the athlete tries to navigate passage into a brand new world can be daunting as they discover new ways of working and come to terms with new patterns of behaviour.
AUTONOMY – as an athlete there is some sense of being in control, knowing where to apply effort for what reward. Within the predictable cycle of the sporting calendar there is confidence in the cause and effect relationship of work done and results. Outside of sport success is less well-defined and with it the capacity to measure progress is reduced. For the athlete this can lead to frustration as progress is less easy to measure but at the same time there is an impatience to feel the reassurance of being ‘successful’.
RELATEDNESS – within the sporting community there are the same values of competition and success, the language and banter between athletes is well understood and the sense of comradeship and belonging within a group of like-minded individuals provides comfort. Leaving behind your teammates to enter a new world full of people who don’t share the same experiences can be challenging. Feeling isolated and different will cause anxiety until common ground can be discovered and the athlete can become fluent in new ways of communicating with the people they find themselves interacting with.
FAIRNESS – the clear meritocracy of sport gives clarity to how rewards are distributed, the faster, higher, stronger you are the more of the rewards you receive. The world outside of sport is more ambiguous, it is less easy to fully understand how rewards and promotions are allocated. The rules of engagement shift and it takes time to understand how to play within the new guidelines and operating procedures.
This model can be equally useful when applied to transitions in business. People go through these same emotions when they are moving into a new role, starting in a new organisation or moving between teams in an organisation. It’s important that people are aware of these as they are going through them so that they can take steps to counteract them in order to transition successfully.
Understanding the causes of anxiety can be the first step in successfully managing any transition. With greater understanding and support it is possible to apply the skills and values such as discipline, commitment and application that have been the foundation of previous successes to new endeavours, create new identities and discover success and fulfilment in a new world.
Change is inevitable, being conscious of the choices we make and the habits we cling to or let go of is the best way to navigate the journey and find success on the other side.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” Charles Darwin
1Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 45-60.
3Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 78–87.