In the wake of a brutal defeat to Manny Pacquiao, boxer Ricky Hatton’s first retirement led him into a spiral of drink and depression that reached rock bottom when video footage of him snorting cocaine appeared as a story on The News of the World’s website. ”It was very hard because, if the truth be known, I didn’t really want to retire,” Hatton explains. “But I kept forcing the issue – going to the gym, trying to do pads, trying to start my diet. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it any more.
”I could have thought: ’Fair enough, I had a good innings.’ But I didn’t want it to end, so I spent three years down in the dumps, getting depressed. It’s well documented what happened to me in the end.”
For double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes, the struggle came not through a failure to accept that her glittering career was over, but in having to deal with the subsequent loneliness and loss of identity.
“Everything changes, and you lose that sense of belonging and being part of a team,” she says. “You lose your identity because that one thing you’ve been working towards for all those years is not there any more. All that focus disappears. It really does turn your whole world upside down.
“Not having a team around you was the hardest aspect. As an athlete, I always say that you’re only ever as good as the team around you. You have those people giving you support and advice constantly. They are there for you to help you pick yourself up during hard times or injuries. But then, once you retire, you’re on your own. That’s hard to come to terms with.”
Where’s my money?
There are not only emotional difficulties, but financial ones too. Despite the huge salaries now enjoyed by elite sportsmen and women across a range of sports, the reality is that many are forced to find a completely new living when they retire. Former footballer Mick Quinn now combines training racehorses – a path down which he followed good friend Mick Channon – with media work, hosting a regular radio show on talkSPORT.
“I had to do a four-year apprenticeship to get my training licence, which was a difficult time,” he reveals. “I had been on a Premier League wage, which at that time was about two grand a week. To go from that to nothing at all was a big hit.
“I had my pension, but I couldn’t save up enough to just retire, so I had to find another job. And, in football, those are few and far between. If you’re a name, you have a head-start. But if as a player you trawled the lower leagues, then you had to go out to the real world and sort yourself out. Look at someone like [former Newcastle, Chelsea and QPR midfielder] Gavin Peacock – he’s a priest now. Darron McDonough [who played for Oldham and Luton] is now a bricklayer.”
Financial difficulties only serve to reinforce the psychological issues faced by retired athletes, however. An intense training regime and the buzz of competing is often replaced with a huge amount of spare time and vacuum of purpose. It’s a dangerous combination.
“I turned professional at 18 and had trained every day of my working life,” says Hatton. “Boxing was my job. I went to the gym Monday to Friday, whether I had a fight or not. Training was my nine-to-five. Then, all of a sudden, I was 31 years of age and didn’t have a job. It doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been or how much money you have in your bank – when you have time on your hands, you start sulking and thinking you want to give it another go. When you know you can’t, it’s very hard to come to terms with.”
Steven Sylvester, a former Middlesex cricketer and now chartered psychologist working with world champion athletes, explains the problem of the transition: “Retirement eats away at our self-esteem. On the surface it’s just another transition, but below the surface something deeper is going on: ’How do I cope with this change? I’ve been great at something for a number of years. It defines me, but I’ve gone from that to nothingness. What do I do now? What else can I be great at? Where else can I get the respect from others and what does my future hold?’”
When Hatton asked himself these very questions, the only answer he could summon was boxing. His decision? To return to the only thing that had given him the respect and esteem he craved.
“My decision to make a comeback was very hard,” he reveals now. “Most friends and family were concerned about me because they knew how hard it was for me to come to terms with my previous two defeats to Floyd Mayweather and Pacquiao. It sent me really depressed, really down and into drink and into drugs and stuff like that. I was on the real bottom of the ladder. I mean, I actually tried to kill myself.
“So when I did return to boxing everyone was thinking: ’Oh my lord, what if Ricky gets beaten? We know how badly he suffered the last two defeats – what if he comes back and gets beaten again?’ But it had the opposite effect. I can honestly look myself in the mirror and say I fought my demons. I came back, picked a good opponent, discovered I didn’t have it any more and could retire happy. It was the best thing I did.”
The journey to selflessness
When Hatton realised he was no longer capable of competing at the highest level, he was forced to emerge from the elite athlete’s typical bubble of self-absorption and instead forge a path of comparative selflessness. As Sylvester explains, this is a key factor in retiring successfully.
“Where a lot of elite athletes get it wrong is that they’re so self-absorbed,” he says. “They feel all their euphoria from the crowd’s adulation of their success. They feel respected for that and want to find that same level of respect from others after retiring. But what they need to become is more selfless. They need to look at how they can use their skills to give back to others and find meaning in their life once more.”
Given the level of focus, commitment and ambition athletes must maintain in order to be the best they can be, coming out of that bubble can be very difficult. Quinn agrees. “I think what football does is get you get wrapped up,” he says. “You’re always looked after, you’re always in a team environment. You’ve got to get on the team bus at 10am on Friday, to leave to go to wherever, to play on Saturday, and you’ve got a day off on Wednesday. It’s very regimental. You think it will go on forever, and then all of a sudden the hard reality is that your career is over. A lot of players have never thought about what they were going to do when they finished football.”
According to Sylvester, athletes need to unwrap themselves from this regimental world and consider what they can do beyond sport that protects their self-esteem. “The athlete must realise that is there is a life beyond sport and decide what they contribute,” he says. “That’s quite a deep process of self-discovery, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s not just about trying to be positive; it’s a much deeper search about what you can give back to society. What do you take from your talent and experiences in sport to contribute in a far deeper way than you could have imagined?”
An end has a start
The key, says Sylvester, is for sportspeople to treat retirement not as an end, but as the beginning of a new life in which they can actually contribute much more. Holmes, for one, exemplifies his theory. After retiring from athletics, she set up the DKH Legacy Trust to support retired athletes in making that transition into post-competitive lives. Athletes are placed as mentors to disadvantaged young people, and the result is often mutually beneficial – for every young person inspired, there is a retired athlete feeling a renewed sense of purpose.
“After I retired, I saw a real parallel between the way a retired athlete feels and the way so many young people feel – in short, completely lost,” Holmes explains. “So often, all these young people need is someone to give them the support to allow them to fulfil their potential – and who better to do that than an athlete, who has experienced the highs and lows of top-level competition and has had to develop resilience, self-belief and dedication to get there? The charity allows athletes to give back in just that way.”
Although her foundation is helping athletes in their transition to post-sport life, Holmes insists that more still needs to be done. “I think more support should be offered to retiring athletes,” she says. “Research shows that, on average, it takes two years for an athlete to feel settled and happy in a new career – but, in athletics, their funding usually stops after three months.
“There are also things athletes can do themselves to make this transition easier. Thinking about what they might like to do beyond sport earlier on is a start. Reading up on options, maybe taking a course. It’s a fine balance, though, because to be the best in the world at your sport you do need to focus 100 per cent on it. It can be difficult.”
Quinn echoes Holmes’ opinion that having an exit plan can help make the transition into non-competitive life smoother. While a great deal of ex-footballers end up dabbling around in different aspects of the media, Quinn had one great passion that he maintained throughout his career – and that provided him with a clear path out of professional football.
“Horse racing was my passion even while I was playing,” he says. “I always knew it was something I wanted to go into. The normal thing was that players would get involved with a pub because they’ve always been in one. But then once they’d bought that bar or restaurant, they didn’t know how to run it. I think the fact I was involved in racing throughout my career meant it was easier for me to leave football.”
The reality is that most athletes don’t think about retirement plans because, like Hatton, they don’t want to accept it as their fate. With few support networks outside sport, many have to make their own way into – and through – retirement. Most fade quickly from the public consciousness, left alone to seek a normal future no matter how exceptional their past. After putting his own personal demons to rest and coming to terms with his need to retire, Hatton has realised the importance of finding other outlets for his energy.
“I’m going to be doing three or four marathons this year,” he says. “I know I won’t be fighting any more, but there’s a mountain I’ve got to climb again to get fit for those. You can sit on your backside feeling sorry for yourself, but you’re only going to get worse. You’ve got to keep reinventing yourself, keep setting yourself goals and keep striving for something. Just because your career is dead doesn’t mean you have to be.”
Francesca Tye @francescatye
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