A life beyond: Identity, Purpose and Belonging are important Following Retirement from Elite Sports


Retirement can be a difficult life event for anyone. While for some retirement is a time for recreation, travel and increased family time, for others it can be a rudderless period in their lives. Without the buffers of a previous sense of identity, purpose, belonging and meaning, emotional life can become like tumbleweed. Elite athletes are typically viewed by the public and fans as focused and generally emotionally robust.

However, the culture of stoicism and competition that pervade elite sports serve to prevent athletes from disclosing concerns about their health and well-being along with, and often linked to, fears of impending retirement. Subsequently, an optimum environment to address concerns about emotional health and well-being is generally unavailable and retirement can be a major challenge to emotional health. A settled life beyond elite sports requires more than more than wealth, profile or financial security, it requires establishing a new identity and feelings of belonging to something of personal and professional value.

New Meaning

The transition from being an active elite athlete to other roles, requires some evaluation of previous achievements and disappointments along with time given over to thinking about new aims and goals. For many elite athletes, identity is frequently completely immersed in their chosen sport allowing little investment into other activities, which provide a blend and endorsement of positive personality traits. This can make the transition from active involvement in elite sports to departure difficult.

There are examples of elite athletes who have successfully made adjustments. Examples notably include: David Beckham, Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. All enjoy a high media profile and have, apparently, made a successful transition from active involvement in elite sports to other roles, calling on previous knowledge and experience. Others, include former Everton and Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall, who has have given over time to youth development providing him with a sense of personal satisfaction. Many nevertheless, have experienced difficulties. Paul Gascoigne, Clarke Carlisle and Tony Adams have each struggled with mental ill-health and found difficulty adjusting to life following professional football and difficulty finding a new purpose or professional identity during retirement.

Individual Personality

Mental ill-health is not confined only to football. The boxer, Frank Bruno’s struggles with mental ill-health and hospitalisation are well documented. Despite his celebrity status, outside of boxing, Frank Bruno struggled to adjust to retirement and even considered a return to competitive boxing. Similarly in the USA, arguably the best boxer of his generation Sugar Ray Leonard, has discussed ways in which his personality fluctuated during his career impacting on his mental health and well-being following his retirement.

Sugar Ray Leonard comments:

“There was a part of me that’s Ray Leonard, a good man, that’s an honest man,” he says. “And there’s Sugar Ray ., who is ego-driven, who’s a tough SOB in the ring, who had money, who had fame — and at some point, didn’t really appreciate it and took advantage of that.” (Sugar Ray Leonard)

Sugar Ray Leonard has discussed at length his challenging up-bringing and other critical events impacting on his decision to become a professional boxer. This perhaps suggests, that family, developmental social events and personality play a critical part of a person’s choice of profession and subsequent coping styles. Professional roles can permit an elite athlete to avoid the impact of critical developmental life events and vent anger, frustration and creativity through sporting activities – only to be revisited later following retirement and at the expense of emotional well-being. Sugar Ray now believes that he has finally addressed many of his demons and is currently re-inventing himself outside of boxing and as such feels happier with life. There are many other elite athletes in boxing who have suffered mental ill-health; Tyson Fury and Ricky Hatton to name but two.


This article has discussed, briefly, some concerns regarding adapting to retirement from elite sports. Although the attention is necessarily restricted to both football and boxing, the issues explored potentially relate to all elite sports. What seems evident however is the need for an elite athlete to develop a renewed sense of identity, purpose and meaning detached from active participation in elite sports – to reflect and reinvent so find new engagement and belonging in a life beyond.


Walling off emotions

`Emotions that are pushed away or ignored become more powerful. Deep emotions must be accepted, acknowledged, and considered before they go away. When they are walled-off or minimized, emotions may seem to disappear. But they do not, they do the opposite. They get stronger. They grow and grow behind your wall, and may leak out at the wrong times, about the wrong things, or perhaps directed at the wrong person. `

Source: Webb, J. (2017) Childhood emotional Neglect. Psych Central: Retrieved 2017, https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood neglect

Inaccurate self-appraisal:

` Growing up, you didn’t get enough feedback about your true nature; nor were you encouraged to pay attention to who you are. So now, it’s hard for you to know what you want, what you enjoy, and what you are good at. This can make it hard for you to choose the right career that will feel fulfilling and gratifying for you. `

Source: Webb, J. (2017) How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Adult Work Life, Retrieved 2017, https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-neglect/2017/07/how-childhood-emotional-neglect-affects-your-adult-work-life