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  • Alex Mills

Football & Retirement

Sporting Chance Therapist Alison McClean on the emotional impact of retirement on professional footballers and how their support network can make a difference.

Retirement from playing professional football is as inevitable as Monday following Sunday.

However, many players are hugely unprepared for what their retirement will look like and even if the ending has been planned, the shift from football life into post-playing life is usually disorientating not only for the player but everyone in their family. I often observe that it’s been a necessary delusion for a player to hold on to the idea that their career is not going to end in order to maintain the enormous effort and commitment to the sport that is required to continue playing at a professional level. It is also normally all that a player has known and it can therefore seem impossible to begin to imagine a world where football is no longer their life.

At Sporting Chance, it is often during this particular transition that we are contacted by players overwhelmed by emotions and coping behaviours, some with feelings that have existed for a number of years but have come to a head at this time, some with feelings that have seemingly come from nowhere.

The transition out of sport is characterised by change, uncertainty and a shift in personal identity. For the player this can elicit huge emotional responses or feelings of being numb or lost at sea, along with coping strategies which often negatively impact themselves and those around them (as we’ll go on to look at). For partners, transition can be an enormous change too. Not just because your partner may be experiencing a crisis of identity, and maybe behaving in ways that are not at all familiar, but because the norms of your relationship might change. For example, he might no longer be the ‘main breadwinner’, you might return to work or go into work for the first time, he might do more (or less) childcare, you might spend more time together. There might also be financial considerations or lifestyle changes to contend with, as well as your own identity changing – what does it mean to be in a relationship with a retired sportsman rather than a current player? What does that do to challenge your own sense of security, purpose and identity? All of these questions and many more are completely normal when we face a change in our lives.

It is also normally all that a player has known and it can therefore seem impossible to begin to imagine a world where football is no longer their life.

Most professional players have spent their childhood, teenage and adult years (until retirement) focussing exclusively on their sport. In a sense they have been trained to deal with the challenges of football at the expense of the challenges of the wider world. I sometimes think about the comparison between sportspeople and soldiers. For soldiers they have been drilled into being able to cope with the enormous pressure of being in a war zone but what often happens is they are completely unable to reintegrate back into civilian life. Footballers may be trained to deal with the training schedule, match pressure, team dynamics and being in the public eye but have not had to organise their own diary, develop outside interests or interact with the job market – they have not had the exposure or training to confidently cope with ‘civilian’ life. For many, transition is associated with a loss of confidence and loss of a sense of their own importance and purpose. They have lived in a world where there is a huge amount of structure imposed on them and personal choice is limited. This dumbing down of personal agency can express itself in many ways – often as confusion and having no sense of individual agency; what they like, enjoy or their own competence. Sometimes it expresses itself as ‘rebelling’ against football rules and engaging in activities including substance misuse.

For many, retirement involves a loss of social contact and comradery which is difficult to find elsewhere. Addiction is also prevalent, as an attempt at re-experiencing highs and a way to medicate lows. Professional sportspeople have been trained from a very early age to chase achievement. This activates part of the brain that is associated with the reward system, and the release of dopamine. When the reward

system can no longer be activated through achieving on the pitch, it is likely that players will try to get the same feeling through other behaviours including addiction to drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex, porn and many other behavioural addiction patterns.

In a sense they have been trained to deal with the challenges of football at the expense of the challenges of the wider world.

It can be helpful to understand that retirement from professional sport, although unique in many aspects, is also similar to all human experiences of change and loss, to which we all have some basic emotional responses. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously mapped the stages of change.

As you can see from the image, change looks a bit like a rollercoaster! Although it appears like we might move from one stage to the next in a linear fashion, actually we can move between any of the stages in both directions as we integrate the change process.

  • Immobilisation: shock and confusion

  • Anger (or fear): based on feelings of frustration and hurt, stress and anxiety

  • Bargaining: seeks to minimise the impact of the change – this signals the beginning of acceptance

  • Depression: may perceive the situation as beyond their control and display lack of energy or interest

  • Understanding/testing: sees new ways where he can regain some measure of control, experiments with new ways of coping with new reality

  • Acceptance: fully accepts change although he may not like it

  • Moving on: integrating new sense of self into new reality

It is important to highlight that retirement from professional sport is a change that will impact both the player and their partner. To support yourself and your partner in the early stages of change it can be helpful to establish what will change and what will stay the same? Try to get involved with the change so that it does not feel like it is something that is being done to you. It is important to grieve the ending; perhaps try to identify what you will miss the most about your partner’s professional career ending. This can also be a helpful way of identifying what you might need to do to replace or repair this loss. You might want to celebrate the ending, to mark a clear endpoint – in the way a funeral allows survivors to grieve and let go. Allowing the end to become a reality can take a different amount of time for different people so it is also important to remain patient with yourself and your partner whenever possible.

Top five tips for supporting your partner in retirement:

1. Help your partner plan daily and weekly activities

Your partner has come from a working environment in which he has had mandated structure. By helping your partner plan and schedule activities it will support him to manage his mood (and emotional fluctuation associated with change). Assisting him in minimising periods of boredom and restlessness will help regulate anxiety and support him not to engage in addictive behaviours.

2. Help your partner develop interests and hobbies

Most players will have had limited time or encouragement to engage in interests outside of football. Supporting your partner to try new activities or hobbies will boost his confidence and support him in forming a new identity outside of football.

3. Encourage and support learning and development

Your partner is used to being very good at football (and he has probably been told that he is very good at football from a very young age). It will probably be a struggle for him to have the confidence to put himself in a situation where he does not feel good, competent or knowledgeable. When he was at school he probably only focussed on football and as a result may have negative associations with learning or his own academic ability. Support your partner to recognise his strengths, and when you feel respect for something he has tried – share this with him. It is also important to recognise your own anxieties or irritation around employment and finances, and take responsibility for your own feelings – by being open and seeking support.

4. Encourage your partner to seek and form healthy connections and a support network

The loss of social contact from no longer training daily with a team will be huge. Relationships are vital to wellbeing and it will be important for your partner to form new support networks – this will also reduce pressure on you because you know that you are not the only person supporting him. Encourage your partner to access professional support though the PFA helpline which is help with any emotional or mental health issue and is run by Sporting Chance.

5. Keep yourself and your family safe

Ultimately the responsibility for your partner’s behaviour and his healthy transition into retirement lies with him. Your partner may be struggling to take responsibility – he may be in denial; he may be so deeply in his own feelings of fear, anger or depression that he is no longer thinking clearly and is acting compulsively; he may not want to take responsibility and try to shift the blame for his feelings or behaviours onto someone else. Unfortunately, this might result in behaviour which actively breaches boundaries and trust or is harmful to you or your children. If this is the case then you must prioritise your own safety and integrity as a matter of urgency.

If you require advice we would recommend speaking to Relate.

Also look out for more articles and content relating to footballer’s mental health on our Instagram @sportingchanceclinic

Remember, your partner can confidentially call Sporting Chance via the PFA helpline (available 24/7) on 07500 000 777


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