Jonny Wilkinson shared his experience of retiring from rugby in yesterday’s Sunday Times. He talked about how three things ‘saved’ him. Note the use of the word ‘saved’.
The first was that he retired on a high.
Next was that his heart wasn’t in it any more.
The final factor was that he’d already had a preview of what it would be like. He went on to explain how his mid-career injury break of almost four years prepared him for life without his rugby identity. When he couldn’t play he was like “I’m nobody….Who the hell am I? I am nothing.” He talked about how going through that thought process during his injury break helped him understand that the sporting side of you is a role you play at a particular time in your life, and that when you can’t play you pick up another role.
So there you have a sporting god, who achieved so much in his career, and went out on his own terms, who still talks of being ‘saved’ in terms of coping with retirement.
Dame Kelly Holmes and her eponymous Trust have spent a lot of time helping athletes through the transition process. Over the years Holmes has been quoted many times on this subject, and given invaluable insight.
One of the things she has talked about is how athletes often have that need to be excellent. In sport, that can be easy to measure. But in the real world, it can be hard to measure your day-to-day successes in such a concrete way. Have I been excellent today? How can I tell? How can I measure my output?
Another important issue to remember is that retirement is different for every athlete. Some have planned for it and prepared for their next career in advance (as Wilkinson was able to do). But for those who get injured, or are forced to give up their career due to a loss of funding, the issues can be multiplied.
The loss of identity is a very prevalent issue, as explained so clearly by Jonny Wilkinson. Not only your own identity, but others’ perception of you as well. Friends and family will have known you as this focused, driven person, whose life is structured and timetabled, and no doubt necessitated lots of sacrifice. You finish and that all changes.
Athletes can bring so much to their next career, starting off with the generic qualities of dedication, work ethic, persistence, determination and desire to improve. The challenge is to utilise and leverage those skills in the right direction, in environments and roles which harness their previous experiences, and work to their strengths. Like anyone, if there is a real interest in what you are doing, the likelihood of success is even greater. For Wilkinson, the picture is still emerging, but working on people's mindsets is clearly something he is passionate about. And we wish him luck.