Life after sport: Are you ready for pain and mental health issues?

Tennis champion Serena Williams shows off her curvy physique in a blue bikini while enjoying the beach with friends on April 16, 2014, in Miami, Florida. [Photo: Courtesy]

One of the most celebrated British footballers, Sir Bobby Charlton, was recently diagnosed with dementia – a syndrome in which there is a deterioration of memory and other thinking abilities.

Sir Bobby is the only surviving British footballer to have won both the World Cup and the UEFA Champions league, since the other co-record holder Nobby Stiles died last month.

Bobby, by any standards, has lived a celebrity life post retirement and he is among the few sports stars who enjoy such. The list of retired sports stars who have lived tough lives either due to poor health or financial mismanagement is too long to even think of writing it down.

So, how come some retired sports stars, after a career in the limelight and having earned lots of money, end up living a tough life in the shadows? The answer is not straight forward though. For many athletes, while they are at the top of their game, retirement is not a concept they want to think about seriously and in detail, yet it’s something that will surely come to pass.

For sportspersons, retirement comes early and with the added responsibility of starting a new life under a new personality altogether. This new restart of life off-the-field has its challenges of reduced limelight and money too.

It is the adjustment into this new life that if not well handled, leads to a painful life in retirement.

Elite athletes train hard from an early age, making huge sacrifices ranging from living away from close family, forfeiting school and also extensive personal sacrifices just to have a chance of making it in their discipline and earn a decent living.

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo walks on stage during the 2015 FIFA Ballon d'Or award ceremony at the Kongresshaus in Zurich on January 11, 2016. [AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI]

A life of glory on the fields and tracks comes at a cost on the athlete’s body. In the course of their active sports life, they will get injuries that will nag them for the rest of their lives.

However, the first problem retiring athletes deal with is the sudden loss of identity.

Over the playing years, one develops an identity that at times transcends themselves and if one is lucky, they might even have a cult-like following of their personality; like that enjoyed by Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Serena Williams, amongst many others.

What happens when one retires and all of a sudden, the cult worship stops? Some athletes feel like they have lost themselves and are unable to reconcile with the new status. That is the onset of depression, withdrawal and a host of other mental problems.

In the past, athletes used to numb these problems with a heavy dosage of alcohol; but nowadays, the physical demands of professional sports are incompatible with heavy drinking.

The new addiction of sports persons is gambling! Many a sportsmen and women spend hours and millions of shillings gambling away their future and this leads to lower savings and of course, depression. 

Former Arsenal and England star Tony Adams, a recovered alcoholic, founded the Sporting Chance Clinic, a charitable foundation that provides treatment, counselling and support for sportsmen and women suffering from alcohol, drug or gambling addictions.

Such initiatives will not only help athletes deal with identity loss, but also help them save for their retirement.

Boniface Ambani [Photo by Edward Kiplimo]

Elite sports personalities engage in intensive physical activities and this increases exposure to injuries on muscles, bones and joints. These injuries could be fractures, muscle strain, tendon tears, sprains and concussions, while some will lead to problems like chronic pain, osteoarthritis and seizures.

For basketballers, knee and shoulder injuries are common both at the beginning or in the height of their careers and some could eventually need surgical intervention. High contact or combative sports like rugby, national football league (NFL) and boxing expose sports persons to repetitive head trauma that lead to concussions, which could interfere with the brain’s cognitive and psychological functioning as well as alter the nerves.

Long-term neural damage has been known to lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Alzheimer’s disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

According to the UK Rugby Health Project (2016-2018), an athlete will have an average of 39 serious injuries in the course of their playing career.  Other than head injuries, athletes will also have back, neck and knee ligament injuries, as well as shoulder dislocation during their careers and some of the injuries, could well be carried into retirement and thus affect their quality of lives greatly.

With the chronic pain that comes with the above injuries, there is a risk for prolonged analgesics use that could lead to opioid (pain-relieving drugs) seeking and abuse due to addiction. Generally, increased use of opioids during playing years predicts post-retirement drug abuse.

Serious injuries at times can have long-term mental health effects due to the financial and social implications of this sudden and involuntary retirement.

Most athletes are caught flat-footed by such sudden injuries. And the lack of retirement planning, low educational attainment and chronic pain could increase the risk of post-career mental health symptoms and disorders such as depression, sleep disturbance, lower life satisfaction, anxiety, hostility, anger and poor feeding behaviour.

The above physical and mental problems are not new to sports retirees, they are expected in sports. The issue is how to prepare for them and how to manage them when they arise. Athletes need to know that nothing lasts forever and it will be foolhardy not to plan for retirement.

Considering most athletes sacrifice their academics for their sporting careers, by the time they retire in their early 30s, they usually have little formal education to help them manage their wealth.

Having a good management team during one’s playing days goes a long way in ensuring they invest wisely in long-term investments. There are sports personalities who have not been so lucky as to have good managers and have ended up entertaining villagers with lavish parties whenever they return home after a victorious outing.

The bad spending does not stop there; heeding bad advice, they invest in unnecessary multiple SUVs that make their homes look like car showrooms and also marry a second and third spouse, all in the name of fitting in as a new mzee of the village at the age of 25!

Should athletes save or invest their earnings well, it is usually sufficient to cater for their retirement medical bills and upkeep as they embark on building a new personality and life in retirement.

Venus Williams [Photo: Courtesy]

The new life could take the form of a sports-related career like commentating, coaching or something totally different like business or management. A way to prepare for such is by reducing exclusive identification with one’s sporting personality role and expanding self-identity to other interests and getting the requisite training during the off-season periods.

The tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams are well-known business investors in the fashion industry, and this gives them a retirement fall back plan. Multiple personal SUVs cannot be considered as a fallback plan!

The reigning Olympic and world record holder in the marathon, Eliud Kipchoge, has investments that are managed by his wife. Many other Kenyan sports stars, like retired footballer Boniface Ambani, have gone into sports kiting business. Former national volleyball player Paul Bitok launched the Paul Bitok Academy in Eldoret.

There are several ways through which athletes can help reduce chances of mental health problems.

Other than financial stability, they can acquire stress management skills and have strong relationships with family, coaches and managers who care about one’s sporting and personal growth.

In general, athletes are mentally and physically strong people, but these strengths camouflage their human weaknesses both to themselves and the public such that at retirement, they get surprised to discover they have faults.

It is important, therefore, for those close to the athletes to create some time and mentor them as they prepare for retirement while they are still young.

The institutionalisation of professional and social support in sports is important if we are to end the vicious cycle of sports persons retiring into a life of pain and misery.


— Paul Ochieng is Dean of Students at Strathmore University and Gerald Lwande is a Biomedical Scientist.