Real Life for Olympians

Former Olympic athletes can be depressed and doubtful when getting used to normal life

(RxWiki News) It's been over a month since the London 2012 games ended. Athletes like Michael Phelps who threw in the towel for the last time may have quite the battle getting used to life away from the arena.

A new study found that Olympic athletes could have a hard time adjusting to life outside the competitive atmosphere once they retire.

"Talk to a counselor if you're feeling blue after retirement."

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, led by Natalie Barker, PhD, a senior lecturer at the Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science, interviewed athletes who competed in Beijing in 2008 or Vancouver in 2010 and had retired since then.

Athletes' came from Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and the US, though their nationalities and specific sports were not part of the selection process.

The study included eight athletes but focused on three to get greater detail from their two hour-and-a-half long semi-structured interviews.

Researchers asked questions on how their participation in the sport changed over time, what they learned to do well in the sport and who were important figures to them.

The second interview looked into how the athletes connected their experiences from the Games to other parts of their lives.

The authors found that elite-level athletes often struggle to adapt to their new lives once they retire.

"Some ex-athletes say that adapting to post-sport life is more difficult than anything they ever experienced as athletes," said Dr. Barker in a press release.

Some feel disoriented, depressed, self-doubt or illness when aspects of their sport are not as useful in 'ordinary life,' the authors report.

But athletes' sense of organization and perseverance helped them in their retired life.

Perfectionism, hyper-competitiveness, submissiveness and being self-centered on the other hand were found to be less useful and not desired at school, work and in family life.

"The data suggest that finding balance and moderation while achieving feats of extreme difficulty represents an enduring challenge that shapes athletes’ environments," the authors wrote in their report.

Those athletes who kept some distance from their sport or were able to reflect on their experiences critically had a more flexible and mature self-image.

Jim Crowell, a fitness trainer, co-owner of Integrated Fitness and dailyRx Contributing Expert, has worked with Olympic and professional athletes as a strength trainer and coach.

He says that many are a bit lost as far as what they are supposed to do with their lives when their time as competitive athletes is over.

"The most helpful way that I have found to help them continue striving for goals is to help them find competitive outlets outside of their day jobs," he said.

"Whether it is in other recreational sports or high level fitness, Olympic caliber athletes almost always maintain that inner drive and it is helpful for them to express it in positive and productive ways.

The study was published June 25 online in the journal Educational Review.

Review Date: 
September 26, 2012