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Athletes: Dealing with early retirement

By Iacovos Iacovides, the Sports Financial Literacy Academy, Nicosia, Cyprus

Over the course of the last six months or so, we have all been witnesses to a feud between Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United management and ownership. Months of rumours about Ronaldo’s off-the-field behaviour and attitude towards his teammates, managers and club owners culminated in an explosive interview of the Portuguese superstar with the British journalist Piers Morgan.

In summary, Ronaldo stated his complete lack of respect for some of his current and former United managers and coaches, suggested that the owners do not care about the club and instead of investing, they keep withdrawing money. Needless to say, the interview brought even more chaos into the United locker room. It also emerged that a few weeks back, Ronaldo had invited the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, to his house for a chat. It was later implied by Peterson, that Ronaldo is essentially struggling mentally due to the fact that he is slowly realising that he is at the eventide of his footballing career; something which unfortunately coincided with a personal tragedy, the death of one of his baby twins.

Ronaldo played for the best clubs in the world, literally won every major trophy and accolade out there and – alongside Lionel Messi – is the best footballer in the history of the game. Unsurprisingly, he is also a multi-millionaire in spite of his athletic gifts: for he is the owner of many successful businesses and will almost certainly not face any financial difficulties due to his retirement from football. It should also be mentioned, that not only does he still compete at the age of 37, but he does so at the highest level which, in itself, is an achievement. Still, we can safely say that Ronaldo has not been handling his imminent retirement gracefully – no matter whose side you are on. Now imagine how amplified all these feelings would be for someone who is forced to retire five or ten years earlier than the norm.

There are several reasons as to why athletes retire early, although the most common are health/injury-related reasons. Nonetheless, there are some occasions that force athletes to retire early, such as illegal or highly immoral and unethical off-field behaviour. For example, we have yet to see the final chapter of the story of the English footballer Mason Greenwood, but early retirement is a distinct possibility. He is due to face trial, in a year’s time, on charges of attempted rape and coercive behaviour.

The list of early retirees includes Jack Wilshere, the English footballer, once believed to have a bright future in front of him but was essentially taken out of action due to a string of injuries in his early 20s, which forced him to retire before the age of 30. The Chinese sensation, Yao Ming, the former basketball player, was also forced to retire at the age of 30, just like numerous other promising young sporting talents.

There is a myriad of struggles that athletes may face as a result of early retirement, but they can be easily reduced into two kinds: financial and mental.

The first is self-explanatory and relates to the relatively abrupt loss of income; although most are likely to have safety nets in place, such as insurance policies. The second has to do with the mental impact that early retirement can have on the individual which can emerge in different degrees. Early retirement implies little or no adjustment period and this can be overwhelming.

According to the psychology literature, athletes, like many celebrities, associate and sometimes conflate their identity with their sports. Moreover, the loss of structure, routine and discipline, that they were previously accustomed to, has an adverse effect on their everyday lives. Even the loss of the social practices of sports, such as the camaraderie between teammates, seems to have a negative impact on athletes.

In order to deal with the impact of early retirement, what athletes could do is find themselves a therapist. Even if they do not feel like they are struggling, it would be a good idea to find a psychologist that they can speak with about the changes in their lives and their emotions.

Moreover, athletes could let their family and social circle in. Their social environment can be of great help if they actually bring them in. Many people close up when they encounter difficulties, which may lead to friction with friends and families.

It would also be a good idea for athletes to pursue their interests. Were they thinking about higher education? A start-up? Another enterprise? Now is the time to act. Without rushing into anything and going through the right routes, it can be a great idea to pursue other interests that can help them with the hit that their self-identity takes due to early retirement, but also the loss of structure and discipline in their everyday lives.

Most importantly, athletes should start to plan early! In fact, athletes’ off-the-field enterprises and activities and their plans for the future should start almost in conjunction with their professional debuts.

When they start thinking about retirement at the dawn of their careers and even act on some of their ideas early on, then, at least, even the unfortunate event of early retirement will find them ready to face its challenges.

Professional advice, especially financial guidance, should be sought by elite athletes early on in their sporting careers. Remember the scouts’ motto: be prepared!

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