Adjusting to retirement affects players in different ways but first comes acceptance

Tom Cary
The Telegraph
Andy Murray will be facing questions over what to do next post-playing career - REUTERS
Andy Murray will be facing questions over what to do next post-playing career - REUTERS

Many athletes watching Andy Murray’s press conference in Melbourne on Thursday night would have identified with his anguish as he outlined the nightmare scenario he is living; crippled with pain, unsure whether each tournament might be his last, his head not ready to give up, his body apparently not capable of continuing.

The prospect of no longer being able to do something to which you have dedicated every waking minute since you were in short trousers affects different athletes in different ways. But the majority struggle, even when they get to retire on their own terms.

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In a report published last year the Professional Players Federation, the umbrella body of players’ unions, said that 54 per cent of past players surveyed had, at some time since retiring, had concerns about their mental and emotional wellbeing. Only 50 per cent said they felt “in control of their lives” within two years of finishing their playing careers. While just over half (52 per cent) reported financial difficulties in the five years immediately after stopping playing.

Clearly, this last is not a concern for Murray, which perhaps explains some of the more uncharitable reactions to his emotional press conference on social media. But those who suggest the Scot should just ‘get over it’; that he should be thankful for the millions he has made, and for the healthy family he has waiting for him at home, miss the point. “It upsets me that some people have belittled his reaction, talking about how much money he has earned and how he should be grateful,” says Ken Way, a sports psychologist who worked at Leicester City during their Premiership-winning season three years ago. “This is not just his livelihood, it’s his entire way of life.

“So much of Andy’s identity is wrapped up in his tennis. Ever since he was a small boy he has been pushing himself to extremes. I remember when he broke down after losing that Wimbledon final to Roger Federer - of course it affects him deeply.”

Unfortunately for Murray, Way does not see things improving, at least until he has some certainty one way or another. “I think the problem is the protracted nature of it all,” Way says. “This recent practice session with Novak has obviously upset him badly. At the moment Andy’s mindset is still that he is still ‘a player’, trying to get fit, hoping to make Wimbledon. He’s still wrestling with a change of identity. He’s in a state of limbo.”

Way says he often uses a technique called ‘logical levels’ with his clients, which involves “building a pyramid looking at your values, your beliefs, your skills, your capabilities” and so on. “What you want is for them all to be aligned,” he explains. The problem for Murray at the moment is that they are all out of alignment.

“He gets value out of being a tennis player, he believes he is capable of winning, his identity is still as a tennis player.… he has not yet come to terms with it.”

Victoria Pendleton says she can “absolutely relate” to what Murray is going through.

“It’s terrifying - that’s the truth,” says former cyclist Victoria Pendleton of the prospect of retirement. “You become almost institutionalised as an elite athlete. You live for your sport; it is almost like a religion. I can really relate. And I was able to choose when I stopped.”

<span>Double Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton admitted to struggling after retiring from her sport</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
Double Olympic cycling champion Victoria Pendleton admitted to struggling after retiring from her sport Credit: Getty Images

Pendleton suggests that in some ways not being in control of the decision might actually be easier.

“The agonising over whether to continue was horrendous,” she recalls of the months post-London 2012. “What am I doing with my life? Can I commit to another four years? Should I be getting a real job? Should I be getting married and having children? These are all questions you have spent the last four years blocking out. At least an injury takes it out of your hands.”

Former rugby player Lewis Moody might not agree. He was forced to end his career at the age of 33 due to persistent injuries.

“I spent a year convincing myself I didn't miss playing," the former Leicester and Bath flanker admitted. "I filled my time with my family and going on holiday, but then you come back and watch a game on TV and you suddenly realise you're shouting and getting very grumpy. I didn't realise until a long time after that I was in denial, it was like a mourning process.”

Either way, Way says, Murray will not be able to move on until he gets some finality.

“I’ve had it from time to time with footballers where they’ve been told it’s the end,” he says. “Cruciate knee ligament injuries and so on. It’s difficult.

“I think with football it’s slightly different because it is usually more gradual. You come back from that injury and play, but not quite at the same level as before. Younger, faster players overtake you in the pecking order. You have time to come to terms with it. But it’s still very hard.

“The reality is Andy has to accept it first. Like all sportsmen and women, there will come a point where he will say ‘I am retired’. Only then will he be able to come to terms with it.”

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