Maybe its the fear of turning 40. Maybe its the feeling of unfinished business. Maybe its the fire in the belly that has not quite extinguished. For retired elite athletes, the itch is always there to make a return after experiencing "life after sport". For some, it becomes too strong to ignore.
This year has seen the return of at least three champions, Dara Torres, Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre. As they explain their individual reasons for coming back, some similarities emerge that have more to do with psychological needs than practical needs. In a recent Miami Herald article, Torres explained her comeback to competitive swimming at age 41, "For me, it's not like I sat around and watched swimming on TV and thought, `Oh, I wish I was still competing'. It was more gradual. But all of a sudden, something goes off inside you and you start seriously thinking about a comeback. You'd think the competitive fire would die down with maturity, but I've actually gotten worse. I wasn't satisfied with silver medals. I hate to lose now more than I did in my 20s. I'm still trying to figure out why.''
Drawing inspiration from Torres, Lance Armstrong has decided to make a comeback at age 37 with a declared goal to win his eighth Tour de France. In a recent Vanity Fair article, he described his rationale, “Look at the Olympics. You have a swimmer like Dara Torres. Even in the 50-meter event [freestyle], the 41-year-old mother proved you can do it. The woman who won the marathon [Constantina Tomescu-Dita, of Romania] was 38. Older athletes are performing very well. Ask serious sports physiologists and they’ll tell you age is a wives’ tale. Athletes at 30, 35 mentally get tired. They’ve done their sport for 20, 25 years and they’re like, I’ve had enough. But there’s no evidence to support that when you’re 38 you’re any slower than when you were 32."
Is it the 40 factor? Brett Favre, who turns 39 in October, made his well-publicized return to the NFL last month wanting to return so badly that he accepted a trade to the New York Jets so that he could play. His public and emotional decision to retire in March, only to begin hinting at a comeback in early summer showed the internal struggle he had with stepping away from sports.
You could hear the indecision in his retirement press conference, "I've given everything I possibly can give to this organization, to the game of football, and I don't think I've got anything left to give, and that's it.", Favre said. "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to. And that's really what it comes down to. Fishing for different answers and what ifs and will he come back and things like that, what matters is it's been a great career for me, and it's over. As hard as that is for me to say, it's over. There's only one way for me to play the game, and that's 100 percent. Mike and I had that conversation the other night, and I will wonder if I made the wrong decision. I'm sure on Sundays, I will say I could be doing that, I should be doing that. I'm not going to sit here like other players maybe have said in the past that I won't miss it, because I will. But I just don't think I can give anything else, aside from the three hours on Sundays, and in football you can't do that. It's a total commitment, and up to this point I have been totally committed."
Some observers point to the end of the Packers' 2007-2008 season with a heart-wrenching Favre interception in overtime that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl instead of Green Bay. Being that close to the pinnacle of his sport must have been confidence that his skills had not diminished and once the fatigue of the past season had passed (by about June), that he was not ready to just ride the tractor in Mississippi for the next 40 years.
So, what do the sport psychologists make of these second thoughts? These three athletes are world famous, but what about the hundreds of professional athletes that have had to make the same decision without all of the front page stories and fanfare? Why does Chris Chelios, all-star and future Hall of Famer in the NHL, continue to avoid the retirement decision at age 45?
Coaches aren't immune either. Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Joe Paterno of Penn State have refused to retire to the point of becoming an awkward story for their schools and fans. ''After all the adulation and excitement wear off and elite athletes come face to face with retirement and a more mundane life, they suffer a sense of loss, almost like a death,'' said sport psychologist John F. Murray. "If you're Lance Armstrong, you realize that what you are is a cyclist, that is your identity, and if you feel you have one or two more titles in you, why let it go? Why not tackle unresolved challenges? Competing at that level provides a high that is hard to match. How can you not be addicted to that?''
Beyond the professional ranks, thousands of college and Olympic athletes are left with the realization that they face similar decisions of when to "give up the dream" and move into the more practical world of finishing their education and finding a job. Their emotional attachment to their sport has developed over years of building an identity linked to their success on the field.
Despite the statistics showing the "funnel effect" of the diminishing number of athletes getting to the "next level", younger athletes continue to believe they are the ones that will make it to the top. There is also the more emotional issue of unwillingly leaving a sport because of injury or simply not making the team due to diminished skills. Dr. Murray adds, "When your whole life has been geared toward athletic excellence, the prospects of retirement can be dreadful! This is commonplace at collegiate level where 99 per cent of the athletes do not go on to play their sport professionally. Counseling is a way to prepare athletes for the inevitable loss that occurs after the glory is over and only memories remain. As with any loss, people need effective ways to cope. Going at it all on your own might work for some, but I’ll submit that the vast majority of athletes benefit from early discussion and planning for retirement. There is definitely life after sport."
Some colleges and universities, as well as some professional teams, have started to offer formal "retirement planning" for athletes as their formal sport careers wind down. Life After Sports, a counseling firm started by Adrian McBride, a former college and NFL player, provides services to retiring college athletes to help them emotionally and practically adjust to a post-sports life. The University of North Carolina has set-up the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes to offer a home for academic research into these issues.
Additional academic research is also coming out on athlete retirement including two articles this year (see citations below) from the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. First, Katie Warriner and David Lavallee of the University of Wales interviewed former elite gymnasts regarding their retirement at a relatively young age from competitive sport. They found the loss of identity to be the biggest adjustment. Second, Patricia Lally and Gretchen Kerr looked at how parents cope with their children's "retirement" from sport, as they also go through withdrawl symptoms when the "end of the dream" finally comes and the lifelong ambition for their child's athletic success is over.
Who's next up for a retirement rebound? Just as Lance got inspiration from Torres and maybe Favre, the trend may continue. The Bulls could use Jordan or Pippen and Roger Clemens is never far away from a phone. Stay tuned!
Katie Warriner, David Lavallee (2008). The Retirement Experiences of Elite Female Gymnasts: Self Identity and the Physical Self Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20 (3), 301-317 DOI: 10.1080/10413200801998564
Patricia Lally, Gretchen Kerr (2008). The Effects of Athlete Retirement on Parents Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20 (1), 42-56 DOI: 10.1080/10413200701788172