Sport

Retirement: The word pro athletes dread

BY OSHANE TOBIAS Observer writer

Sunday, May 06, 2012    

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SHOULD I go or should I stay? That's the question just about every professional athlete asks themselves as they approach their mid to late 30s.

That's usually the stage of their careers when their bodies can no longer live up to the demands of a daily training schedule, or the rigours of top level competition.

For many of them, though, that's exactly the period in life they dread the most.

"That big R-word, retirement; that's something that most professional athletes don't like to think about," said former Reggae Boy World Cup hero Robbie Earle as he addressed Friday's closing session of The Business of Sport Internal Conference at the Jamaica Pegasus.

Earle, now an ESPN football expert, was among three former athletes — the others being Sandie Richards and Corey Hicks — sharing their perspectives on how athletes deal with the issue of retirement.

The former sports stars are testament that retired professional athletes can still command a decent salary. They have all managed to find gainful employment after walking away from the glamour of a celebrity lifestyle. Yet, they are believed to be in the minority.

"While some athletes will use their superstar status as a stepping stone to secure a second job, there are those who either ignore or struggle to recognise that there is a period of transition," certified Master Results coach Annette Lynch wrote recently.

Lynch, a former Australian beach volleyball player who also struggled to deal with the challenges of retirement, believes up to 80 per cent of athletes suffer some form of post-sporting blues and even depression, noting that biggest "problem is, most athletes suffer in silence, thinking they should be able to cope (because) they are better than this".

This approach, she said, tends to prolong and intensify the inner pain and conflict most athletes go through after calling time on their lucrative careers.

For Earle, making that transition from a top English Premier League player to a career in broadcasting was not as difficult. In fact, it was relatively smooth.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do.

"I had a great time playing in the English Premier League and the World Cup for Jamaica. Those were great times, real nice memories," said Earle, who nodded home Ricardo Gardner's cross against Croatia to score Jamaica's first goal at the 1998 World Cup Finals in France.

"When you're at the top of your game, people will look at and envy you for the fame," he said. "It's a great job, you get the VIP treatment when you go to restaurants and you get invited to fancy parties.

"But, I had to realise that there comes a time when the crowd will stop cheer and all the nice treatments will end," he added.

"My transition started with that goal at the World Cup," the former Wimbledon and Port Vale player added. "Sponsors were showing interest in me; I was doing a lot of interviews (so) I took note of the fact that producers like a sportsman who is engaging, and as somebody who wanted to get into the media, that was my interview period."

For Olympian Richards and former American decathlete Hicks, the transition wasn't as smooth. They both admitted suffering from some form of post-sporting depression.

"It took me a while to retire," Richards said. "I was like (former Jamaican sprinter) Merlene Ottey. It's really difficult to walk away.

"I must admit I could have used a psychologist at the time because I did go through some form of depression for a while, but I eventually got over it and became a physical therapist," added the former quarter-miler.

Richards, a Clarendon College past student, is urging high school athletes to start making plans for their retirement from an early age.

"I know there are a lot of athletes who are now staying here to train, but I do encourage them to take up scholarship offers," she advised. "It doesn't matter how much money you make, you just don't know what might happen. An education is a very good thing to have."

Hicks was a young college graduate in the prime of his athletic development and had high hopes of representing his country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Unfortunately, an untimely injury robbed him of the chance to showcase his talent on home soil.

"I was really disappointed with myself, thinking that I let my country down," Hicks remembered. "When you are playing in the NBA or the NFL you can always make a comeback, but the Olympics is every four years."

However, in disappointment he would eventually find fortune. His degree earned in Early Childhood Education at the Kentucky State University made it easier for him to start a career in education.

"You just never know how these things that you go through will work out," he said. "Sometimes what you think is a setback can really be a setup for something (great)."

Hicks is now a teacher, high school athletic director and a marketing executive in the American biotech industry.

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