What happens to professional athletes when they retire?

The average sporting career is short.

For most people, retirement is something they’ll deal with when they’re 65 or so. However, for athletes, retirement comes in their mid-30s and often younger. Even if they are financially secure, there are very few sportspeople who will be able to live on their earnings for the rest of their lives and most Australian athletes will need to figure out what they want to do with their lives when their sporting days are over. Retiring before 40 sounds like a dream, but it can mean long, empty days if you don’t have a plan.

Retirement can be a major psychological blow. Even if an athlete has a long, glittering career, stepping out of the rigid confines of a sports institution and confronting the world on their own can be a daunting prospect. A survey of elite athletes in 2015 revealed a slew of mental health issues – depression, eating disorders, and other psychological distress. In fact, you only have to look at the news on a day-to-day basis to read stories about sportspeople whose lives have gone askew with drugs, depression and crime.

For many elite athletes, their education ends in late high school as their sports commitments dominate their waking moments. Major professional codes like AFL, rugby and league, are all-encompassing institutions. Those lucky and talented enough to be identified as a teenager with promise, are shaped, taught, led, and effectively institutionalised in the pursuit of their dreams. When they retire from sport they might be 30+, but they can still feel 16 or 17.

So, what is the solution?

Sportspeople develop many skills that are applicable to more than just kicking a ball and can be transferred to the wider world. The obvious ones are leadership and teamwork, but sports people need a high concentration of self-discipline to achieve their goals. Add to this communication and the mentoring culture that sports clubs tend to create and all the ingredients are there for a fulfilling career after sport.

The major disconnection has been transferring their skills to endeavours outside the sporting realm.

Someone who has successfully transitioned from footballer to entrepreneur is former AFL player turned bikini mogul Craig Ellis, who managed 122 games across nine seasons with the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne. Following an unsuccessful stint co-operating a t-shirt label St Lenny with ex-teammate Nathan Brown, Ellis met now-partner Erin Deering. She lamented the struggle of finding a decent bikini that wasn’t covered in branding and as a result, the pair moved to Hong Kong to start swimwear line Triangl. In 2013, the company nearly went under due to wholesale issues but after borrowing some money from close friends and a shift in sales strategy, Triangl flourished, turning over $45 million in its third year. It has since built a customer base that includes Beyonce, Kendall Jenner and Miley Cyrus and has nearly three million followers on Instagram.

Recently, there has been a lot of attention on entrepreneurship and start-ups. Universities around the country have begun offering small business incubator programs to help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. It might not be a solution for every ex-pro, but the focus and dedication they had for their sporting code could be channelled into a new business venture.

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