For our sporting heroes, the immediate aftermath of retirement can be devastating - akin to losing a way of life, even identity. Some have struggled, while others have excelled after finding their feet away from professional sports. They share their experiences with Insight and a room full of Australia’s future athletes.
Anna Watanabe

10 Apr 2017 - 10:39 AM  UPDATED 19 Apr 2017 - 10:42 AM

By the beginning of January 2016, basketball great, Lauren Jackson, had been through fifteen operations in the space of two years.

Then she tore a ligament in her knee.

And then she developed an infection in her knee joint. 

That’s when the eight-time WNBA All Star was told her career was over.

“When it was over, it was over. And I actually needed them to tell me,” she said.

“Initially, there was this tiny little bit of relief when I was sitting in the room with everybody because, in my heart, I think I knew it was over … And then within five minutes I was bawling.”

Immediately after announcing her retirement, Lauren told Jenny Brockie that she retreated to her parents’ home.

“I did go into a shell. I stayed with my parents, I didn’t leave the house, and they really just took care of me … Without them I, you know, I hate to think what would have happened.”

Jackson joins a cast of sporting champions for a special two-part edition of Insight, where former greats share their experiences of life after sport with a room full of Australia’s future athletes.

For former Sydney Swans captain, Barry Hall, retirement at the end of 2011 was an easy choice, but that didn’t make his initial few months off the pitch any easier.

“I had two or three months … that I really struggled. I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t answer mates’ phone calls, I was eating terribly, I was drinking heavily. It was a tough time.”

It wasn’t until Hall was preparing to be part of a reality TV series that he spoke to a psychologist who told him he had been experiencing depression.

“I didn’t know anything about it because, you know, we’re big tough burly men who don’t get depressed,”

“That’s why I was steadfast in coming on this show because I think it’s a real issue in sport.”

A 2015 Australian study surveyed 224 elite athletes after retirement and found the most common mental health symptoms experienced were: depression (27.2 per cent); eating disorder (22.8 per cent); general psychological distress (16.5 per cent); social anxiety (14.7 per cent); generalized anxiety disorder (7.1 per cent); and panic disorder (4.5%). 

However, despite these results, and the frequency of media stories about former athletes struggling with life after retirement, this and several other studies show that mental health issues among athletes occur at the same rate as they do in the wider community.  

I think it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever dealth with ... I’m not sure I’ve actually coped with [retirement] yet.

What’s more, we often don’t hear about the successful stories of athletes moving out of sport and into a new career, like Olympic gold medallist swimmer Melanie Wright.

Melanie credits her easier retirement and transition into medical school to her father who always reminded her that there was more to life than swimming.

“I couldn’t even tell you how many times, my dad always would say to me that my best was outside of the swimming pool,” she told Jenny Brockie.

“I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember and that was always my plan. And so for him to say that … it really leveled me all the time.”

Unlike many other guests on Insight’s Game Over episode, Wright was also able to have a “farewell” swim to finalise her departure from the sport.

“I was able to rehab [my injury] enough to swim one last time at the Olympic trials, knowing I would not make the team but having that meet to be able to swim that last time and say goodbye.”

And while Wright was able to deal with her career-ending injury in a way that helped bring closure, feeling as though sport was “taken” from them through injury, was a feeling shared by many guests.

Unlike Melanie Wright, World Champion hurdler, Jana Pittman, said that because she never achieved her ultimate goal of an Olympic gold medal, and was then forced out of competitions through injury, she still hasn’t fully dealt with her departure from sport.

 “I think it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever dealth with, and for me, whereas these guys have obviously succeeded, I didn’t ever hit the goal that I was hoping for in my career.”

“But you were a World Champion?” Jenny Brockie insisted.

“Don’t do this,” Pittman said. “I know but that’s not what I wanted.

“I’m not sure I’ve actually coped with [retirement] yet.”

Pittman has also gone on to study medicine and says she now finds fulfillment in treating patients and delivering babies.

And, likewise, many guests agreed that the key to coming out of a period of depression was to find new purpose in everyday life, whether that was setting small, personal bests at the gym, for Hall, or starting a family, like Jackson.

“I’m glad that I retired because I feel like I’m a more whole person now that I’ve found myself, away from what defined me as a human being for so long,” Jackson said. 


Insight looks at how Australia's most skilled athletes have coped with life after sport | Game Over - 11 and 18 April, 8.30pm SBS

Catch up on Part II now:

Further reading
Basketball great Lauren Jackson critical of sporting organisations post-retirement
“It felt like I was put out to pasture.”
'I’m disgusted in it': Barry Hall reflects on on-field behaviour
Looking back in retirment, AFL great Barry Hall has admitted he was 'unhealthily competitive' during his career and regrets the anger that often saw him level blows at rivals - a relic of his boxing days and a tough upbringing.
Game Over
How do champions cope with life after sport?