It’s hard on the mind when you stop
The difficulty of retirement for an elite sportswoman lies not just in the physical side but the emotional test it poses. Jim White examines how best to live well after sport
In sport, retirement is often not a matter of choice. Frequently it happens at the very point a career seems to be taking off. Take Hannah Gallagher. Back in 2015, aged 24, Gallagher was flying as a rugby player. Recently turned professional, the back-row forward had 29 international caps and nursed ambition to notch up at least 50. Then, when training with the England squad ahead of a Six Nations encounter with Scotland, she snapped her cruciate ligament.
“It never crossed my mind that I would have to stop playing until I decided to stop,” she says. “So when I had the injury, I just thought: ‘I’ll be back’.”
For nine months she worked exhaustively on her fitness.
Then she made a return. But in her first outing with her club Saracens, she felt her knee go again.
“I feared the moment it happened it was over, but I told myself I could get back,” she says.
She could not. Her knee was shot. Eventually, after three further operations, she came to the conclusion her career was finished.
“I suffered massively when I retired,” she recalls. “I still thought of myself as a rugby player and I wasn’t any more. I remember people coming up to me a couple of years after my injury saying, ‘didn’t you used to play for England?’ And me going, ‘yeah, yeah I’m just injured at the moment’. I’m not sure who I was kidding.”
Gallagher was by no means unique. Very few sportswomen get to take a farewell tour, retiring financially insulated, fulfilled, without a backwards glance. Many find themselves suddenly stripped of income, point and purpose.
Goldie Sayers, the former Olympic javelin thrower, studied the phenomenon for her dissertation when completing a masters in Sports Science after she stepped back from competition in 2016.
“The physical side of retiring is the easy bit,” she says. “It’s the emotional side that’s hard. The biggest thing is identity. Sport is who you are. You get put on a pedestal that is not particularly helpful.
“The issue is, when you are engaged in elite sport – particularly full-time professional sport – you don’t get the opportunity to develop other identities.”
Even for the most successful sportswomen, finding a second purpose can be tough.
“It was difficult initially after I retired,” the gold-medal winning heptathlete Denise Lewis explained at an event in Windsor before lockdown. “You have the burning desire to be successful and that needs to go somewhere when you finish.
“When you are in a sport, there is a plan to reach for perfection in a certain week in
August and it gives you a focus in life and in everything you do around it. It’s a strategic plan that is mapped out over several months and that plan is something I found hard to replace in my life.”
These days Lewis happily fits in work as a television pundit and president of Commonwealth Games England around looking after her four children.
And like Lewis, it took Gallagher some time to discover another plan. Eventually, after much trial and more error, she landed a position at Life After Professional Sport, an organisation dedicated to helping sports people into second careers.
It was there, as she advised some of LAPS’s 3,000 members on their next move, that she came to appreciate how much former athletes have to offer in the workplace.
Rugby and afterwards: Hannah Gallagher