sports

There's a reason we see so many elite athletes struggle after retirement.

Former sporting legends falling from their public grace is nothing new. For as long as there have been cheering crowds and cheaply-made merchandise, there have been reports of drunken brawls and family fallouts broadcast for the world to see.

But after the tragic passing of Dan Vickerman on Saturday, and the public play-out of Grant Hackett’s health battle last week, I’ve been riddled with questions about how and why this keeps on happening.

“Another sporting star that failed to transition properly,” I overheard one woman tell her friend during her morning commute this week.

“They just don’t know what to do with themselves when it’s all over,” her friend agreed in reply.

post sporting careers
Dan Vickerman died at home on Saturday. Source: Getty.

For years, us outsiders who aren't offered a spot in the upper echelons of sport have wondered about the often discussed post-career transition plans sports players are encouraged to make. Do they really exist? How important are they considered to be? Is there any form of enforcement?

"I think there are some pretty high profile cases of athletes who have struggled to transition but I don't think it's typical of the majority of athletes," sports psychologist Jeff Bond tells me.

"I think most of them manage reasonably well."

But for every sport star that does transition well, there are the Grant Hacketts, the Lance Armstrongs. The people who, despite being given what seems like every opportunity, seemingly cannot adjust to a new direction in life.

Listen: Former Olympic swimmer Leisel Jones talks to Mia Freedman about retiring from competitive sports. 

The reasons for this, Bond says, are multifaceted. As much as we may want to blame a person's demise on money, drugs, alcohol, bad behaviour or mental health, in actual fact it's just not that neat.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Sport attracts a certain type of person. They usually have certain characteristics that are going to be useful and almost essential for their success," Bond says.

"They may be a perfectionistic, leaning towards obsessive in their career goals, and are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices in their hobbies and social lives."

Bond continues, "Elite sports is a double-edged sword. It looks fantastic on telly, it looks fantastic if you're at the MCG watching a match. But at the end of the day, there's a sacrifice that comes along with that and I think it's all too easy for young athletes to get sucked up into that and lose their identity and lose perspective on what the rest of their life might look like."

post sporting careers
Grant Hackett in 2015. Source: Getty.

In the case of Hackett, it's not particularly hard to see the path leading to last week's events.

The past decade alone has included a retirement from sport, the arrival of two children, a marriage breakdown, fleeting sport commentating and broadcasting gigs, a rehabilitation stint, a failed attempt to return to Olympic-level competition, alcohol-fuelled arrests, and an admission of battling with the highly-addictive sleeping drug, Stilnox. And those are only the events that we know about.

"He hasn't been able to hit many winners in recent years," Bond says.

"If he had some fragility or instability on the way through his swimming career that was compensated for by his winnings, to then have your ego shattered in multiple ways over a period of time like Grant has... it would be very hard on a person. Then expand that by having it play out publicly; it definitely wouldn't have helped the cause."

Yet Dan Vickerman did everything right both on and off the field. He did what he was supposed to do and made plans that would allow him to transition from sports to a new career. He kept busy. Looked after himself. Ensured he was involved in the community. He ticked all of the boxes, and still, it wasn't enough to cure the illness that he ultimately fell victim to.

ADVERTISEMENT

"To some extent, no matter what they do after sport, they can't replicate the adrenalin rush and the excitement and the euphoria that goes with that," Bond says.

"Tell me an office job that gives you that and I'll put my hand up and have a crack at it. There aren't any. Sport is such an exciting, and usually, positive environment to be in, but it's damn hard to replicate."

post sporting careers
Dan Vickerman. Source: Getty.

Throughout our conversation, something that should have been apparent long ago is suddenly glaringly obvious. To me, those people competing on the television have always been some mystical kind of 'other'. They wake up early and eat restricted diets and make tracksuits look okay. They work with dogged determination at ages where most of us are trying to work out the best way to buy Vodka Cruisers without being ID'd, and do it in front of a huge audience.

Despite all of that, they're still the same as me. They have medals and endorsement deals, sure. But they also have the days where they can't get out of bed and are overwhelmed with self-doubt. They still have to pay for parking and flush the toilet.

"Most of us, if we were to go through something, we would do it out of sight out of mind," Bond tells me. "Maybe our families and the people closest to us would know something was happening, but at the end of the day we wouldn't have all of that plastered on the television screen."

Pausing for a moment, he adds, "But that's part of the penalty of being an elite athlete."

00:00 / ???