Riding into the sunset

For all athletes -- from pros to weekend warriors -- deciding when to call it quits is one of the hardest decisions they'll make

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For elite Canadian biathlete Megan Imrie, being a professional athlete is a lot like going down a waterslide.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/09/2015 (2619 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For elite Canadian biathlete Megan Imrie, being a professional athlete is a lot like going down a waterslide.

“You’re heading down this tube at a very fast pace, but everything is kind of laid out for you,” said Imrie, who competed at the last two Winter Olympics, including finishing 31st in the women’s 7.5-kilometre sprint at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

“Your whole competitive life you’re in this really rigid routine with all this support around you waiting on your every move,” she said. “And then you’re shot out into this abyss, this ocean of surprise and unpredictability. For athletes, that can be the most terrifying thing — not knowing which direction to go.”

Kirsty Wigglesworth / The Associated Press files Falcon Lake's Megan Imrie competed on the world stage for several years, including at the Vancouver and Sochi Winter Olympics.

Imrie had made the decision to retire from biathlon competition, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, long before competing at Sochi, but it was still an adjustment once that waterslide shot her out. She moved home to Falcon Lake to help her parents with the family business, and then headed straight into third-year courses at the University of Victoria, where she is currently completing her bachelor of science.

Imrie admitted she hasn’t actually cross-country skied since Sochi, but not because she needed a break from the sport. “I was just so busy. I do love it and will get back into it, just when I have the time.”

The quick switch from athlete to student might have helped her with the transition, Imrie said.

“There wasn’t really much time to think about it at all. I just kind of jumped off into the deep end.”

Now looking at possibly settling in Alberta, either in Canmore or Calgary with her boyfriend, and completing her master’s in health administration, Imrie has made the transition look seamless. She has a passion for youth, and indigenous youth in particular, but said she’s like most people — still largely unsure what she wants to do with her life.

Athletes have long had to deal with the abrupt elbow that is retirement, but only lately has the life-altering transition come into the spotlight. Often times, we envision our heroes’ swansongs as fairytale endings, thinking they drift off into the sunset after that final gold or overtime goal. But the truth is much more bleak, more disconcerting.

Whether it’s through fictional TV, such as HBO’s Ballers featuring Dwayne Johnson as a pill-popping, retired football player trying to make it as a slick Miami financial advisor, or reality TV, such as W Network’s Hockey Wives where not only players like aging veteran Ray Whitney or pugilist-for-hire George Parros go through the ordeal, but their families come along for the bumpy ride too, the public has a front-row seat to the aches and pains of starting life over again.

“Right now in Canada they’re really just starting to recognize that transition as an important piece,” said Dr. Adrienne Leslie-Toogood, director of Sport Psychology at the Canadian Sports Centre Manitoba. “And also recognizing that athletes, regardless of what level they played, need help transitioning into another stage of their life that they can find that fulfillment in.”

Leslie-Toogood, a former university basketball player who had to quit because of a knee injury, is also on the faculty at the University of Manitoba and the chair of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association. Not only do pros and Olympians such as Imrie have to go through the transition, but weekend warriors and recreational athletes who play for fun, she said. Sometimes their epilogues are even more perilous.

“With athletes, some of them get all their needs met in sports,” she added. “They get their highs and lows, their friends, they get everything with sports. And you have to realize that when you move on to something else, you may not get all of those needs met in one place again. You might get some meaning out of your job, some value in your relationship, some value in your friendship, and you kind of have to learn to get those needs met in other places.”

Imrie said she has no regrets about her career and feels as if she’s fully transitioned, mentally, into her new life.

“I wanted to retire, and that’s the first piece of the puzzle. If an athlete feels like they have to retire, or is forced to retire because of an illness or something, that’s a totally different story and I think that’s why people have a tough time with it.”

 

***

 

Cara Button works with retiring athletes everyday. As the Life Services Manager at the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary, she provides education and career advice for those transitioning out of sport.

For a lot of athletes, when to decide to call it quits is one of the biggest obstacles they’ll face, she said.

“The high-performance athletes, they’ve dedicated their lives and they’re often reaching this high point or pinnacle at an early stage in life,” said Button, who is also a member of My Game Plan with Leslie-Toogood.

“They’re very young when they have to retire from their first career, and they say ‘Well, I’ve been singularly focused and given my heart and soul to this and not only now have I not trained for this, but how will I ever find anything that’s going to give me the same lift or satisfaction?’ So it can be pretty daunting.”

Button got her start working as an intern for the Canadian Olympic Committee during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. She admitted no athlete ever makes a “seamless transition” into their new life, however some deal with it better than others. Button said the idea is to get the athletes to form identities outside of their sports, something that can be particularly tough in today’s competitive sporting world, which requires athletes to live, sleep and breath their sports 24/7, 365 days a year.

“We try to get them to plan for a future outside of sport whether that’s taking some classes or getting a degree, or getting course experience or networking,” she said. “Of course that all sounds good on paper, and when you do all that, you still can’t eliminate that emotional piece that you’re going to go through.”

With her work through CSI and My Game Plan, she cautions retiring athletes not to simply get into coaching as a default. They often don’t make good coaches, she said.

“Sometimes it tends to just be something that’s there for them or they didn’t know what else they were going to do and not necessarily that they were passionate about coaching. I caution athletes to make sure that’s really what they want to do. I think it’s good to get some coaching education behind them if that’s the career path they want to go in.”

Button said the recent media attention on retiring athletes is a good thing — this is a massive life transition that affects anyone who plays the game they love, be it professional, amateur or recreational. Even if athletes only speak to other athletes about it, it’s a step in the right direction, she said.

“We try to normalize it, and it is a normal feeling. And a lot of athletes, for a long time, were afraid to speak out about it, they thought they were the only ones going through it, and so a lot of them don’t reach out for help.”

Help is starting to come, though, in various forms. BCHL Cowichan Valley Capitals assistant coach Robert De Clark — who is also a mental-performance coach and director of Inpatient Treatment at Cedars at Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island — has spearheaded a new program where each BCHL team has a designated mental health professional at its disposal. He brainstormed the idea with Bob Nicholson while the current Edmonton Oilers chief executive officer and vice-chairman was with Hockey Canada.

De Clark said the idea is to work with athletes while they’re young and start a dialogue around a number of issues — from addiction and loneliness to mental health and eventual life after hockey.

“What I think is happening is there is a lack of preparation for post-career, that’s a major problem,” he said. “When it’s over, there’s been no education along the way about life, how to handle life, how to handle money, how to handle not living in this lifestyle. It’s tough for a lot of guys. Hockey teaches you a lot of things, but I think we need to realize it doesn’t teach us everything we need to live.”

 

***

Having gone through tendinitis, knee fragments requiring multiple surgeries, a freak accident involving a slip-and-slide, overtraining mishaps, plantar fasciitis, anemia and mononucleosis, it’s tough not to want to ask former NCAA Division 1 runner Carmin Mazzotta the obvious question that comes to mind.

“No, I don’t think my running career was cursed,” he answers. “Injuries are commonplace in a sport where you need to push yourself to your physical limit so frequently in training. And I pushed myself there too many times, and too frequently. I never knew when to back off.”

Born in Kamloops, B.C., the 33-year-old Mazzotta followed his older brother Bruno–who would go onto a respectable career as a Canadian long-distance runner–into a sport dominated by Africans on the world stage.

Mazzotta’s career — while impressive — was marred by unfortunate circumstances, meaning his time at University of North Carolina at Asheville was cringe worthy from an outsider’s perspective.

“My entire university career was plagued by a series of unfortunate events,” he said. “As such, I never ran all that well in university, which beats up the legs a bit more and requires more intense technical training. I did moderately OK in cross-country, but never lived up to anything remotely near my potential.”

While Imrie got to go out on her own terms, competing at the Olympics as her grand finale, Mazzotta spent years trying — and failing — to notch any type of notable win at the collegiate level, which could’ve been a springboard to world championships or even the Olympics.

Now the head coach of the cross-country running team back home in Kamloops for Thompson Rivers University, Mazzotta has transitioned into a coaching role and has made peace with his career. He said he has no qualms about the past and what could have been, exhibiting a maturity that only comes with age and experience.

“I am not into institutionalized religion and I don’t necessarily believe things are predetermined or predestined, but these challenges only have ever resulted in me becoming a better person. More humble, more empathetic, more understanding, more reflective, and more appreciative of the positive moments in life. A relative level of adversity is a good thing and if I hadn’t experienced struggle, I would probably have a blasé attitude devoid of passion in a lot of areas where I really do give a huge shit.”

 

***

While professionals or collegiate athletes can sometimes parlay careers into second lives as coaches or teachers, most people have little to fall back on when they’re forced to give up their recreational passions. Who’s to say someone who has been playing sports recreationally for 35 years loves their pastime any less than a pro does?

“It’s a legitimate question, and one I don’t think is being asked a lot right now,” said Tony Leland, a senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University’s Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology. Although not a sports psychologist, Leland does train kinesiologists, and acknowledges his graduating students are not just treating injuries, but ultimately counselling people through difficult life decisions.

Leland recently gave up club soccer, as he found competing against 20-year-olds was too much to ask of his 40-plus-year-old body. However, the life-long athlete turned to tennis where he found he could maintain his fitness levels, and get in a socializing fix, too. The problem is, Leyland says, he might be an anomaly.

“Does an average counsellor realize if someone comes into their office who’s had to quit soccer, which they have been playing their whole life, that they probably aren’t going to be happy just going out for runs on their own? Or just doing some weightlifting on their own? That they’re going to need some replacement for the social aspect of it as well?”

In fact, many sports psychologists say the social aspect for recreational athletes far succeeds the physical benefits of regular exercise. Thus simply going to the gym or picking up an individual sport misses the mark entirely. Dr. Leslie-Toogood added the decision is often made without professional help, and that athletes are notorious for continually wearing out their bodies when outsiders can clearly see it’s time to call it quits.

“People are very much kind of left on their own to wrestle with these decisions,” she said. “And this does involve the spouse, too, but it’s usually the spouse looking at them going ‘Really, is this still worth it?'”

Dr. Saul Miller is one of Canada’s top professional sports psychologists, having worked with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, the NFL’s St. Louis Rams and the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. While he focuses on performance issues, including writing the book Performing Under Pressure: Gaining the Mental Edge in Business and Sport, he said retirement offers its own unique set of hurdles, something he encounters with his clients quite frequently. He also noted none of the professional teams he’s worked for has a retirement program athletes enter when they hang them up, willingly or unwillingly.

“A lot of the pro players will say to me, ‘I don’t miss the playing, I miss the guys,'” he added. “And it’s the same for the recreational athlete. These were friends that you relied upon, you competed with them and formed an attachment to them through the game. So to let them go is obviously not going to be an easy thing.”

Dr. Miller said the key is to ask questions about the game while still playing, to ensure the transitional blow is softened. This is never easy, he said, especially within a sporting culture that celebrates a “do-or-die” mentality.

“A lot of the more masculine sports come along with that culture of ‘I don’t need help’ or ‘I won’t ask for help.'”

This internal-thought process doesn’t have to be a battle, he added, but can be reflected upon outside the lines.

“In times away from the game, give some consideration about how you can express yourself in other ways. Lay that groundwork somewhere else, so that when you do walk away, whether it’s by choice or by injury, that there is something there to fulfill you in the same way.”

 

Patrick Blennerhassett is a Vancouver-based, award-winning journalist and published author. His forthcoming non-fiction book ,titled A Forgotten Legend: Balbir Singh Sr., Triple Olympic Gold & Modi’s New India, will be released in spring 2016.

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