The quadrennial glut of athletic excellence known as the Olympics is over. The sports fans among us are going through withdrawal–our televisions have been emptied of cyclists, runners, rowers, sailors, wrestlers, swimmers, and the like; no one is counting metals; we don’t check each morning to see how our countrymen fared during late-night competitions. The readjustment to ordinary life will be easy for most of us, but not for those most affected, namely the athletes themselves. A recent article in the Atlantic describes the post-Olympic letdown that plagues many of the competitors. In some cases, the letdown is more than just the usual dip that tends to follow an emotional high. It can spiral down to clinical depression.
The most well-known cases of post-Olympic letdown are the high-profile athletes who were particularly successful at the games. The article mentions Allison Schmitt, a swimmer who won five metals and set a world record at the 1012 Olympics. She had no idea why she was so blue, but couldn’t lift her mood by herself and sought counseling. “I didn’t want to ask for help,” she told an interviewer, “but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself.” Then there is Michael Phelps, who in 2008 won eight gold medals. “I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine,” he recently told Bob Costas. It took a DUI in 2014 before Phelps finally turned himself around.
I thought that a quote in the article from Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and former competitive skater, was particularly insightful:
“The instant idolization of their achievements can lead to intense and constant worry about rejection, criticism, and being ‘found out’ that they aren’t as good as everyone thinks—or that they themselves think.”
Successful Olympians are lauded as heroes–praised for their strength, speed, courage, or endurance. Perhaps they are elevated even higher than that. After all, the original Olympians, the mythological residents of Mount Olympus, were the gods of ancient Greece. We are inclined to apotheosis–to regarding others or ourselves as something that is godlike (though, unlike the ancients, we stop short of actually proclaiming that humans are deities). What young athlete, no matter how successful, can live up to that? And the attention and fame are likely to be fleeting. They’ve gotten accustomed to the adrenaline high of the world’s praise, and will have to go though withdrawal when the world turns its attention elsewhere.
In thinking about the post-Olympic letdown, I couldn’t help but also think about those who have retired from the workplace. Most of us attained nothing equivalent to winning a gold metal. Yet we had our share of successes–top salesman, highly regarded manager, highly proficient doctor or lawyer or teacher. We were at it long enough to develop considerable expertise, and we received recognition as a result. We may not have climbed as high as an Olympian, but our time of elevation lasted considerably longer.
And then it was time to come down. Most of us have adjusted remarkably well to leaving the workforce. Yet there can be a tendency to look back wistfully at past glories. Some have considerable difficulty handling the change. One man I know retired a year and a half ago and has been utterly miserable ever since. He doesn’t miss the hassles of his job, but does miss the recognition he received. He sits around the house lacking any sense of direction, ruminating bitterly that he has so little to show for his years of hard work.
His identity was tied to his job, and he hasn’t figured out who he is besides a hard worker. This is the same issue that many ex-Olympians are faced with. They gave their all to their sport, and it came to define them. The advice that sports psychologists give to their clients pertains to retirees as well: find an identity beyond what you’ve been doing up to now, remember that you’re more than what you achieved. Sports psychologist Kristen Keim offers the following to her clients:
“If you’re transitioning out of something, you should always have something you’re transitioning into. You should always have future goals. Even if it’s just setting up trips to go travel. Because stopping cold turkey, that’s a slippery slope.”
Good advice for both ex-Olympians and retirees.
Great post, Bob. I’ve been thinking a lot about all I wasn’t told when I was studying aging and realized that the textbooks base their knowledge on the objective research. My subjective experience is very different. After 6 years I am still processing what it means to be retired – and aging. I am happy, but still processing what this stage of life is all about.
Thanks, Pat. You’re right–retirement is a journey that research studies can’t adequately describe. You have to take the journey to (hopefully) understand it.