Carl Froch v Arthur Abraham by By Pasi Taavitsainen via Wikimedia Commons

When Carl Froch announced his ring retirement, there was something in the words of the four-time world super middleweight champion to suggest his biggest fight yet could be lying in wait.

On revealing he was bringing his illustrious 13-year fight career (35 fights with 33 wins and only two losses) to an end, Froch insisted he had “nothing left to prove” in boxing, wanted to go “out on top” and that his desire had diminished with “nothing left motivating me”.

Notwithstanding speculation that Froch could be tempted out of retirement again for the right match, his claim that “the fighting machine has gone” may not be quite true if one of his statements is anything to go by:

The last thing I think about before my head hits the pillow is boxing, and when I wake up in the morning to think what time it is, and I think it’s half six, seven o’clock, should I be going for a run, where’s my trainers – it’s a lifestyle, a way of life, and it’s a mindset. I’ll always have that and I think I’ll always be itching for the big fight.

It gives some insight to the agony encountered by many elite athletes when deciding to call it a day.

Filling the void

At just 38, Froch now faces filling a void that has been left from a lifetime of ultimate commitment and dedication to the one thing he does best.

It is a dilemma confronting most elite athletes as time, injury or both eventually dictate an inability to compete at the highest level. It is a situation that can force many retired athletesto slide into a spiral of depression as they struggle to cope with life after sport.

On a personal level, there is no evidence this will happen to Froch. With a lucrative deal already signed to join Sky Sports’ boxing punditry team and enough prize money in the bank to comfortably support his young family, this articulate and intelligent now former pugilist would seemingly be the last person one would expect to fall into despair.

But as Peter Kay, chief executive of the Sporting Chance clinic that provides specialist addiction and recovery treatment for athletes, pointed out in the aftermath of the former Premier League footballer and Wales manager Gary Speed’s suicide in 2011: “Mental illness does not preclude anyone. Regardless of profession, wealth or status.”

Similarly, former England and Lions hooker Brian Moore has spoken of the “dramatic impact” of retirement from sport

I am almost certain that every athlete will have some psychological problems on retirement, irrespective of their financial position. Some will cope well; unfortunately, some won’t cope at all.

We don’t have to look far for tangible proof to serve as warning signs for Froch and other athletes who are set to give up all they know.

In recent years we have seen the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes (athletics), Andrew Flintoff (cricket), Lee Hendrie (football) and Sean Long (Rugby League) reveal the daily trauma of life after competition (and in the case of Flintoff and Holmes their experience of depression during it). Both Hendrie and Long have been candid enough to admit attempting suicide.

For high-profile boxers who have struggled to adjust after hanging up their gloves, see Frank Bruno, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton, to name a few. In a sport revered for bravery, courage and strength, there will be countless more who continue to suffer in silence.

Five stages of grief

It was Major League Baseball’s first African-American player of the modern era, Jackie Robinson, who made a link between the retirement and the language of death when he said “an athlete dies twice”.

Such is the credibility applied to the notion of a grieving process for newly retired athletes, the English Institute of Sport has based part of its performance programme on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Depression by Victor via Flickr

Left bereft

Take away the discipline, structure, competition, as well as the attention, the adulation, the celebration and what remains?

California-based peak performance coach Bill Cole points to a “profound sense of loss” as a significant contributor to mental health problems suffered by retired athletes. “Athletes identify themselves by what they do,” he told BBC Sport. “Take that away and they feel abandoned and naked and at a loss for how to make sense of it. It’s as if a major piece of themselves has gone missing.”

Cole points to other factors such as “tunnel vision”, whereby the sudden removal of a structured and regimented training regime can lead to a lack of focus in retired athletes after years of being guided by a “compartmentalised existence”.

Although biological reasons have also been offered in that reduced serotonin levels can provoke depression in retired athletes. While some support the idea, the validity of the decades-old serotonin/depression theory is now also being treated with suspicion in certain quarters.

It is impossible to ignore age as a contributing factor, too. Focusing specifically on males, Mental health and the timing of men’s retirement, a 2006 study conducted by The Australian National University’s Centre for Mental Health Research, produced interesting results. It found that “retired British and Australian men below the conventional retirement age of 65 are more likely to have mental health problems relative to their working peers, and retirees above this age.”

The report added that poor mental health appears to be linked to being retired below this age rather than an enduring characteristic of those who retire early.

But with most top sportspeople retired by their mid to late 30s, the early retirement age imposed on athletes, and all that deprives them of, can often trigger diminished mental health as an enduring characteristic of life after sport. There is now an acceptance in sport that not enough has been done to recognise mental health issues in athletes.

A mental health charter

In March 2015, various sports governing bodies including the Football Association, Rugby Football Union, the Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board and UK Athletics teamed up with the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the Professional Players Federation and mental health charity Mind to launch the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation.

Prior to this, a report commissioned by Mind last year identified three particular mental health pressure points, retirement being one of these salient areas. Launching the report, Clarke Carlisle, Mind’s sports ambassador, former professional footballer and chronic depressive, said: “There is a great appetite to address mental health issues in sport, and things are improving, but the support for athletes is nowhere near adequate.”

Six months later, Carlisle, aged 35, attempted to take his own life for a second time. It was a sobering reminder of the work still to be done to help raise awareness of mental health among athletes, both retired and active.

Indeed, walking away is often the hardest thing to do.

*This article is also published at The Conversation 

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