You think you are immune.  You think that because you have natural physical talent that you are immune to depression and mental illness.  Let’s be frank – you are not.  In fact, you are probably most at risk. Let me share my story and views with you.

I am not a hugely celebrated elite athlete, but rather a barely known athlete in South African rowing circles and not known at all in other circles.  But I did represent my country at three World Championships and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  I am also a Masters Degree qualified Psychologist, which means that I bring not only a genuine experience of an elite athlete, but also the knowledge of an experienced Psychologist.

I recall racing in the lightweight men’s pair at the Rowing World Cup in 1995 in Lucerne.  My pairs partner and I won the heat, then we went onto to win the semi-final, and ultimately the final, winning our country’s first ever gold medal at a Senior World Cup event.  I remember very clearly the feeling that I had while rowing down the 2000m course in the final.  We were in the lead at 1000m to go.  I felt like a machine.  My legs still had some gas in them, my breathing was steady, and I felt fantastic. We were in the lead and I felt like I was invincible.  It was an incredible feeling.  I was on top of the world.  

The Trap

I wanted that feeling again.  And this is the TRAP for many elite athletes!! Athletes, more than most other people, typically experience an incredible sense of mastery.  In every training session, race or event, the athlete receives immediate feedback from a broad range of inputs.  As a rower this would include boat speed, stroke rate, power output, heart rate, internal perception of pain, breathing rate etc., other sports would utilise other elements like GPS data i.e. average speed, distance covered, top speed etc.  This means that athletes are conditioned to receive constant and immediate feedback against which they assess their effectiveness.  The resultant belief system is as follows:

“I am OK when the data/feedback tells me I am OK”

Furthermore, when the athlete sees a positive improvement or experiences a success, the athlete has a surge of emotion and neurotransmitters that makes them feel good.  The emotional experience is addictive and very often becomes the reason why some athletes keep going in the respective sport longer than they should.

Most significantly though, it is this ‘chase’ of the same feeling after sport that leads athletes to be at risk for lower levels of mental health and depression. In particular, the seeking of this same feeling but not actually experiencing the feeling causes both negative emotions and negative thinking. The negative thinking stems from the reduction in evidence that ‘I’m OK’ resulting in reduced feelings of self-efficacy.  

The negative emotions stem primarily from the sudden reduction in feedback.  Typically the athlete receives ongoing feedback, but once they retire the frequency and validity of the feedback reduces significantly. Many athletes take positive steps to find jobs after the sporting career, but like most workplaces, feedback is rare and the athletes find themselves struggling to assess whether or not they are ‘OK’.

It is the ‘chase’ of the feeling, that unfortunately often leads some retiring athletes down the path of drugs and high risk activities.

Essentially, athletes need to develop a new way of assessing success and self-efficacy.  Perhaps more importantly, retiring athletes need to let go of the previous measure of success and accept that they are highly unlikely to ever experience that same feeling again.

 Self-Medicating Athletes (with sport)

There is extensive research exploring the impact of exercise, particularly intense exercise, on combatting depression.  The evidence indicates that for mild to medium levels of depression exercise has the same (if not more long-term) impact on depression as medication.  For severe depression a combination of medication and intense exercise has been shown to have the greatest immediate and long-term impact on relieving the signs of depression.

While there is limited research evidence, I firmly believe that many elite athletes have ended up being elite athletes because they were self-medicating for their underlying depression or anxiety. In other words, the feeling they obtained from the sport make them feel so good that they continued to pursue the feeling, ultimately leading them to be very good at their respective sports. Or, many elite athletes remain undiagnosed with a mental illness or depression during their sporting careers because the level of intensity of training was in fact the solution to their underlying depression.

Once the athlete retires, not only is the ‘buzz’ of ‘feeling’ of winning not present, the daily intense exercise that they used to partake in is drastically reduced, which has the same impact as significantly reducing anti-depressant medication without the relevant cognitive and emotive strategies in place.

We have evidenced many elite athletes going into mental health decline after retiring from sport, and some who move into self-medicating with drugs, alcohol or prescription drugs to alleviate the lack of the previous self-medication of intense exercise.

Essentially, it is critically important that retiring athletes either keep doing some form of intense exercise on a regular basis or find a constructive alternative to manage their mental state. Some evidence indicates that 3 to 5 workouts a week of just 30mins at a cardiac output greater than 80% has a significant positive impact on executive function as well as mood state.

Goal Orientation Status Change

Shared by all athletes, regardless of sport, is the goal oriented nature of sport.  All athletes will be hugely goal oriented, from the big dream goal e.g. Olympics to daily goals e.g. weight.  Goals become part and parcel of every day functioning, and an essential component of the source of self-efficacy and feeling of achievement.

A further change experienced by athletes is the significant change in goal oriented focus.  For many athletes immediately following retirement there is a significant feeling of relief around the reduction in goal orientation.  The reduction in goal orientation reduces pressure and has an immediate feeling of recovery.

However, it doesn’t take long before the athlete starts feeling lost with a lack of purpose.  The lack of purpose leads to a state of stagnation and ultimately depressed mood.  Previously, with absolute clarity of purpose and goals, even when tired and exhausted, there is a clear reason to act and keep going. Where the reason for activity is less clear, and when the motivation or energy is lowered, there is a far greater tendency to not act or keep going. Essentially, the purpose equates to ‘force’ or ‘energy’, and without this force or energy the athlete can find themselves losing all direction and focus.

There is a difference between an externally driven goal orientation and an internally driven goal orientation.  Those athletes who had an externally driven goal orientation (e.g. approval from a significant other) find it even harder to re-establish a goal orientation, while those with an internally driven goal orientation (e.g. sense of mastery) are more able to change their goal focus.

What does this all mean for you, the up and coming athlete?

There is overwhelming evidence that many elite athletes struggle with the transition from sport to ‘normal’ life.  You, as an up and coming potential elite athlete, are potentially at risk for mental health concerns either during or after you retire from your sport.  Start now to develop cognitive and emotive strategies to better manage your mental state, just as we would strongly encourage people on medication to go for counselling or put into practice different thinking strategies.

  1. Seek ways to enhance your self-efficacy (i.e. belief that you can successfully complete the task) outside of your current sport.  
  2. Clearly define the criteria for retiring from sport now, long before you retire from sport.
  3. Plan and prepare for how you will keep active once you retire.  
  4. Proactively develop internally driven goals within your sport as well as in other areas of your life.
  5. Build your support networks both inside and outside of your sport.
  6. Develop and practice cognitive coping skills with the assistance of your Sport Psychologist, Counsellor or Retired Athletes that you connect with.

Final Word

There is no doubt that mental health is an increasingly visible challenge facing all of us.  We know that help-seeking behaviour is a critical element to managing mental illness, and as such we need to be creating environments that give everyone permission and enable people to seek help.  If you are in any prompted by this article to consider that you may need help, then please take the most important step forward, and ask for help.  Call your closest friend and ask to catch up. Talk to your partner.  Speak to a close family member.  Call Life Line or Beyond Blue.  Speak to your doctor.  Call up your EAP counselling service or make an appointment to speak to your local Psychologist.  


  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
  • MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
  • Relationships Australia 1300 364 277
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36

If you are an up and coming athlete, or an athlete close to retiring, then I hope that the article above has prompted you to consider how you will prepare yourself emotionally and mentally for retiring.  If you are a retired athlete who has a story to share, I strongly encourage you to share your story to inspire others to nurture and cultivate their own mental health.


About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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