It is scary and stressful having to leap the chasm between top-end sport and retirement, but former gymnast Beth Tweddle says the transition can be eased with a little forward-planning. Badminton player-turned-journalist Susan Egelstaff listens and empathises
For an elite athlete, retirement is one of the biggest decisions they will make. For anyone who has reached the top of their sport, training and competing will inevitably have dominated their entire adult life. Then, all of a sudden, it’s over. And while retirement age for the general public tends to be when they hit their sixties, it comes to most elite athletes in their thirties, sometimes earlier.
It heralds a complete change of lifestyle, and not one with which every athlete can cope. There are numerous stories about athletes going off the rails soon after retiring, and much of that is due to having nothing to fill the void that elite sport occupied. I know from my own experience that stepping away from top-level sport was not an easy thing to do. I found having to enter the ‘real world’ for the first time was scary, nerve-wracking and stressful. It is easy to feel lost and insecure. In my case, I had never had a ‘proper job’; being a full-time badminton player was all I had known. The feelings I experienced immediately after retiring were impossible to anticipate and even harder to prepare for.
The transition from elite athlete into ‘normal person’ is something that Beth Tweddle has been forced to confront since she hung up her leotard in the aftermath of London 2012 when she capped off a remarkable career with an Olympic bronze medal. Having been a gymnast since she was seven years old, Tweddle was faced with the prospect of entering the real world; it was, she admits, a step she did not take lightly. “Retirement is daunting and, for me, it took a whole year to make the decision,” she said. “I think a lot of people assumed that as soon as I ended my routine at London 2012, that was my last-ever routine. But I was back in the gym training not long afterwards. I had no real purpose at training, but I just didn’t know what else to do; gymnastics had been the one constant thing throughout my life and I didn’t want to just drop it.”
There was one saving grace for Tweddle, now 32, as she pondered the retirement question. When she had taken up gymnastics two decades earlier, the option of making it a full-time career was unthinkable. So she had always put the emphasis on education while simultaneously rising up the gymnastics ranks. “I had a serious injury when I was 12 – it was so serious that the doctors told my parents that they weren’t sure if I would ever compete again – so from a young age, my parents knew that gymnastics might not be forever.
“So when I was a youngster, I never saw it as a career path. My parents were always very aware that it would come to an end at some point, so I would need an education and some sort of stepping-stone to help me move away from the sport. Up until my GCSEs, gymnastics was important, but really my exams came first. I went to university, too. I was very lucky that I had that network behind me. My parents were very encouraging – they knew that gymnastics was very important to me – but they knew I’d always need something else. I think it was that injury to me when I was 12 that hammered that home to them.”
Tweddle did eventually make her retirement official, but by then she already had things in place that would keep her occupied. Several years before, she had set up a company alongside fellow Olympian, swimmer Stephen Parry, called Total Gymnastics, and that helped soften the blow of retirement. Then, a stint on ITV’s Dancing on Ice gave her somewhere else to channel her energy. While not every athlete will have a hit television show to walk into following retirement, Tweddle is keen to stress the importance of athletes making tentative plans about their post-retirement life before they finish competing.
“It’s not necessarily about having a definite plan, it’s more about starting to think about ideas before you stop,” she says. “When I was still training, after I’d finished university, I had one year of being a completely full-time gymnast, but I needed something else because I’d been so used to having that education side in my life. Through UK Sport, you can get access to Performance Lifestyle and they give you access to courses, so each year I did a different course. I did one on book-keeping, one on business, one on sports massage, that kind of thing, so I was constantly putting something else in my life. That helped me a lot.”
There is a danger that athletes feel that doing something on top of their training will be detrimental to their performance, and in the current medal-focused climate, distractions can be seen as dangerous. But Tweddle found that rather than being damaging, a distraction was hugely beneficial to her performance. She recommends that other athletes search out options available to them. “I found that having something else in my life complemented my sport,” she says. “The support is there – although more can always be done – but I think it’s about raising the awareness around those other options, and showing athletes that you can do other things at the same time. In my sport, things have changed massively from when my career began – it’s a lot more professional and the expectation and pressure is much higher, but we still need to ensure that a well-rounded athlete is there, too.”
For Tweddle, who has made the transition from elite athlete to retirement as consummately as any, the advice is simple: “I’d say to athletes, ‘Take your time to make that decision’. Tanni Grey-Thompson said to me, ‘Don’t ever retire until you’re 100 per cent ready’. That always stuck with me,” she says. “There’s so much support for athletes to access if they’re worried about things, so start thinking about it before you retire. It’s never too early.”
Beth Tweddle has become a member of the board of Switch the Play, a social enterprise working with all areas of sport, business and enterprise to find and deliver solutions that smooth athlete-transition.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.