Sport has been turned on its head with leagues, tournaments and matches being postponed or cancelled. As expected, there is now a proliferation of motivational quotes and sentiments making the rounds:
When you think about quitting – remember why you started
Never give up on your dreams
The only failure is quitting
But what happens when quitting is the best option? And what if quitting is not actually quitting at all, but rather a smart choice?
These are extraordinary times, and while many athletes can and must still chase their sporting dreams, there are many that can’t – and some that shouldn’t.
Using the Olympic Games as an example, many athletes were basing their decision to retire on going to Tokyo. Some would give it a go and if they didn’t make it, move on to other things, and for others, the end of the Games would signal the end of their careers. But now what do they do?
SUNK COST FALLACY
To glibly say ‘keep going, it is only one more year, don’t give up’ shows a profound lack of understanding about what another year of preparation actually entails, and the huge physical, mental and emotional effort needed. Pople tend to think that if an athlete has come this far, they may as well keep going for a bit longer so they don’t ‘waste’ all their hard work – a mental trap called the sunk cost fallacy. When you have invested much emotional energy into a goal – as all athletes do – decisions can be tainted by this investment, making it harder to let go of goals, even when you should. As Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman writes, ‘The sunk cost fallacy is where additional resources are allocated to an existing activity or project, even when better choices are available”. We should be encouraging athletes to make good decisions for their future, not ones based on the emotions of the present.
PURSUING OTHER DREAMS IS NOT QUITTING
Then secondly, I really don’t like the idea that by ending a sports career an athlete is ‘giving up’.
Since when did the retirement become another word for quitting? Yes, sometimes we need to let go of dreams, and make peace with goals not achieved, but this is very different to giving up. In times like these, we need to be encouraging athletes to think about their futures by weighing up the options for and against continuing – we shouldn’t be throwing trite sentiments at them. Some athletes may not be able to afford to continue, some may want to start families, and some may simply be tired of the demands of training and competing. Athletes come to the decision to retire in many different ways, and very seldom is because they just give up on their dreams.
Brendon Dedekind, former Olympic swimmer, explains why his decision to retire was the best one for his future:
I had always swum for the fun of it, just for the sake of swimming, but now I had to make some hard decisions because fun would not pay the bills. I knew that wanting to swim just because I enjoyed it was not going to be a good enough reason to carry on. I had to think hard about why I was swimming for another four years…I would be 28 by then, and worried about essentially putting my life on hold – for what?
14 x World Boxing Champion Brian Mitchell says that sometimes you’ve just had enough of the restrictive life of being an elite athlete:
By the time I was 22, I had become South African champion, and by 25 I was World Champion. I went on to fight in 14 title fights, defending all of them over a five-year period. Then, after beating Tony Lopez at the age of 30, I had had enough, and walked away.
Twenty-five years of sweating it out in the gym gets to you in the end.
The thing that people don’t understand about professional boxing is that it’s a very isolated life.
Professional life is not as glamorous as you may think, because you are literally hidden away while competing. In the end, I got tired of doing the same thing, day-in and day-out.
Other times, like Olympic Hockey players Charles Teversham and Gary Boddington, life’s priorities shift and change:
“My wife gave me these four years to make my dreams come true,” says Charles, “but both her life and our life together had to be put on hold during that time. It would have been unfair to keep her waiting much longer after that.” Gary also knew that, “When you have a wife and children and know that hockey won’t pay the bills, you have to make choices that are not just good for you, but good for your whole family. Hockey was wonderfully exciting – very little is as exciting as running out onto the field wearing the green and gold, prepared to do battle for your country – but life has other priorities.”
And sometimes, you’ve given it your all and realise there is more to life, as is what happened to former Springbok Rugby captain Mornè du Plessis:
He knew it was an honour to play but also knew that there were issues in life greater than rugby. Morné points out that to others involved in the game, and to the general public, his place in the rugby world was very meaningful, more meaningful than he himself felt it should be. So, he decided to retire after one of the most successful years in Springbok history and with a dream tour to New Zealand scheduled for the following year.
For many, the decision to retire is a way better one for their future than deciding to push through another year. However, while athletes see such a decision as giving up, it is a decision infused with the shame of failure. There are so many wonderful dreams to pursue in life, we need to give athletes the time and space to think through these without the motivational pressure to hold on to sports dreams as if they are the only ones that matter.
NOTE: All quotes are from Waking from The Dream: stories of transition out of sport