By Kelly Garrison Funderburk
When my parents flew over to Seoul, South Korea to watch me compete in the 1988 Olympics for women’s artistic gymnastics, they happened to be seated next to a group of sport psychologists who were also traveling there to help the American athletes during and or after their Olympic experience. Making conversation, my inquisitive mother asked them for more details of what their services provided and meant. They explained to her how every athlete experiences the Olympic Games differently, and they were hired to be available to help athletes psychologically and emotionally for this adjustment. My mother quickly informed them her daughter would never need assistance for something like that. Oh, how little; did she know?
These professional sports psychologists, hired by the United States Olympic Committee, continued to explain how some athletes will be finishing their careers upon completion of their last routine, sprint, swim, match or game in their sport. Some will be emotionally dealing with the results of that long-awaited competition, win or loss. Some will be questioning retirement. Some will be dealing with disappointment, others with success, and still others with the unexpected feelings of “now what am I going to do with the rest of my life”.
Often, these athletes have never thought past their goal in sport. Their many years of intense focus and wearing sport blinders have made them unaware they are even wearing them. Their steadfast commitment and dedication are so natural and commonplace, it is their “norm”, which can be viewed as a double-edged sword. This type of total dedication to the sport is usually required in order to achieve worldly success one desires, but it can come with a hardy sacrifice of being disengaged to the reality of what happens outside of sport and, particularly, after sport.
It wasn’t until their happy-go-lucky, fun spirited Kelly, whom everyone knew so well, began behaving in an extremely bizarre way, inconsistent with the first 21 years of my life, my parents began to worry. It wasn’t until I began cutting my wrists, breaking glass objects over my head, and not caring about life or the consequences of my uniquely odd choices, that everyone began to realize I was not okay and definitely needed psychological help. This started one year after my Olympic experience. I was NEVER offered a psychologist or transitioning assistance when I was at the Olympic Games. I was never offered help by our national governing body, the university I attended, my coach, my parents or anyone else. Most people were and are unaware of this critical component of the athlete’s journey in sport.
My two and a half year marriage was falling apart. I was spiraling down into a deep depression, although I didn’t know at the time that was what it was. I was hurting myself in a cry for help as I battled my internal thoughts and detailed suicidal plans. Not one person; who knew me then or knows me now; would ever believe that I could struggle with issues like depression. Kelly? Depression? No way!
I was scared. I was sad, and I felt completely ALONE! That is precisely why the sports community, society in general, parents, coaches, and athletes need to be informed and offered the educational resources to help them have a clearer understanding of how to help athletes transition from sport to their new life after sport. It takes years for athletes to climb to the top of their game with years of dedication. Athletes are trained by experts on how to go up the mountain but are rarely, if ever, trained how to come down. I felt I was dropped off the edge of the mountain when I retired from gymnastics. Athletes, and sometimes even the parents of those athletes, need to have the resources, avenues, and time to process leaving their first love (sport) and begin to find their next steps to thrive in their life after sport.
This is why helping athletes to understand the transition process when leaving sport is part of our Optimal Athlete Wheel of Wellness. We believe in helping athletes during and after.
If you or someone you know; would like to further learn how to work through the transitioning process, we welcome you to reach out to Kelly Garrison Funderburk at Kelly@thriving-after-sport.com or Theresa Kulikowski Gillespie at Theresa@fit-intuit.com .
The Take Away
Who- Helps Athlete, Parents, Coaches
What-Ease the Transitioning Process from Sport
When-Toward End of Career
Why-To Save Athletes Mental Anguish
How-Education through Online Training or Professional Counseling