Goin’ Back – can athletes find success when they come out of retirement? 

In 2012, then 26 year old golfer Anthony Kim withdrew from the Wells Fargo Championship after the opening round – and effectively entered retirement. Initially, he had surgery on an injured achilles tendon and was expected to miss around a year of golf. Kim had certainly begun his career in strong fashion, winning his first PGA Tour event at 22 years old, part of the USA winning Ryder Cup team in 2008, alongside coming 3rd in the 2010 Masters and 5th in the 2011 Open. However after walking off the course at the Wells Fargo in North Carolina, there wasn’t much heard from Kim apart from the odd associated social media post. It is the nature of his withdrawal that has created a sort of myth around Kim. From reports he stopped playing golf in general as well as staying out of the limelight. However, it looks like in 2024, some 12 years later, Kim is set to return to pro golf, potentially with LIV.

Kim’s return would be after a 12 year hiatus. However, even this form of return would be not as unusual as we might think in sport. For example, boxer George Foreman returned to the ring 10 years after retiring to become the oldest world heavyweight champion in history at 46 years and 169 days old. A film was even made out of it. Similarly swimmer Dara Torres, who medalled in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympics, retired shorted afterward, then returned in 2000 to the Sydney Olympics to win five medals and another return to the 2008 Olympics to win three more medals! For many athletes however, retirement is perhaps simply not possible owing to a major injury, accumulated health issues or post career commitments like family or work. 

Elite sport can be psychologically hard on performers too. The emotional investment involved, the travel and the pressures to manage an aging body can mean many athletes simply have had enough of the sporting life. Some though do have regrets about their past sporting lives and miss it greatly. A retired international rugby player once said to me, ‘when I played rugby everything was in full colour! But when I retired, life turned to black and white. It was almost like the colour had been drained from a painting’. Some though find a new way to channel their energy. Current La Rochelle rugby Head coach Ronan O’ Gara remarked when he played: ‘I know it’s only a game. I know it’s only sport…But it’s what makes me tick. When I retire I wonder what I’ll do without it. The pressure of the big games seems to be getting worse and I wonder how many more times I can cope with it. But I love it. I need the pressure.’ La Rochelle have certainly provided that challenge with back to back European Cup victories. 

We know sport psychologists play a crucial role in helping athletes manage retirement. Such a change, or transition, can trigger a period of mourning through the loss of income, identity and connection. Psychologists may provide a role here to help athletes find new meaning beyond their sport. Likewise, some athletes may be excited and happy about their retirement – the psychologist’s role then may be more of an executive coach helping athletes set new goals, develop new passions or ensure a balance around family life. Either way, if psychologists can help an athlete ‘end well’ in terms of their careers, it provides the best platform for those coming out of retirement to return with a sense of motivation, independence and structure to once again perform at their best. 

Worth a read:

Cosh, S, LeCouteur, A. Crabb, S. & Kettler, L. (2013). Career transitions and identity: a discursive psychological approach to exploring athlete identity in retirement and the transition back into elite sport, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 5(1), 21-42, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2012.712987

O’Gara, R. (2014) Unguarded: My Life in Rugby. Transworld: Dublin.