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Guest Columns

Life after sports — How ready are Indian athletes to begin anew post-retirement?

With Serena Williams choosing to 'evolve' rather than 'retire' from tennis - it's time to think about how groomed our Indian athletes are to face life after their sports career comes to a stop and what we can do to ready them.

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Serena Williams' retirement is an eye-opener about how (un)prepared our Indian athletes are for life after sports

By

Manisha Malhotra

Published: 7 Sep 2022 5:07 AM GMT

Probably one of the greatest tennis players in the world played her last match in front of an electric but misty-eyed crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, only recently.

With 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams losing a couple of days ago to Australia's Ajla Tomljanović at the US Open, the 40-year-old tennis superstar has essentially bid farewell to her beloved sport.

Inarguably, one of the most pioneering tennis players to have graced the sport, Serena Williams had everyone in shock when she said last month - in August, that she would be "evolving" away from tennis with the US Open being her last Grand Slam tournament in a heartfelt (and heart wrenching) Op-Ed for Vogue magazine.

Serena Williams after her final tennis match at the US Open 2022 (Source: Getty)

The heavy piece was a brilliant and honest insight into the challenges most athletes, and more so female athletes, face in their quest and pursuit of greatness. Serena highlights several factors but it was the choice of the word "evolve" that most resonated with all who are closely associated with sports.

For each and every athlete who plays any sport at any level, there comes a day when they can no longer play. For elite athletes who have played professionally, it is far more difficult than for a recreational player.

Elite athletes spend countless hours perfecting their craft. They pretty much devote their formative years to practising their skills and putting in the hard hours. The common belief is that to become a world-class player, one must possess a single-minded devotion that borders on obsession, as a prerequisite in itself. But is that the case?

From an Indian perspective, let's see the lives of most of our athletes who are of the national level (let's say national campers as a subset). I have been closely involved with them and their days are pretty much the same. Wake up, eat, train, sleep, eat, train, eat and repeat - an inescapable routine they are bound to for a crucial number of years. With the advent of social media, a lot of them spend time on their phones but mostly watch their events or sport.

So the question I ask you is - is this healthy?

I have been around athletes in all stages of their careers and have seen how difficult it has been for athletes who have retired and/or ended their careers for some reason or another. There is a severe loss of purpose and a lot of them have this feeling that they no longer have a purpose to wake up in the morning. This then makes me circle back to Serena using the word "evolve" instead of the more common "retire".

The need for holistic athletes

Our athletes really need to be groomed to have a much more holistic approach to life - as most of their life is probably ahead of them after their sport is done with. Easier said than done, I truly believe it is imperative that athletes need to be groomed for an off-the-field life and while some may be lucky to have the backing of an education that interests them most will probably not have that - especially in a country like India where most athletic talent has its origins at a grassroots or at best, semi-urban strata.

Training from a young age must involve things which are beyond the scope of the field. Skills must be cultivated to survive in the world without hiding behind the security your sport brings you. Hobbies should not be shunned but embraced as something which can later be returned to.

Just a few months back, former World No. 13 badminton player Ajay Jayaram also announced his retirement from the game - choosing to make a switch from sports to academics as he wished to pursue a B-School degree, in order to contribute back to sports in the future. But such are rare examples - especially in the context of India where the risk of athletes losing a sense of purpose once their sporting days come to an end, keeps looming large.

From a personal experience, when I was finished with tennis I had a finance degree I had no inkling of pursuing and was pretty sure coaching was not my calling. It was my love for animals, particularly horses which gave me everything. I delved into another sport pretty much bordering on obsession and then when a path for sports development opened up it was something that I really felt at home with.

I do consider myself very blessed and lucky to have found a calling after sport, in that way.

This knowledge and awareness of where we are headed after sport is incredibly crucial and is a big part of the mental health conversation that those involved in high-level sports have started to acknowledge.

While it is still nascent in terms of research, we all know how important it is. While sport is the best teacher, and every athlete has certain coping mechanisms in place to tackle a wide gamut of emotions, I do truly believe we need to view retirement not as an ending but as a new beginning - a start of a different inning altogether, in itself.

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