5 Tips for Making the Transition out of the Pool a Little Easier

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

While another season is about to kick off, and another fresh bout of training is awaiting athletes from coast to coast, there is another group of swimmers who are hanging up their racing suits for the final time. After spending thousands of days and countless hours swimming up and down the black line these athletes are entering the life of being a former athlete.

Some swimmers have been looking forward to this day for a while; either having achieved what they set out to do and fulfilling a commitment to their team or school, while others are walking away from competitive action because of injury, hardship, or having come up short on what they wanted to achieve.

While the motivation for a swimmer hanging up his or her suit may vary, it is almost certain that they will have some emotional friction to work out post-swimming.

A study of high performance athletes in Canada found that 78% (Werthner & Orlick, 1986) of them encountered some sort of emotional difficulty upon leaving the sport, with 32% of them reporting that the transition to a life without high performance sport was “extremely difficult.” Many of them experienced depression, and feelings of loss of identity upon leaving the water.

Most retired swimmers will agree; while they don’t miss the early mornings and the mid-meet punishment sets (10×400 IM between heats and finals anyone?), they do miss the camaraderie and the chase.

While retiring brings with it a mixed bag of emotions, here are 5 tips for making the transition into the post-swimming world a little easier:

1. What is Next?

Very few swimmers will make a living as one. Despite the bling that Lochte had in his mouth in London, and the million dollar bonus that Phelps earned in Beijing, swimmers on average don’t make a lot of money. Even international podium athletes still have to scramble to find ways to fund their training and competition.

In other words, depending on swimming to provide a financial windfall is rare.

Knowing what comes next – and having goals for yourself outside of the pool — can help soften the emotional freefall of no longer swimming by providing you with something to focus on, drive your attention and cushion the transition.

2. Prepare for a sinkhole in time.

Leaving the sport is nearly universally loved for the fact that morning workouts become history. On the other hand, those gaping holes in your schedule will now need to be filled with something else.

Finding a way to fill 20+ hours of training per week with something else might sound easy, but you’ll be surprised at just how much time that actually is.

3. Inventory all of the stuff you learned as a swimmer.

For the guy or gal who has spent nearly their entire life swimming it can be easy to experience some a crisis of identity when the pool no longer beckons. For many of us, swimming was the biggest and most consistent commitment we’ve experienced had in our lives.

If we are no a longer a swimmer, than what are we?

In our rush to move on to the next chapter of our lives, and to find new identities and labels, we disregard all of that which we have learned through the sport. The other worldly dedication and drive you displayed in the pool can be just as relevant in your new career or vocation.

Simply because you won’t be swimming laps in your job or career path doesn’t mean that you can’t employ some of the things you learned in sport and apply it to the next phase of your life.

4. Personal Management Issues.

Swimmers depend on their parents and coaches for a lot over the course of their career. They are told where to be, when to be there, and what to do when they are there. This can lead to an over-dependance on their support structure that leaves swimmers short changed in personal management skills when retirement comes knocking.

Learn to become more assertive, and start making your own decisions so that when the day comes that you are no longer dependent on others you can hold your own and forge your own path.

5. Leave regret free.

I’ll admit, this one can be difficult, and often this can be out of our hands. Being forced to retire is a markedly more painful transition than being able to leave the sport on your own.

Self-image issues arise as a result of a perceived decline in skills and ability, where if an athlete is forced to transition from the sport earlier than planned as a result of a serious injury, or not making a team, this often leads swimmers feeling like they haven’t achieved all they wanted to (or could or should have) in the sport.

This often haunts athletes later in life, with the constant thread of “what if?” popping up repeatedly, causing them to hold on to the days of swimming past.

Do your best to leave the pool behind with no regrets and on your own terms, so that you can move successfully into the next phase of your life without any lingering doubts about what you could have accomplished in the pool.

References: Werthner, P., & Orlick, T. (1986). Retirement experiences of successful Olympic athletes. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 17, 337-363.

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Steven Heaney

Skip the overly painful doubles but don’t give up the fun of racing
Masters swimming can start immediately after passing through this phase of your career

I’m personally looking forward to watching more and more of the elite transition to masters

Seeing a Ryan Lochte for example at USMS Nationals after he’s done with Rio in 2016 would be great

Coach Scott

Masters is a great way to stay in the sport and have fun. USMS Nationals at Santa Clara had Nathan Adrian, Anthony Ervin and Matt Biondi just to name a few elites but there were others there too. All for the same reason and that was to have fun! Every swim is a timed finals so no need to come back for finals at night either! 18 and up are welcome! http://www.usms.org

This article was well done. It is difficult for athletes involved in this type of sport. A lot of time and energy is given to it and then suddenly, it stops. I wish all former athletes well. I would recommend coaching at some level and also, if things go bad then get some counseling. Also, speak to other athletes about their transitions into the professional life or school full time. Also, keep working out. I think the body can freak out if a person just stops all physical activity.

Catherine

Exercise is known to be as effective as anti-depressants for many people with mild depression. So maybe the depression and emotional difficulties are to be expected when swimmers leave the sport – not only do they have to make new friends and connections and make completely new goals in life – but they’ve stopped doing an activity that wards off depression. For that reason, the 78% figure for emotional difficulties is not that surprising. That, of course, is another good reason for doing master’s swimming. But, certainly picking up another physical activity is a really good choice.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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