Are elite sportspersons prepping enough for life after retirement? Wasim Akram's case indicates they need to
Wasim Akram recently admitted that he was addicted to cocaine and drugs following his retirement from the sport. Thus, it has led to the debate about whether sportspersons should pre-plan their life after retirement.
By Bharat Sharma
Wasim Akram's startling revelation about his cocaine addiction has shown that even the best athletes are vulnerable to drug abuse, even more so when they don't plan for life following retirement. Akram, arguably the best left-arm pacer to have played the game, recently spoke to a Pakistani sports channel on the revelations he made in his book. He said he was clueless about his future after retiring from the game, possibly pushing him towards drugs. Akram's case is a lesson for all current athletes on preparing for life after they are done with the game. An athlete like Akram might be invincible in what he does on the field, but he remains human.
Gayatri Vartak, a sports psychologist who works with elite Indian sportspersons, including cricketers, says an active athlete is also at risk of falling prey to drug abuse and not just someone who has left the professional sport. Former Zimbabwe skipper Brendon Taylor's name comes to mind when one thinks of an active cricketer admitting to cocaine use.
Former England cricketer Chris Lewis got 13 years in jail in 2009 for cocaine smuggling, though he denied using the substance. He had admitted that he smoked cannabis. Former India cricketer Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Australian legend Shane Warne used to smoke but were not into drugs. Vartak delved deep into possible reasons that lure athletes, present and former, to the menace of drugs.
"As an elite sportsperson or a high achiever, a lot is happening in your life in terms of training, travelling, tournaments, and suddenly when you quit the sport, it leaves a big void, and athletes often find it hard to deal with that void....because sometimes they have not thought about how to replace that void. That is what causes this. So, retirement has to be planned first of all. It is often not planned at all," Vartak, a former badminton player, apprised PTI.
By his admission, Akram did not plan for retirement. And, had he done that, he might not have developed a cocaine addiction. "I did not know what to do after retirement. I wasn't a businessman. I wasn't an Indian cricketer with enough financial security and could relax. "I was worried about my future, and then company matters a lot, but in the end, if I have to blame someone, I would only blame myself," the awesome left-arm pacer narrated to A Sports.
Like Akram, life post-retirement can be a rude shock for many athletes and, therefore, the pressing need to prepare them for the road ahead. Vartak feels a lot of time is spent on the timing of retirement but often, not enough attention is paid to the transition from an athlete to an ex-athlete.
"Retirement is going in an athlete's mind for a while. But, the conversation is always about the timing of retirement. It has to be more than just the timing. It must be about how you will deal with a change in identity. From an active cricketer to an ex-cricketer. What are the changes that are going to happen in your everyday life? What are the new routines you are going to form? If you do that, the chance of having that void reduces drastically, hence the risky behaviour associated with it," added Vartak.
Besides planning or the lack of it, an athlete's surroundings also play a significant role. A cricketer is steeped in the dressing room environment. In his playing days, he spends most of his time with his teammates on and off the field. But, once he exits those surroundings, he could feel lost.
"If you specialise in one thing over long, your peer group, at least in cricket, becomes your teammates. Those teammates don't become part of your life when you don't play because some are still playing, and some live away. A new social circle needs to be formed," Vartak explained.
"As an athlete, you are also a little wary of people who come around you. You are not sure what their plan is. All of this contributes to loneliness, which could lead to risky behaviour," added Vartak. An active athlete, too, is at the risk of losing way and ending up with drug abuse, she imagined.
"At the elite level, you have a lot of ups and downs. When you are playing well and everything is working for you, you sometimes lose the purpose of what you are doing. The why is not as clear as you would like it to be, and when there is plenty of time, you end up indulging," she elucidated.
The glamour associated with a top athlete's life can also contribute, as only some are prepared to move away from the spotlight. "There is a significant trade-off with your athletic identity. People identify you with that all your life, and suddenly, you are an ex-athlete. The top 10 per cent can still carry on with an ex-athlete tag, but only some can," continued Vartak.
"So, what do you replace that with? The replacement of identity has to be thought of. Planning on financial, professional and personal aspects has to be thought of [once you start thinking of retirement]," Vartak added. The mental health of top sportspersons, including cricketers, is spoken about a lot more now than a decade ago. There is a less social stigma attached to it.
The career span of an athlete is much shorter than that of an ordinary man who doesn't have to retire before 60, making them equally vulnerable to drug abuse, if not more. "A common person's retirement age is around 55 while an athlete's retirement age is much earlier. So, they have many years left to do something productive, and many of their peers are not retiring as they are not all of the same age. That difference makes it harder [for athletes]," concluded Vartak.
(With inputs from PTI)