Top athletes rarely find success when changing sports

Published 02.11.2018 21:43

From Usain Bolt to Michael Jordan, a select few elite athletes have attempted the switch to another top-level sport yet most failed at the end. Why do they do it? Psychologists say they desperately need to achieve and fill a gulf in their lives

Apparently not satisfied with his eight Olympic titles, retired sprint king Usain Bolt launched an ambitious attempt at a career in football – before receiving a reality check in Australia.The 32-year-old Jamaican, who remains the 100 meter world record holder, was on trial with the Central Coast Mariners until yesterday's announcement that the experiment was at an end. Bolt's abilities had been questioned, with the fitness levels and skill-sets needed for football being very different from the assets that made him the fastest man on earth.

Martin Hagger, a world-renowned psychologist at Curtin University in Perth, said sports-hopping at the end of an athletes career was never easy.

"Athletes like Bolt have what psychologists call a high need to achieve, an innate drive that means they thrive on competition and the need to display to themselves (and others) high competence in a competitive arena," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"This is also likely manifested in certain personality traits such as extroversion and conscientiousness.

"There is, of course, also the possibility of some level of narcissism, but that's not necessarily an ingredient as many top athletes are not necessarily self-involved egos."

Retirement can be a tough moment for professional sportsmen and women, with life as they know it changing completely. The adoration from fans is gone, as is the adrenaline rush of competition. Many have struggled out of the limelight, notably Australian Olympic swim stars Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, who both battled their demons, including depression, after hanging up their goggles.

Hagger said this was part of the reason some attempt comebacks, or try to crack a new sport. "The high need for achievement can also lead to a substantive gulf in the life of an athlete when they retire," he said.

Examples include England cricketer Andrew Flintoff and former Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand, who both had a go at boxing. Eight-time Grand Slam-winner Ivan Lendl tried his hand at golf after retiring from tennis, playing a handful of professional tournaments. "Golf gave me something that tennis couldn't give me any more," Lendl told The Guardian in 2008.

"I need to compete. I had been trained to compete all my life and I couldn't just walk away from that. I would have bitten my dog."

There have also been success stories, most of them achieved mid-career. Gifted New Zealand star Sonny Williams seamlessly transitioned to the boxing ring, winning all his heavyweight fights while maintaining his elite rugby career. And multi-talented Ellyse Perry played for Australia at both the cricket and football World Cups.

Perhaps the most high-profile sport-swapper was Jordan, considered the greatest basketball player of all time. He famously signed for the Chicago White Sox baseball team after retiring in 1993, and was given a minor league contract. But his baseball career never took off and he returned to the hoops a year later.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter