July 21, 2024

Wwhen you play sports at a high level, that sport is all you know. It’s what you think about when you go to sleep and what motivates you to jump out of bed in the morning – the lure of the field or track or field. So, as an athlete who has dedicated a large part of my life to playing rugby for England, I have a sense of how Andy Murray maybe feel

Murray left it until the last minute to make his decision to retire from tennis. Asked what he was hoping for from his final matches at Wimbledon this week, he said: “Maybe a little closure … I just want the opportunity to be out there one more time hopefully playing on Center Court and feeling that buzz.” I know that feeling very well. The support of the crowd and the country is like a drug. So is the sense of purpose – the struggle to be the best you can be – and the sense of identity that comes with a career in sport. Who are you if not the elite athlete who spends every hour planning and training? Who would he be if not the tennis player the public knows and loves?

My retirement in 2011 was the most difficult challenge of my English career. After the heartbreak of just missing out on World Cup glory in 2010, lost 13–10 to New Zealand in the final, I had to finish on something more positive. As the tennis player Anne Keothavong, who retired at 29, said this week: “You want to be able to go out on your terms – you don’t want it taken away from you. You want to know that you left it all out there [and] you have no regrets.”

I knew at the start of the Six Nations that I was going to retire, but when I told the team about the tournament the night before our last game I could hardly get my words out, it was the utmost emotion. Unfortunately I was on the bench for most of that game looking at what looked like the biggest clock I have ever seen on the side of the pitch counting down the final minutes and seconds of my England career. Sports psychologists were always present while I was a rugby international, but when I needed help the most, after hanging up my boots, I had to fend for myself.

Since I started playing, psychological support in high-level sports has become more common and more professional. But my conversations with other retirees show that I wasn’t the only one who felt alone and alienated after stepping back from the game. One former Olympian told me she felt like she had fallen off the edge of a cliff. I’m told that support for retiring athletes has improved since then, and I think Murray will have plenty of plans in place. I hope he is surrounded by practical support to find a path to a new career, as well as much needed emotional support to help him find that “closure”.

But I also now know that retirement never ends. Thirteen years later I still struggle with what they call “the change curve“. Initially a model for understanding the grieving process (it begins with shock, moves to denial and then descends through anger and depression), the term is now widely used by business and sports to understand and manage change. Eventually the curve goes up through acceptance and on to integration. I haven’t made it this far yet.

I’ll embrace Murray as he goes through his own change curve – although I’m sure he won’t feel left out. In fact, I imagine tennis will still want Murray, but Murray will have to give himself some space to decide how much he wants tennis. There will be days when he will want to be right in the middle of it, and days when he will want to be as far away as possible. It will take time to find equilibrium.

After I retired I found myself drifting back to my pre-English past. During my school days I played the French horn to a high standard, and I picked it up again after a 20-year break and joined an orchestra. The tennis player Dominic Inglot, who retired two years ago, says it’s a “scary thought… calling time on something you’ve done all your life” – but if you can’t remember for the moment what you did before your life became all about your sport, it can helps to find a new focus. I’ve climbed a few mountains, walked a few marathons and traveled the world as a volunteer with the amazing Tag Rugby Trust. Then me set up my own company and wrote a book.

Murray will find his way, I’m sure. He will be in demand as soon as he hangs up his racket. But he will have to give himself time to find out who he really is, now that he is not simply “Andy Murray, tennis champion”. Retirement can be difficult, but he has the strength of character to make the most of it. He has faced the challenge so many times as a tennis player. I have no doubt that he will overcome the even more difficult challenge of being a retired tennis player.

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