The life of an elite athlete is filled with excitement and adventure, as the competitive juices fuel your journey across the globe. Huge prize purses matched with bursting-at-the-seams grandstands, the average joe can only dream about living such reality. But there is growing evidence that a less glamorous side to the life of an elite athlete is doing significant harm to the mental state of individuals.
Clinton Hill is one of Australia’s most decorated track and field athletes. Having competed at multiple Olympic and Commonwealth Games, adding to the mix an Olympic Silver in Athens, and a Commonwealth Gold in Melbourne, Hill would be living on cloud nine, basking in the glory of a hugely successful career. But all is not as it would seem, as life after elite sport can leave a dark mark that echoes through their mind day after day.
“The transition from elite competition to a civilian life is a difficult one, particularly when you are committed 100% to yourself and your sport and have made so many sacrifices along the way.” Says Hill. Day in and day out, athletes are given a purpose that they have laser-focus towards. “You can’t shut down that part of your brain!” Hill mentions, which ultimately turned into his undoing when competitive sport was finished for him.
For Hill, the life-changing decision to retire wasn’t even his own choice. “Not long before the 2012 London Olympics, I tore my Achilles which ended my career a bit shorter than planned.” Most athletes are afforded an emotional press conference where they can announce their retirement from professional sport, and receive accolades from within their elite circles. But not Hill. “Even though I knew the injury would be the end for me, I still to this day have not officially announced my retirement. So there are still a few demons to slay.”
Life after professional sport can be a harsh one if steps are not taken to transform your habits to normalcy. But as Hill puts it, finding the correct substitute is the main priority. “Immediately after retirement can be a challenging time. But for me I was able to modify my routine and replace my training and competition with family and work.”
The ‘black dog’ has become the latest tagline for the condition known as depression. As time goes on, the tag line could potentially become synonymous with elite athlete retirements also. Hill articulates the condition as, “it can definitely be described as a form of PTSD. How do you replace such an adrenalin rush, such euphoric experiences, and then go back to living a ‘normal’ life? That is a question that so many athletes have difficulty answering.”
Athletes are trained to never show pain and weakness, as this can be taken advantage of by their opposition. But once competition is over, athletes still have trouble breaking down those barriers when talking to mental health professionals. Hill is honest in his appraisal of mental health after competing professionally. “There is no easy way until you are able to let go and say, yes! I am not coping and need help. I have got to this point, but for me this is still an on-going challenge. It is more of a marathon than a sprint.”
His tip for other athletes out there? Find a source of motivation and exercise to help keep that part of your mindset active and to stay healthy. “I have switched to two wheels and have taken up cycling. Mainly charity rides with the occasional race. It definitely helps as it gives me an outlet and keeps me motivated to stay fit and healthy.”
Potentially an ambassador for future causes and helping former athletes transition from a professional to personal life, Hill would be the perfect role model. Organisations such as beyondblue and Movember Foundation are now focussing their efforts on professional athletes, with a large influx of mental health related incidences being reported in the media.
Hill continues to move in the right direction post competition, with his corporate role as National Sales Manager for ON AND OFF RUNNING, the Asia Pacific distributor for On running shoes Compressport among other brands. But the performance edge runs deep, as when asked how his role relates to his elite performance days, he responds with, “Sales is like a competition, right?”
Hill’s Top Tips to help you transition from a competitive lifestyle to a civilian lifestyle:
1. Take it a day at a time and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
2. It takes internal drive, discipline and determination to be a successful elite athlete, so no matter what you do post sporting career you have to have that continuity and the the ability to excel in your daily world.
3. You need to be able to let the past go in order to move forward. The faster you can achieve this the smoother the transition.
4. It’s ok to let down the barriers and speak with health professionals.
5. Be understanding towards your family and friends during life after sport, they’re on the journey with you.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.
By Liam Bromilow