In May 2021, two days after celebrating her 22nd birthday with family and friends our daughter had returned to centralised GB training. The pre-Olympic selection phase was approaching, physical testing was ramping up, along with heightened pressure and scrutiny. It was tough and all-consuming.
Then by 11.00am on the Tuesday of that week it was all over. She was called into the coach’s office to be told she was no longer needed in the squad, and she was sent home. Quite simply, they liked the look of other players more, budgets were tight and there was no room for maybes.
There was no opportunity to prepare for an end that came with no warning. It was traumatising for her as a player. Her sporting dreams and hopes for her future were shattered in a matter of minutes. As her parents, who had invested in her journey through school, club, university, national squads and had watched every one of her 20 senior international caps, it was the toughest test of our emotional strength as we grappled to find the right words and actions to support her.
Roll forward to 2023, she now has a successful career at JP Morgan in London. She is happier and healthier than she has ever been. She still plays hockey for her club, coaches regularly and received the ‘Most Improved Player’ award in the year after she left the GB Programme. She makes time for a large and varied group of friends and even has time to date. She feels valued and appreciated by all those around her.
What more could a parent ask for?
But what happened in-between?
There was certainly a lot of messy bits, but having had some space to reflect on the things we learnt, here are my top 10 tips for parents to support an athlete who is suddenly dropped and needs to transition into the real world.
- Prepare for the end BEFORE it’s the end.
Encourage your child to take every opportunity to figure out who they are outside of sport, whilst they are still playing. They need to test out some stuff and work out what they like or don’t like so they develop a sense of where their future career direction after sport might lead. It sounds counter-intuitive to suggest this as a parent when your child has to be 100% committed to their sporting goals, but it is essential.
Unless they are fully committed to staying in their sport in some capacity apart from playing, when the end comes your child will need to fall back on the relationships they have built and experiences they have had outside of sport. If they don’t have any it’s going to be tough to start from scratch at a point when they have lost their sporting identity and are at their lowest. So champion and develop the whole child and not just the sports player, because actually no one else around them in their world is really interested in that apart from you.
In practical terms for us this meant fighting our daughter’s corner to ensure she could attend those rites of passage events alongside her peers, supporting her to give back to the sport by sharing her story and mentoring others, facilitating networking conversations, using our connections to help her find short bursts of work experience in different environments and never letting her consider giving up on her academic potential. By optimising her skill sets in all other aspects of her life she would be able to maximise her opportunities later on.
- Be their safe space
When the end comes unexpectedly letting go of the sporting dream is like a bereavement. The emotions come tumbling in with the same intensity; not necessarily in any order – shock, anger, regret, fear of the future, frustration, resentment, depression and intense sadness.
We had to fight hard not to give in to our natural instincts to want to take the pain away by distracting or just ignoring the feelings out of her, as it was so upsetting for us too. But we knew when feelings are suppressed they do not disappear; they merely go into hiding where they fester and cause trouble later in life.
We were the only place our daughter could show up as her raw true self with no filters. With everyone and everywhere else she had to be brave. So put your hard hat on, get the tissues out and let them cry and rant and rave with you. Don’t try and make it better or play down the emotion, just acknowledge how hard it must be to be them and let them feel heard. Validate their emotions. Also, accept that alongside the science of selection and performance chance and luck play their part and sometimes sport just doesn’t feel fair.
- Call in the cavalry
When the chips are down you need people around you who can shed sunshine and offer light relief in the toughest of times. We were blessed to spend time with our other daughter immediately after the news hit. She was like a breath of fresh air, had never really understood what all the fuss with sport was all about and offered just the sort of perspective we all needed. Sport had stolen her sister and she was very much looking forward to having her back and seeing her have some fun. Within a matter of hours the two of them were laughing and crying all at the same time. Whoever your cavalry are, call them in.
- Allow them time to grieve and process.
They need space to sit with their feelings and emotions and this must be the focus. Don’t interrogate – you may want to understand all the issues, but they may not be ready to talk yet. They may never be. Let them set the pace and the agenda. Be prepared to cover the same ground a lot, as every time you do they will get closer to accepting and acknowledging the enormity of what has happened. This ultimately leads to them having space to process, move on and work out their next steps.
There is no formula or script about what to say or do. This is the time to use your intuition as a parent. Back off when you feel you should, be present when you feel you should. Remind them constantly how proud you are of what they have achieved and that you don’t love them any less because their elite sporting journey has ended. Their feelings are real and understandable. But they will pass.
- Show up as parents in a way that is useful!
Remember we cannot change what has happened, we can only change how we respond to the situation. Being as devastated as they are will not help. Taking it personally will not help. It is very unlikely anything you could have done or said would have changed anything. Letting this trigger you about failures in your own past will not help. This is your stuff and not their stuff. It will just add to their burden.
So focus on the things you can control, rather than the things you can’t; this stops everything feeling so overwhelming. As a practical example we agreed a plan to communicate the news to all friends and family. We also chose to message the parents on the team that we knew well rather than allow the news to seep out. We told them the facts, thanked them for their friendship and wished the team success for the future. We explained we had no regrets as a family and thanked them for the experiences we had shared. We set the tone and didn’t need to face any awkward conversations as we had broken the ice.
- Encourage them to get closure
Walking away from the thing they love is the hardest thing, but leaving with things unsaid is worse and will prevent your child from moving on.
Saying an appropriate goodbye when the time is right is vital. By ‘appropriate’ I mean a good and positive goodbye to support staff, teammates, and coaches. To do this with grace and humility was testament to our daughter’s personality and bravery. She held her head high and showed no sign of bitterness. We could not have been more proud.
Once the dust settled and she could think with clarity it was also important for her to take the opportunity to say her piece to her coaches and tell them truthfully what had worked and not worked for her whilst she had been part of the squad. It wasn’t going to change their decision, but she felt strongly about certain issues and she felt better for having voiced her views.
- Accept that moving to the next chapter is not straight forward
Every set back is a growing opportunity, but as parents we cannot say this too soon. Change rarely happens in one big shift so we need to be patient. For elite athletes it is particularly hard as they have had to develop deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and strict routines and rituals to survive at the top. It will take a while to unpick this focus and to open up their mind to new ways of thinking.
It may take an ongoing cycle of disorientation, reflection, experimenting with new ideas, practice, taking stock, iterating, then giving it another go before their updated version of themselves takes shape. What is important is that they embrace the opportunity to figure out who they are outside of sport and as parents we support them on this voyage of discovery. There is no magic solution or formula that works for everyone.
They may not know what they want yet but trying something will help them figure things out, be it part time work, voluntary work, a short course or work experience; athletes need some sort of a routine, otherwise they just feel unhinged. It doesn’t have to be all encompassing, but something alongside the processing of the pain will help normalise things and set them on the path of discovering what they actually want to do longer term.
- Encourage them to enjoy being in control of their own destiny
Taking an immediate extended break and travelling abroad would have been an easy option for our daughter to take, but she said she felt like this would be ‘running away’. How wise she was. She elected to process and think about her future first, rather than put her future on hold.
By her own admission her personal development had been exponential since leaving the confines of the GB programme and we observed and supported her taking full control of her life. She had never felt this as an athlete and she began to feel empowered and excited to make plans that no one else could take away from her.
- Focus on the learnings, rather than what they have lost
Top companies love athletes that are transitioning as they are strong, ambitious, hardworking, determined and resilient individuals. All the qualities companies are looking for to build an agile and productive workforce.
As a family we soon recognised just how many skills our daughter had honed on her sporting journey that could transfer into the workplace. The more we all practiced using this sort of language the more her self-esteem grew. It wasn’t a surprise to hear she was performing well in interviews and most significantly she was doing it all without us. It was time for us to take a big step back and leave her to get on with her life.
- Regret nothing
I now understand it isn’t the medals or accolades she won that counts, it’s the stories, the life lessons, the fun, the joy, the pain and the memories we shared that matters most. We are closer and more resilient as a family for having been on this journey together and we have all learnt a lot about ourselves.
Sport is a privilege. Our daughter is still playing, we are still watching, and we are very grateful for that opportunity.
Stephanie Burge is an ICF Accredited Life Coach who runs her own private coaching practice, Lemon Zest Coaching. She is also an Independent Consultant at ThirdEYE International Sports Consultancy where she collaborates with parents, athletes, sports clubs and communities using her lived experience as a parent of a GB athlete. She talks about strategies to develop the whole person both on and off the pitch to optimise playing potential, without compromising their ability to become happy, healthy well-rounded individuals, ready to maximise their opportunities after their sporting career has ended.
Esme Burge is a former full-time England and GB Hockey Player with a first-class honours degree in Psychology from the University of Nottingham. She was the BUCS female athlete of the year in 2020 and was a member of the British Universities and Colleges Sports Advisory Group. She was recruited by J.P.Morgan via their Veteran & Athlete Transition Programme. She currently plays Premier League Hockey for Hampstead and Westminster where she also coaches.