Great athletes often come back to avoid regrets

Hindustan Times – May 18, 2011 – Rohit Bhaskar – Sportsmen very rarely, if ever, have a fairytale ending. Basketball’s greatest wizard Michael Jordan ended his career as a wizard, literally. Having popularised the sport with his gravity-defying feats for Chicago Bulls, he made a comeback with Washington Wizards that ended in the most unceremonious way possible.

Another Michael, who was arguably the greatest proponent of his sport, Schumacher, made a comeback to the fast lane last year only to see the world pass him by!

When former India captain Sourav Ganguly announced his comeback with the Pune Warriors, everyone had a take on why he returned; from wanting to prove a point to Kolkata Knight Riders owner Shah Rukh Khan to getting his competitive juices flowing again.

While Ganguly alone would know the real reasons behind his return, HT talks to noted sports psychologist John F Murray on why former greats just can’t seem to let go, and why, more often than not, the results don’t go their way.

Are even the greatest athletes the last to realise their waning powers?

Absolutely. Even when an athlete is far beyond the physical possibility of a comeback, his or her mind often holds that extremely rare possibility as a probability only requiring true effort and a new plan. The demands of confidence in competition explains this in part, as even an athlete one month from retirement goes into matches still believing that he or she can do it better than ever. I think this is all part of human nature. The experienced mind in sports is even better at denying reality and creating an illusion of unlimited strength and capability.

Why do so many athletes make a comeback after retiring?

Retiring is like a first death for most athletes. It is almost impossible to find the same thrill as on a match day, and like a war veteran at a military reunion, there are no finer hours than those that were spent in battle for a worthy mission. A top athlete’s entire life is sacrificed to be able to play a pro sport. When it ends, there is still more than half a life to live but with a Grand Canyon of meaningful activity missing… hence the comeback.

Many of these comebacks don’t end with the desired results. Why?

The reasons for the retirement in the first place were so real and pervasive and still remain despite all passion and good intention. Seeing one’s glory diminished in the second go-round is just a further reminder to the athlete that it’s time to move on. But maybe this comeback attempt serves a purpose in terms of final closure so that there are no later regrets that one stopped too soon.

I hope you enjoyed this journey into the world of sports psychology.