I have seen people, aged 60, finding their world coming apart once they retire. The day seems to be a continuous challenge to keep oneself active, to still remain important. It is not that they miss an active working life because that is what they were best at. They might have been better singers than architects, better painters than soldiers, but still they really missed their jobs once they retired. Just imagine what retirement means to sportsmen, keeping this thought in mind.
These retired sportsmen are young people, most of them in their 30’s. In our corporate world, people that age will still be young men with a lot of potential for growth. However, we aren’t that kind when we're talking of a sportsman in his 30’s. We refer to them as old, await their imminent retirement. And retirement would mean that they give up, unlike us, the one thing that they are best at. For most of them, that is the only thing that they can competently do, something that has been part of their lives once they crossed infancy.
Of all things that we comprehend when we watch sport, there are some things that we can never associate with as viewers. We can comprehend skill, strength perhaps, for that can be seen. We can never comprehend physical pain, and emotion. When our favourite sportsmen retire, we are dejected, but we learn to move on, find other sportsmen to idolize. But can we ever imagine what goes through the mind of a sportsman who gives up everything that mattered to him?
Once they leave, over a beer or a cup of tea we wonder if that chap had one more season left in him. For the great ones, we usually ask why they have retired and wonder if he can just come back once. Can he, just once more, drive through the covers? Can he, just once, curl in the free kick into the net? Can he, just once, pull that stunning overtake?
Over time, I have realized that the retired sportsman thinks of this every waking hour of his life. Perhaps, he sleeps just because he can dream of that comeback. Some of them then start to work on the comeback after retirement. One does not know how differently they train, but probably they put in harder yards to get an obstinate ‘older’ body back into competitive shape. And then, some of them come back.
Why do they come back? There is a reputation that they would put on the line, they would constantly be reminded of the fact that they already know – that they are past their peak. They might reduce themselves from being champions to also-rans in their second avatar as a competitive sportsman. These are arguments followers of sport would put across, and rightly so.
But the sportsman is not programmed to think like this. Their thought process is driven by a will to win, to excel. They have spent a lifetime thumbing opponents in the nose, scrambled to emerge victorious, and trained to become the best in the world. Perhaps that is why they hold on to their dreams. Body and mind are divorced, but they let their minds keep custody of their dreams. Body says – ‘can’t do it’, mind says – ‘give it a shot’. They have lived a life living their dreams, and excelled at it, probably they need to hold on to that dream a little longer and thus they come back from retirement to active sport.
This could be the reason why Michael Jordan came back, or why Michael Schumacher is racing, or why Lance Armstrong would compete in the Tour De France, or why Warne and Ganguly and Gilly are playing one last IPL.
Or perhaps, none of this is true. Perhaps they never come back to hold on. Perhaps they come back one last time to say goodbye. When they first retired, they said their goodbyes to their fans. When they come back after retirement, maybe that journey is just for them, to marry mind and body and get them in agreement – an agreement to say goodbye to their dreams for ever.