Why do the greats come back? Part 2: Stephen Hendry

Snooker: Stephen Hendry backs himself to shine in ‘wild-card’ comebackLast week, Michael Phelps, now Stephen Hendry: two outstanding sportsmen have announced surprise comebacks at an age when most men are reading seed catalogues and pottering around their gardens. Why? The news of Phelps (who swims tonight, by the way) prompted me to blog an extract from my book Sport and Exercise Psychology: The Key Concepts, which is a sort of A-Z guide. For those of you who didn’t catch it, here’s the entry “Comebacks” again.

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The return of a once-retired athlete aiming to recapture his or her former position and status is, of course, a comeback. Recovery from long periods of incapacity caused by illness or injury sometimes warrant the term comeback, though it is usually reserved for the resumption of a sports career that was considered over. Comebacks are legion in sports and, while the aphorism ‘they never come back’ suggests that aging competitors’ attempts inevitably conclude in failure, several comebacks have been conspicuously successful.

Mario Lemieux came out of retirement in 2000 and, at the age of 35, resumed his garlanded career with Pittsburgh Penguins and played hockey with same kind of brilliance as he had in the first phase of his career. George Foreman returned to the ring in the 1990s after a 20-year break at 45 and enjoyed considerable success until retiring for good at 49. By contrast, Björn Borg dropped out of tennis at 26, when still a top five ranked player, only to come back ten years later. He suffered a series of ignominious defeats by modest players. George Best also retired in his twenties; this was the first of several ‘retirements,’ each followed by a comeback; the progressive decay of his once-formidable skill was evident in his every return to the soccer field. When he left soccer entirely, his progressive dependence on alcohol became life threatening.

Clearly every athlete takes risks when deciding to come back; the more prestigious the athlete, the greater the risk. For them, the possibility of a humbling is accentuated: witness the embarrassment suffered by multiple gold medalist Mark Spitz, his gray hair colored to conceal his age, but his physical decline painfully revealed in a sequence of defeats in the pool. Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics and worked as a television analyst at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The experience of watching others compete frustrated him so much that he made his unfortunate comeback several years later.

The motivation behind some comebacks may be obvious. Borg, for example, had become involved in disastrous business ventures and needed money. Best too was lured by the temptation of riches.  The majority of retirees need to work and are poorly prepared to do so, having spent fifteen or so years in competitive sports. Lacking preparation for any occupation outside sports, many return simply to make a living. But, in the case of successful athletes who clearly have wealth enough to sustain them through several lifetimes, the motivation is less certain.

Journalist Blake Morrison suggested an interesting possibility in speculating on the much-discussed comeback of Michael Jordan: ‘The obvious explanation is that he misses the buzz ­ the adrenalin and applause … when a man’s celebrity is based on something he no longer does, he can feel very strange about it – exiled from himself and unentitled’ [sic]. Jordan was 38 at the time of the conjecture about his return, older than most comebacking athletes. Morrison argued that many men (he did not mention women) venture toward some way of ‘confirming and vindicating’ themselves as they approach 40. Harley Davidson motorcycles have a large market comprising males of that age group.

The ‘midlife crisis’ supposedly accounts for many fortyish men embarking on unexpected and often dangerous pursuits, presumably as a way of endorsing their credentials as active and dynamic agents rather than listless, middle-aged residues of people whose vitality and youth have long gone.  For athletes, the predicament is arguably more acute: for a substantial part of their maturity they are engaged in pursuits that demand vitality and youth, as well as many other physical attributes. Their sense of self as well as their public persona is based not so much on wisdom, sagacity, insight  or soundness of judgement, but on performance. When they are no longer able to perform to appropriate levels, managers, coaches, critical fans and the media rudely remind them of this. There is no room for self-delusion in sports. Retirement may be the result of conscious decision, but that decision is usually affected by the judgement of others, or, in some cases, serious injuries.  Once the echoes of others’ criticisms have faded and the injuries have healed, fresh perspectives appear and the athlete may sense the chance of proving him- or herself all over again.

Ray Leonard’s comeback seem to fit into this model. Regarded as a suitable inheritor of Sugar Ray Robinson’s mantle, Leonard led a triumphant amateur and professional career, establishing himself as one of finest pound-for-pound boxers in history.  A detached retina forced him out of the sport. Surgery repaired the injury and Leonard plotted an outrageous comeback, moving up a weight class to middleweight to challenge — and beat —  Marvelous Marvin Hagler (who promptly retired himself and refused several lucrative offers to come back). Leonard’s critics were silenced as he regaining his finest form, making several successful defenses, at one point stepping up a further weight class. The present writer interviewed Leonard at his camp while he prepared for what was to be his final fight (a defeat to Terry Norris) and sought the sources of Leonard’s attachment with his sport. ‘This is the only place I feel who I really am,’ said Leonard. (Leonard actually made two comebacks, the first — prior to the Hagler fight — lasting only one fight.)

Sport was the context for establishing Leonard’s self-efficacy, for validating himself, both through public approval and intrinsic gratification: in short, he regarded himself as  quintessentially a fighter — all other aspects of his character were secondary.  Deprived of his ability to fight, Leonard believed he could no longer be who he truly was.  Like Lemieux, Foreman and several other athletes who came back after long, prosperous careers (Leonard had already earned an estimated $30 million when he first ‘retired’), Leonard returned to sport because he felt deprived.  Stripped of opportunities to perform to an audience, to demonstrate their worth and to draw acclaim, athletes lose a facility that has been with them for the majority of their adult lives and which actually forms part of their lives.

Other factors contributing toward the comeback derive from the sports socialization — the learning process through which athletes acquire particular values, ambitions and designs. Athletes are usually immersed in sports culture by the time they reach eleven; in many sports (such as gymnastics and tennis), competitors are training hard and cultivating ambitions from about the age of six (Chris Evert was one such athlete who did not come back and famously declared ‘there is life after tennis’). By the time any sports performer is 13, he or she will have started to formulate plans. As ambitions in sports take priority, so athletes discard other career aims and involve themselves in an environment in which  significant influences include coaches, managers, scouts and, perhaps, agents. These form a type of protective enclosure, shielding the athlete from the travail and irritation that affect most people — like procuring a mortgage, paying bills, investing for the future. Unless the athlete prolongs his or her involvement in sport after retirement (as a manager, or tv commentator, for instance), he or she is likely to lose the enclosure and become part of a different environment. Coming back may be a way of re-entering what was once a comfortable environment.

Those who populate the enclosure continually dispense advice and one of the first caveats a propective athlete hears is that a career in sport is relatively short. As Billie-Jean King once said: ‘When athletes reach their thirties … everybody keeps telling them they should quit. They start to think they are slowing down because everybody asks “are you slowing down?”’(King made a money-motivated comeback at 40 and made it to the Wimbledon singles semi-finals). In other words, athletes often retire prematurely because of mere convention and, when they sense that other, perhaps older athletes have resumed their careers, they are inspired to follow suit. Comebacking athletes that approach or even surpass their previous form provide living proof that the comeback trail is not always a dead-end.

Competitiveness also comes, or is least heightened, through socialization in sports and, once an active career is over, challenges disappear.  Sometimes, they are replaced by new challenges; but what greater challenge is there than to re-launch a sports career? Socialized into rising to meet challenges, no matter how awesome, a retired athlete may construe the comeback as the ultimate challenge.  This seems to account for the comeback of rower Steve Redgrave, who, in 1996, after winning his fourth Olympic gold, ordered the media: ‘Shoot me if I go near a boat again.’ Four years later, he returned to win a fifth gold medal.

Finally, we should also acknowledge the explanation of Matt Biondi, who retired from competitive swimming after the 1988 Olympics, having amassed six gold medals. ‘I realized that it was ridiculous to give it up because I still enjoyed it’ (he won two more golds and a silver in his comeback). Competitive sports are a way of earning a living for professional athletes, but the initial interest in the activity was intrinsic. It is at least possible that, despite the years of arduous training interspersed by injury, the joy of competition lingers long enough to motivate a comeback.

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