By Nicole Lyn Pesce
The Golden Years can look pretty blue. Just ask Serena Williams.
The sports icon notes in her Vogue cover story that she’s “evolving away from tennis.” She doesn’t like the word “retirement,” she says, because “it doesn’t feel like a modern word to me.” And indeed, Williams, who turns 41 in September, isn’t giving up working for good; she plans to continue growing her venture-capital firm , Serena Ventures, as well as growing her family.
But she is leaving the tennis court after a legendary career that has included 23 Grand Slam singles titles — including the 2017 Australian Open while she was two months pregnant — and it sounds like she’s devastated by it.
“I’m going to be honest. There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams writes in Vogue’s September issue. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not.”
Williams writes that while she is ready for what’s next, the subject of stepping off the court still brings an “uncomfortable lump” in her throat, and she cries. Moving away from tennis is such a painful subject for her, in fact, that she’s only been able to discuss it with her therapist. It’s a “taboo topic” with her husband, entrepreneur and investor Alexis Ohanian.
“One thing I’m not going to do is sugarcoat this,” Williams writes. “I know that a lot of people are excited about and look forward to retiring, and I really wish I felt that way.”
But it’s important to note that Williams isn’t alone here. Many people approach retirement with mixed feelings that can include sadness, regret, disappointment, fear and anxiety — even if they don’t talk about it. In fact, almost one in three retirees develops symptoms of depression, according to a 2020 meta-analysis of 11 studies analyzing the prevalence of depression in retirement.
And retirement counselors and mental health experts told MarketWatch that it was refreshing to see Williams normalize the challenge of leaving a career that you loved, or that gave you a sense of identity for decades.
“Her feelings are very common. So many people have these feelings, but don’t share them, so for her to share this is extremely courageous,” said Dr. Leeja Carter, a sports psychologist and the executive director at the Coalition for Food and Health Equity in New Jersey. “Transitioning from your career can create all of the same feelings that Serena Williams is experiencing — sadness, but also some identity confusion. Who am I going to be now? Where do I go?”
Dr. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, has also helped patients whose identities are wrapped up in what they do for a living. “I’ve worked with a lot of business leaders who struggle with, ‘If I’m not the CEO anymore, who am I?’” he said. Or Shapiro recalled that one of his friends recently mourned that people don’t call him “doctor” now that he’s retired, and he doesn’t know who he is as “mister” instead of “doctor.”
“He was having a difficult time adjusting to a whole different life,” said Shapiro, author of “Finding Meaning, Facing Fears: Living Fully Twixt Midlife and Retirement.”
“So to the extent that your identity is wrapped up in ‘what I do’ — instead of ‘who I am’ in total — retirement is going to be incredibly difficult,” he added.
And exacerbating these questions of identity and purpose is the loneliness and lack of structure that retirement can bring, noted Dr. Mark Aoyagi, a professor and co-director of sports performance psychology at the University of Denver. A 2012 University of California, San Francisco study found 43% of older adults (over 60) felt lonely , even though only 18% actually lived alone. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the nation’s loneliness epidemic worse.
“It’s actually a high-risk time for suicide,” he told MarketWatch, explaining that feelings of hopelessness are one of the primary warning signs of suicidality. “And people who aren’t able to see a way to reconstruct their life separate from what they have been doing for so long can result in significant feelings of hopelessness.”
Note: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the free, confidential at 988. Other services include the (text HOME to 741741), the (press 1 after dialing the national Lifeline), the for LGBTQ youth (1-866-488-7386), the (877-565-8860) and the (call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746).
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, a GOAT (greatest of all time) in Williams’s league, has been candid about his own depression and thoughts of suicide after winning multiple Olympic medals. This is something Aoyagi said is commonly referred to as post-Olympic depression, or when that sense of purpose, and the structure of training, is suddenly just … over and done.