Why sportspersons retire at their peak

I have often wondered why athletes like to retire at the top of their game. It takes years for them to get to the top. Given that is true, why do they wish to leave the moment they hit the topmost point? Wouldn’t it benefit them, their colleagues, their clubs or their countries if they stuck around a little longer? Sure, they might slide down from their peak, but they would still be way better than their replacements.

At most farewell speeches, we hear that they wish to “make way for the younger generation”. But this is ironical, because these same folks would not did not dream of retiring as they were still striving to reach their peak. In other words, they retire precisely in the moment that they are most useful for their teams, even as they stayed on in while performing at a lower level.

The real reasons are embedded in how we perceive our lives. The psychologist Ed Diener a thought experiment with a fictitious character called Jen who lives a fulfilling life, with a successful career and several happy moments to the age of 60. Jen never married and has no children. Now here we are faced with two versions of how her story ends: first, at the age of 60, Jen meets with a car accident that ends her life instantly and painlessly. Second, Jen lives for five more years that were pleasant, but not as happy or successful as her 60 years in the past. She then dies in a car crash at the age of 65. Which of the two lives is more desirable?

In Diener’s study, people overwhelmingly rated the first alternative as better. This is an interesting choice, because the second alternative clearly has everything the first one does, and more. But more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to how we evaluate our lives or our legacies. Instead, we attach more importance to the peak and the end. Kahneman calls this the “peak-end rule”. Further, we are indifferent to the 5 extra years that a person gains while not at their peak. He calls this phenomenon “duration neglect”.

Every human being’s evaluation of their lives is a narrative in which they are the heroes. These narratives are influenced by the peak-end rule and duration neglect. The real reason sportspersons retire at the top is because their legacy is significantly better that way. Due to duration neglect, they do no prolong their careers. And when they retire or eventually pass away, their tributes and obituaries often point to their most glorious moments.

“He shall be always remembered for that six that won India the cricket world-cup.”

“They don’t care for the years of sweat and toil I have poured into this company.”

These principles apply more broadly outside the sporting world. In effect, people are likely to neglect how long we associate with them, instead remembering us for either the peak moments or for how things ended with us. It pays to attend to those moments more carefully.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

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