x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Schumacher returns: but what drives a comeback effort?

Fame, competition and camaraderie are just a few of the things a retired athlete craves, leading some to take another shot at their sport.

Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One world champion, is the latest sportsman to make a comeback from retirement.
Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One world champion, is the latest sportsman to make a comeback from retirement.

Lance Armstrong, the greatest Tour de France cyclist of all time, once said that pain is temporary, but quitting lasts forever. However, as the 38-year-old, seven-time tour winner proved when he made his comeback to professional cycling after a three-year absence, quitting may last forever, but retirement is very much temporary.

The seven-times Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher is the latest of dozens of "retired" sportsmen and women to add weight to Armstrong's comments. On Wednesday, Schumacher announced his return to motor racing after signing a contract for the Mercedes team. The German, who will be 41 on January 3, said as he was introduced at the Mercedes factory in Brackley, Northamptonshire, that, after three years on the sidelines, he had the "energy back" and was "ready for some serious stuff".

Complex psychological factors may lie behind the German's decision to put his life on the line in a high adrenaline sport that puts the body through extreme physical exertion. Many crave a return to the fame, competitiveness, camaraderie and pure adrenaline rush they experienced during their professional careers, psychologists say. Others feel they have unfinished business and can hit the highs they missed out on earlier. Some simply crave one last pay cheque.

Although Schumacher will reportedly earn £6.2 million (Dh36m) for a three-year contract, money is surely not an issue for one of the world's most successful sportsmen. So why the comeback? In Schumacher's case, it seems it was simply a bid to relive the camaraderie of a glorious period of his sporting life. At Mercedes he will join forces with the team principal, Ross Brawn, who masterminded all seven of Schumacher's titles, the first two with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 and the subsequent five with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004.

"The only reason I came back was because of old friends at Mercedes," said Schumacher. "I spent years trying to get into F1 with Mercedes but it wasn't possible before." With the next F1 season starting in March, the world will soon see whether Schumacher's name will be added to the scrap heap of history's inglorious comebacks, or whether he will be one of several other former stars to add to an already bulging trophy cabinet.

An Olympic gold medallist at the age of 19, George Foreman became world heavyweight champion five years later when he defeated Joe Frazier by a knockout in Kingston, Jamaica. But he lost his belt to Muhammad Ali in the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle". Then, in 1977, after victory in a rematch with Frazier and a loss in a gruelling 12-round slog with Jimmy Young, Big George became a born-again Christian and dedicated the next decade of his life to Christianity.

He shocked the boxing world when he re-laced his gloves in 1988 at 38. As he revealed in his autobiography, God in My Corner: A Spiritual Memoir, he was motivated partly to prove that age is not a barrier to greatness and partly by a desire to regain his lost riches. He and his family were barely getting by financially because of his previous bad investments, he said. His bank balance looked much healthier in 1994 when, after flooring Michael Moorer with a knockout blow, he recaptured the title he lost to Ali 20 years earlier. Aged 45, Foreman was the oldest fighter ever to win the world heavyweight crown.

Foreman's remarkable victory is not the only example of sportsmen and women recapturing their former triumphs. In Schumacher's sport, the Austrian Niki Lauda came out of a two-year retirement in 1982 to race for McLaren. Lauda, 33 at the time, won a third world title in 1984. Martina Navratilova completed a successful return to the tennis court six years after ending a glittering career in 1994 at age 38. Playing in the doubles game, she won three more Grand Slam titles, the last of which she wrapped up weeks before turning 50.

The British ice-skating duo Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean etched themselves into Olympic folklore when they teamed up to win Olympic bronze at the Lillehammer Games in 1994, 10 years after their performance to Ravel's Bolero had earned them gold in Sarajevo. But sporting comebacks are rarely so successful. The mind can often convince the body that it is able to perform at its previous levels, overcoming fears over the very realistic possibility of failure and lost self-esteem, says Dr Fadwa al Mughairbi, the head of UAE University's psychology department. It is best to retire at the top with your reputation still intact rather than flirt with the slippery slope, she says.

Convincing athletes that they have no more to offer a sport is easier said than done. Many leave their profession only when a bad injury or series of poor performance convinces them that the glory days are over. The American basketball player Michael Jordan cited the death of his father as the main reason for leaving NBA basketball in 1993. After 17 months as a minor-league baseball player, he returned to the court in 1995 for a second stint with the Chicago Bulls, in which he won three NBA titles.

When he announced in 1999 that he was retiring for the second time, he said he was 99.9 per cent sure he was not coming back. But, still convinced that he could compete at the highest level, Jordan made his return to the professional game with the Washington Wizards in 2001, the year he celebrated his 40th birthday. After two years of frustration at his team's lack of success and his own injury problems, Jordan eventually quit the sport for good.

Jordan made his second comeback despite having achieved every possible honour earlier in his career. For less successful athletes, a sense of having unfinished business to deal with can compel them to return. "Many feel that they haven't gone out at the top of their profession and think they can do something slightly different that will make the difference and they can go out on a high," says Professor Ian Maynard, the director of the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University.

"There are lots of conflicting outcomes of these comebacks and, unfortunately, most tend to end in tears. In most comebacks, Father Time has caught up with them and things don't work well as they used to." Bjorn Borg stunned the sporting world when he retired in his mid-20s after winning six French Open titles and five Wimbledon crowns. His comeback in the early 1990s was a complete contrast to his early career. Choosing to play with his trademark wooden racquet, he failed to win another match in 10 tournaments before quitting for good in 1993.

Ali retired from the ring after regaining his world title from Leon Spinks on September 15, 1978. After two years on the sidelines, he announced his comeback at 39, but was badly beaten by the world champion Larry Holmes in 1981. The key to successfully quitting a sport is correct planning, something athletes rarely do, psychologists say. "When I try to transition people out of sport, there'll be two years of thinking that's gone into it, where they take on extra training or skills to give themselves a form of income and some goals in life," said Prof Maynard.

"They are often very highly goal-orientated people and suddenly they've got no targets left in their life. If people have planned their retirement and have realistic targets and things to be doing, they would often not have the need for a comeback." Those who simply cannot cope without the thrill of competitive sport and the feel-good endorphins that are released into the brain during physical exercise should modify their performance goals.

But, unfortunately for the comeback kids, living up to personal goals can be far simpler than matching the public's expectations of a sporting great. For Schumacher, the most successful F1 driver of all time and arguably the most talented, these expectations could not be higher. rditcham@thenational.ae