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In praise of quantitative methods: How numbers can change culture

This is an excerpt from Critical Essays in Applied Sport Psychology by David Gilbourne & Mark Andersen.

The story we would like to tell now is a quantitative one. It is about how numbers and people in power helped initiate profound cultural changes that affected an exploited, underserved, and vulnerable group of athletes. It is about thoroughbred horse racing, jockeys, and the lives of athletes after retirement (Speed, 2007). Much credit must be given to the power brokers; they wanted change, and they wanted the numbers to quantify the problems within the culture (e.g., percentage of jockeys experiencing postcareer health problems). Those numbers told the power brokers stories, many of which were disturbing, in a language they understood.

Background: The Sport

The sport of thoroughbred (flat race) horse racing has had a long association with the Australian people, nowhere more so than in the state of Victoria. Throughout Australia, horse racing is conducted year round; there is no off-season respite period. During the 1999-2000 season (the period during which the research was conducted), Victoria's racing industry hosted 578 metropolitan and provisional (rural) race meetings covering 360 days of the year. Horse racing is also one of Victoria's largest financial industries, and the Victorian Racing Club contributes an annual provision to the government of more than $140 million in taxes from wagering and generates many hundreds of million dollars for the state's economy (Racing Victoria Ltd., 2001).

Jockeys come from a variety of backgrounds. A jockey is characteristically small in stature and typically leaves school at around 14 or 15 years of age after completing only basic secondary education requirements. Traditionally, jockeys have family connections to the racing industry (e.g., a horse-owning family) or are the sons and daughters of jockeys. Most are motivated by their love of horses and riding, though there is a growing trend of new recruits from outside the racing community being drawn to riding careers by the perceived glamour of the jockey's life, the media exposure afforded to the sport, and the (perceived) opportunity of substantial financial rewards for success.

In reality, the careers of the professional jockeys are usually far from glamorous, and for the majority the financial rewards are modest at best. It is a career of long hours, strict discipline, and constant high risk to personal health. Every day, jockeys face the demands to maintain low weight and high fitness, and every ride (training horses in practice on the track and racing) entails the risk of career-ending injury, severe disability, and even death. Retirement may come at any time and without warning. Jockeys who are fortunate enough to have long careers are likely to contend with deteriorated physical condition upon retirement due to the stringent demands they must meet to sustain their sport involvement.

Racing is life for many jockeys and has been since their early teenage years. The aim of the research we describe in this chapter was to determine how jockeys cope with retirement from the sport and what can be done to make life after riding more meaningful and manageable. Anecdotal reports have suggested that although some top jockeys have access to professional services and support networks and retire from riding to secure home and employment bases, there are also many who do not, sometimes with tragic consequences. In the 18 months preceding the research, three retired jockeys had taken their own lives. All three were young men: two in their 30s, the other in his 50s. Although the full range of their reasons for choosing to end their lives will probably never be known, considerable speculation in the industry and among friends pointed to an inability to cope with the challenges they faced after retiring from riding, coupled with a lack of support networks. These tragic events shocked the power brokers in the industry and were part of the reason for conducting the research.

The Research

The research was developed in response to a call by the state minister for racing for an investigation into the welfare of retired jockeys so as to identify strategies for the government and the racing industry to provide better options for jockeys when they leave their riding careers. The investigation was part of a comprehensive series of four studies, but for this chapter we will focus on (a) quantification of the range of situational and personal experiences of retired jockeys as they relate to retirement from racing, (b) examination of the perceptions and attitudes of jockeys currently engaged in the sport toward retirement and available support services, (c) current trends and issues in the retirement of jockeys in Victoria, Australia, from the perspectives of both retired and current jockeys, and (d) retirement support services and strategies made available to jockeys by racing bodies in Victoria.

Participants were former jockeys (n = 72) who had retired from racing careers during the past 10 years and current jockeys who were racing in Victoria at the time of the research, under either full license (n = 82) or apprenticeship (n = 22). All participants were mailed a questionnaire designed specifically for the study. In addition, five of the former jockeys and five of the full-time licensed jockeys who returned completed questionnaires also participated in face-to-face interviews with a member of the research team.

The questionnaires were tailored individually for the three participant groups (former jockeys, licensed jockeys, and apprentices). All questionnaires contained items relating to participants' demographic details and racing careers (e.g. commencement age, duration), recent financial and employment circumstances, and retirement planning. The questionnaires also provided an opportunity for participants to comment on what they considered to be the most important issues that needed to be addressed by the Victorian racing industry and on specific strategies and support services to assist jockeys in preparing for, and coping with, retirement. The retired jockeys' questionnaire contained additional items relating to retirement from racing, (e.g., reasons for retirement), problems experienced since retiring (e.g., financial, employment, educational, social, health-related), and awareness and use of resources provided by the racing industry and other parties to assist them in their adjustments to retirement. The licensed and apprentice jockeys' questionnaires included specific items that addressed problem areas experienced by jockeys during their racing careers and their perceptions of, and attitudes toward, retirement from racing. See figure 3.1 for an example of questionnaire items that address psychological and physical health concerns.

The interviews with 10 former and current jockeys who completed the survey followed the same lines of inquiry. The themes that emerged from the interviews were quantified (e.g., 90 percent of interviewees expressed concern about future financial circumstances), and they corroborated the questionnaire data and provided quotes for media and industry promotions. These quantified qualitative data constituted only a small portion of the overall research results.

More Excerpts From Critical Essays in Applied Sport Psychology