This summer many pro players put away their boots for the last time, but retirement can be challenging. We report on the trials of transition…
A tale of two interviews. In the first, an impressive teenager is not only honest in talking about his mental health struggles but mentions undertaking a butchery course and how he’d like to go into the restaurant industry once his rugby days are done. In the second, a player a decade older says he is purely focused on rugby, with spare time spent going for coffee or walking the dog.
In this sport, the second interview is by far the more common (although playing computer games is probably the most prevalent pastime) – and that is hugely worrying. A professional rugby career has a finite lifespan. Heard the one about the 55-year-old player in the Top 14? No. Exactly.
And given the physical toll the game can take on the body, more players are having their time on the pitch cut short by injury. Rarely a week goes by without a press release dropping into the Rugby World inbox about another retirement on medical advice, and the age of those players appears to be getting steadily younger. Playing until your mid-30s is now considered an achievement.
So when you contemplate the fact that players will spend more of their life as a former professional player than a current one and that 95% of retired players need a second career, why are so many not giving their future much thought?
In speaking to a number of former pros for this feature, it is clear many players feel they need that narrow focus on rugby to achieve all they want in sport. Yet there is also an argument that having interests away from the game can make you a more rounded person and a more successful player. Saracens actively encourage players to pursue things outside of their rugby habitat – and they are European champions.
Another common theme is how those players who had not given their future much thought now wish they had prepared better so their transitions – particularly those that are unplanned and caused by injury – had been smoother. After all, there are enough challenges in adapting to life after rugby that knowing how you’ll support yourself (and your family) financially once the rugby pay cheques stop can help relieve some of the stress.
A recent RPA survey of retired players illustrated how hard the transition can be, with 52% not feeling in control of their lives two years after they retire, 62% experiencing some sort of mental health issue and nearly 50% having financial difficulty in the first five years.
It can sound extreme to say players are almost institutionalised in the rugby environment, but so much is regimented that when they retire they can struggle to adapt. As former Ireland lock Mike McCarthy says: “You’re told where to be, what to wear, have your food prepared… there’s nothing quite like it. So it can be a shock to the system when you come out and there’s a loss of identity.”
That reverts back to the former point of if your sole focus is rugby, when that is gone – whether due to age, injury or not being offered a contract – there can be a huge void. Who are you without rugby? Will you get a job you enjoy as much? Can you find a sense of purpose? How do you replicate the camaraderie?
The mental health challenges of retirement have become more widely reported in recent years, yet there are still tragedies like the suicide of former Australia lock Dan Vickerman in 2017. Carl Hayman, the former All Black prop who was recently convicted of domestic violence in France, has admitted to having a drink problem once his professional playing career ended.
There is clearly still work to do in that mental health conversation and former Osprey Ben John has started a social media project in that sphere. The 28-year-old called time on his playing career at the start of this year due to concussion and is now a personal trainer in London. His Let’s Talk Tuesdays project was inspired by the Strong Not Silent campaign run by the Manor gym where he works. He’s asked various people to talk through their transitions and shares their stories on Instagram.
“Hopefully it will show people what they can do to help that process,” says John. “I’ve had people from different sports and it can have the same impact whether a team or individual sport. You can’t prepare for how you’ll feel emotionally, but you can prepare to try to make a smooth transition work-wise.”
There is support available to help pro players get ready for their post-rugby careers. The Welsh Rugby Players’ Association (WRPA) helped John gain his personal training qualification and he is likely to do his Level Three rugby coaching course through them too. The RPA and Rugby Players Ireland (RPI) do the same in terms of suggesting courses, arranging work experience and so on. It’s actually mandatory for academy players in the Gallagher Premiership to do 12 hours’ work a month towards a ‘dual career’, be that education, trade courses or work experience.
The RPA also now have a dedicated transition manager in Josh Frape, who had to retire aged 25 due to injury and had previously been working as a player development manager. He wants players to take a positive approach.
“It’s about how you think about going forward,” says Frape. “I know people who’ve not transitioned successfully who go into it thinking negatively. There will always be ups and downs but you need to think positively. It’s funny how many players ten years after they’ve retired are ‘ex-professional rugby players’. If you’re able to leave that behind and look forward to what’s coming you can enjoy it.
“Guys wouldn’t go into a game without analysing the opposition; you do that so you have a chance of winning the game. It’s the same with your career; if you explore it you’ll be in a better position.”
Deirdre Lyons, who is head of the RPI’s player development programme, recognises the delicate balance between encouraging players to prepare for the future without being fatalistic about their playing careers. She says: “If you’re an academy player aged 18, talking about transitioning or leaving the game could be viewed as a negative message. If you talk about how this could help your game, then you’re more likely to get a positive response. We’ve tried to change the focus of it to how developing while you’re playing helps you become better players and better people.”
When looking at transition, the support offered has to be geared towards the individual. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach because everyone can react differently to retirement. Some relish getting away from the structure of pro sport; others pine for it. Thinking of the individual is also crucial when looking at what might be their second career. After all, only a small number can stay in rugby as a coach or media pundit.
“If you know who you are, your skills, values and motivators, you’re more likely to make better decisions,” says Lyons. “You don’t have to take the first job offer that comes your way; take time to look at different industries and explore what you want to do.”
Both the RPA and RPI ask former pros to share their experiences with current players to get that message across about preparing for the future. Yet while 99% of retired players believe current pros should be offered support with transition according to the RPA survey, the onus is on those players to use the support that is available and plan ahead.
Ronan Loughney, ex-Connacht, says: “Although I was good at engaging with Deirdre, I could have done more. She has the skills to help you figure out what you want to do. We’re in a privileged position to have people to help us get set for after rugby; it’s an unbelievable resource and when I was at Connacht guys weren’t availing of it enough.”
It’s a thought echoed by Tom Rees, who had to retire due to injury and retrained as a doctor. “I don’t know if I’m now a grumpy old man but I think the ultimate responsibility rests with the player. It’s not fair to turn around to a club and say, ‘You’ve not provided me with that’. You can’t expect them to sort everything afterwards.
“When I started in 2003, Rob Smith at Wasps explained signing an academy contract meant nothing more than you’d be here for a year and everything after that was unknown. The PRA, as it was then, said, ‘Players retire every year so think about what your plans are’.
“Those messages have been around for so long and ultimately players have to take responsibility. At 20 you feel indestructible and on top of the world; you’re getting paid to do what you love, but it is definitely of value to start looking at life after rugby.”
The quote ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ is a fitting conclusion and it’s a message Lyons emphasises. “Players who know they’re finishing are able to cope better than players who are released or have to retire through injury. And players who are prepared transition better than if unprepared. So the best transition is planned and prepared.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.
Click to page two to read a series of case studies…