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…
Here are a series of case studies, with former players talking through their transition experiences…
The former Scotland back-row, 36, retired at the end of last season. He works as a wealth manager in Barclays’ North-East England office and is an RFU citing commissioner
“I played until 35, knew the end was nigh and prepared for it, so I was set up. Others get an injury and the next day have to find a job. Putting a little time and effort into the journey to get there makes a smooth transition.
“I’d always been interested in finance, but I’d gone from school into rugby and had no experience of any other job. At 31 I started a degree in business management and did work experience in different companies, trying different industries.
“At an IFA company (financial advisers), I worked in different offices – business development, compliance, investment. I enjoyed it and did my own IFA exams. Banking is a regulated industry so it’s good to get your ducks in a row.
“When I found out I wasn’t being kept on at Newcastle, I was looking for a job and Barclays were looking for someone. I’m a bit of a left-field hire but there are transferable skills. It’s a massive feather in your cap to have that drive to succeed.
“It’s a high-pressure environment and you’re constantly challenged. It’s been a steep learning curve but in rugby there are new rules and coaches coming in, you learn new skills and want to add worth, so it’s focusing on that.
“You’re quickly forgotten when you stop playing, so use your profile when you can. Get work experience and try different things so you can see what you like or what’s not for you, then look at the qualifications you need.”
The winger last played rugby in late 2016 and, after failing to recover from back surgery, retired in March 2018 aged just 25. He now runs his own business and is completing a Masters
“As soon as I found out the injury meant I’d be finishing, there was a snowball effect. My little one, Blake, was three months old, so I went into panic mode about supporting my family and paying the mortgage. It took over a year to sort my insurance so I was living off savings. I struggled mentally because of the massive shift in my life environment and my relationship with my partner broke down. Everything spiralled.
“A few months on from the injury, I was still under contract at the Ospreys and went to a talk the Juno Moneta Group gave about investment options and using capital to buy property. I’m not sure I’d have paid attention when I was playing as you’re engrossed in the day-to-day, but now I’d advise looking at a Plan B.
“The owner of the company, Louise O’Halloran, mentored me and she’s now my business partner in Walker Blake Construction. The business model is buying houses at auction, renovating them and building a portfolio for players so there’s rental income when they finish.
“I’m doing a Masters in strength and conditioning at Cardiff Met – I graduate in July – and I box in Bonymaen. After being competitive for so long, I needed to be involved in something like that and my coach is former world champion Enzo Maccarinelli. Now I’m full-time with the business it’s harder to find time to train, but I’m looking to fight more this season.
“I feel positive now but if this was a year or 16 months ago, it’d be completely different. To be brutally honest, the support you think will be there from the WRPA, agents and so on, isn’t. You soon realise it’s a business. It took a year to get out of that dark place but I’m going in the right direction now. Hard work and staying positive got me through it, and my little one was a driving force.”
A year after winning the Pro12 with Connacht, the prop called time on a decade-long professional career aged 32. He now has a furniture design business, RÓ Design
“I had a couple of bad injuries early in my career, doing my ACL twice, and I knew if the knee went again that was it, so I did different things while playing to try to prepare for after rugby. I finished my business degree, did a diploma in Irish, did a web design course…
“I had 12 good years at my home province, but I had a run of injuries in my last couple of seasons and I wasn’t able to enjoy it mentally because physically I wasn’t up to scratch. I had the chance to go to France but we were expecting our first baby and I felt it would be better to stay and make the transition.
“I grew up making stuff and as I got older I started making furniture. It’s something I’ve always been passionate about, but I was dubious as to whether there was a sustainable career in it. I spoke to a few people whose opinions I valued and they challenged me to give it a go.
“The business is still evolving and I’m a little cautious, but it’s going well and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a dream job to design and build furniture. I love the idea of something well made that will stay with a family for generations. That’s what I’d like my furniture to be known for: bespoke design and made to last.
“Regardless of how well prepared you are (for retirement), there’s existential angst. Being part of a professional sports team is a unique environment. You’re almost institutionalised. It’s a shock to the system and takes a bit of adjustment, but I’ve been lucky to have very supportive people around me.”
After retiring in May 2017 due to injury, the second-row worked for a telecoms company in Dublin. Now the 37-year-old lives in Newcastle and is a player development manager for the RPA
“It’s two years since I last played but it feels like yesterday. I find it hard going to games – I still think I can do it. It’s not easy. I started at Wasps from school and did 17 pre-seasons, so it’s ingrained in you as normal but it’s something very few lucky people get to do.
“A lot of people need to do two, three, four jobs to find what fits. You want to get that same feeling you got on a rugby pitch and make a difference for the team, but you’ve got to be prepared to start lower down. You can feel a bit of a passenger if you’re not adding value.
“I worked for a telecommunications company for seven months and it was a great organisation, but it’s important to find something you’re passionate about.
“My wife wanted to move back to Newcastle with our two girls and the RPA role came up with Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons. It was a lightbulb moment and I’m enjoying it. I can relate to the players; I know what they’re thinking and what they’re going through.
“I wish I’d done work experience when I was playing so that I was ahead of the curve when I stopped. I could have done so much more as you have so much time, whether to do a short course, a degree or work experience. I didn’t really see it when I was playing; I was immersed in the bubble. In my role now I drive things off the field – ‘dual career’ – so players are prepared when they do finish, whether through age, injury or not getting a contract.”
The 46-year-old spent a dozen years playing for England, in 15s and sevens. She hung up her boots nearly a decade ago and is now the RFU’s chief financial officer
“I joined KPMG after uni and was full-time for three years whilst I did my qualifications. As soon as I qualified, I went part-time so I could be the best player I could be. It was about earning enough money to live and play rugby; I was lucky KPMG enabled me to do that.
“As a player, I knew exactly why I was getting out of bed every day and my goal was to win a World Cup, so every decision I made I put into that context. Being an international sportsperson is an amazing thing to do, with a great sense of fulfilment, so I’m not surprised people feel lost. I certainly struggled with it.
“I think having something else (outside rugby) makes you a better player; the balance of something else to do makes a real difference. If you’re only a player, when you’re a broken player – I was injured a lot! – it can be difficult. I believe having challenging outside interests makes you a better player right now and a happier human being in the long run.
“We have long adult lives and the last thing you want is to get to 30-35, whatever retirement age is, and not know what to do next. The goal of winning a World Cup is brilliant but what’s your goal in ten or 20 years’ time? How do things fit into that?
“It’s easy when you’re in the middle of it to get lost in being a rugby player and not use spare time doing qualifications or work experience or a job. With the women’s contracts, there are chunks of time when players can be at uni or have a job for that reason.”
The 38-year-old won 46 caps for Wales and represented the 2009 Lions before retiring due to a shoulder injury in 2015. He now runs a construction company
“I would have liked a fairy-tale ending, walking around the field after my last game, clapping the crowd, but we’re not all Shane Williams! The first few months weren’t that hard, but after six months I was worrying financially. There was no salary coming in and I’d never earn what I did before. I’d left school at 15 and didn’t have any education qualifications.
“I was probably drinking too much and that didn’t help. I went to a sports psychologist to talk about retirement and other things that had happened in my personal life. It was tough, but it definitely helped to speak to them.
“I’d also stopped training and that had a big effect. All of my career I’d trained and the endorphins help, so I got back into it and that helped. I did a bit of personal training and tried out a few other different things. It takes time to find what you want to do. When you’re training, the last thing you want to do is go to college or do this or that – that’s what I thought anyway. But doing a couple of hours a week can let you set yourself up.
“I think there can be more support. I expected someone to speak to me about my options, but I finished on the Friday and never spoke to anyone from the WRPA again. It’s been four years now and I’ve set up a construction company – we get contractors and do project management. I’m loving it. I’m in a good place now.”
An openside who won 15 caps for England, the Wasp’s injury-interrupted career came to an end in 2012. These days the 34-year-old is a doctor
“I’d been struggling for around two-and-a-half years with injury. Having the decision to retire effectively made for me, there was a sense of relief because I’d never have made it myself – I’m too stubborn. Without sounding melodramatic, it was also like a bereavement because the thing I’d defined myself as for so long had vanished.
“I had a good three-month period after retirement when it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, then 16-18 months when my mood was fairly low. I don’t know if anything prepares you – I was ready and I wasn’t. At 24, I’d realised I might not always bounce back from injury and did an A Level evening class.
“At Wasps I kept gravitating to the medics and the physios who patched us back together. I was inspired by Jamie Roberts doing both rugby and medicine and was planning to do the same, then when the axe fell on rugby I started uni.
“I’d equate a week in rugby to a year in uni. The game is your exam, you’re tested on your preparation, you get immediate feedback on the scoreboard, the next day you start working to put right what went wrong and you have another crack the following weekend. In uni, you’re in lectures however many months a year, it all comes down to two days of exams and it’s another month or two until you get the results. The changing pace was difficult to deal with.
“I’ve been qualified as a doctor for nine months and get more fulfilment working than when I was a student. There’s more of a sense of purpose. Whilst my rugby career was not what I wanted it to be in the end, it was still pretty good and I got the opportunity to set something up for a long time afterwards. I don’t know how easy it would be to get into medicine if I was starting at 35 as opposed to 27-28.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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