I am regularly asked by sportsmen and women how I found my transition from professional sport into the business world?
I was fortunate in comparison to many other professional rugby players in that I chose to leave the professional game on my own terms. I had already accepted a training contract in 2012 so knew that the 2012 / 13 season at Doncaster Knights would be my last. Whilst for anyone from the outside looking in, leaving professional sport to then take up a qualified career in professional services is pretty much “life after rugby” nailed. I took a lot of inspiration in deciding to make my own transition from the late David Tait whom I had come up the junior ranks with. Whilst David and I enjoyed success on the field together, winning the U19’s Six Nations grand slam with England in 2005, David was forced to retire from the professional game just five years later. David was my inspiration for life after rugby as he took the bold move to relocate to Hong Kong and worked for KPMG whilst player / coaching Kowloon Rugby Club; in my eyes he’d cracked it and I looked on via social media enviously. Unfortunately David fell to his death in December 2012; his girlfriend at the time described the incident as a “momentary impulse after holding his emotions for a long time”. David’s teammate at Sale Sharks, Selorm Kuadey, whom I had met numerous times on the circuit unfortunately chose to take his own life just two years after he was forced to retire from rugby following a career ending injury from a freak on-field injury in 2010.
As we are in Mental Health Awareness week I thought I would highlight the positive impact two local rugby league players have had on raising the profile of mental health issues and particularly the subject of male suicides. Luke Ambler set up the #itsokaytotalk campaign which truly brought the discussion on mental health in males to the surface and Stevie Ward truly broke the silence via his “Mantality” website as he talked openly about the severe depression he suffered following missing out on the Rhinos historic treble whilst he underwent four surgical operations.
I for one am supportive that the landscape is changing for the better. An issue that all professional rugby players have to contend with is that coaches when assessing a player are always asked “Is he mentally tough enough?”. Arguably in my eyes true mental strength is to be able to speak out publicly like Stevie Ward has done and in his own words “…put his neck on the line”. The difficulty players face day to day is that they have to carry an aura of invincibility on the field however as a sport we need to recognise the red flags off the field. During my career I underwent eight surgical procedures, suffered with long-term concussion, was released and was overlooked for selection plenty of times; the hardest to deal with was being released. I believe on reflection that I was always preparing for “life after rugby” from my time with Yorkshire Carnegie where alongside I studied my undergraduate law degree to studying my Legal Practice Course (“LPC”) whilst with Doncaster Knights. If rugby wasn’t going to plan and I was in a sling or on crutches I would channel all my energies into studying so that if the worst happened and the rugby bus was going to screech to a halt I knew I could step off the bus and walk confidently straight into Civvy Street.
My advice to answer the opening question to this article is to encourage sportsmen and women to go and get as much work experience as they can and build their network along the way. Ditch the Playstation and the trips to Costa on your days off and set some time aside to experience the “real world”. Being a professional rugby player was like being Peter Pan in that you never had to grow up - if you could master ‘right kit, right place, right time’ then it was plain sailing. The biggest difference I found personally and the hardest adjustment was that every week in a law firm was largely the same; come in at 9am on a Monday, do your job and all being well leave at 5pm on a Friday. Rugby had a preseason, an off season, cup matches, league deciders and no week was ever the same - however it is nice to be able to choose to go on holiday whenever I want now!
I believe sportsmen and women should share their experiences more readily and understand that you very quickly become a long-time retired when the lights go down. The changing room camaraderie is often cited as the thing players miss the most and in sports like cricket where players live in each other’s pockets for months at a time away from friends and family on the other side of the world must take serious adjustment following retirement. My advice, like many others, is to share your anxieties and fears especially if you are contemplating closing the curtain on your professional career with those that have made their transition. #itsokaytotalk