Sunday 1 February 2015

Life after rugby

You walk out and the crowd roars. On and off the pitch you are a superstar. But no matter how good you are, it is all over by the time you hit your mid-30s. Alison O'Riordan on what happens when the glory days come to an end.

'All athletes die twice, and the first time is the hardest. Sport is all they've known, all their lives.

"Imagine the trauma when, with two-thirds of your lifespan still to live, the career that's brought you money, fame and influence is suddenly, definitively, over," says John O'Keeffe of, a company that represents sports stars.

Unlike other professions, where top performers will be at the top of their game in their latter years, professional rugby players peak in their 20s and normally after a 10-year international lifespan.

They are suddenly retired by their mid-30s.

For all rugby professionals, it is an intoxicating sport which features an exciting combination of strength, speed and strategy, but retirement from rugby is a world away from normal, everyday retirement.

Young men are ending a career that they have embraced as a child, not from wanting to but having to.

Former Irish rugby union hooker Shane Byrne played for 10 years with Leinster and achieved 41 caps for Ireland. He feels retirement leaves a huge void in a player's life.

"You're in your mid-30s and you're finished doing potentially what you're best at, what you were put on this earth to do, and then it's suddenly gone and you can't get it back and it's a horrible hole to fill," he explains.

The worst affected are those who are under-prepared.

"The drama happens when the player hasn't created a pathway from playing six and seven times a week to suddenly doing nothing," says Enda McNulty, All Star-winning Gaelic footballer for Armagh.

"We have seen a lot of players handle it very poorly. Some players you meet 20 years after they retired and they still haven't dealt with the fact that they don't have the same social support around, the same friendships around and face issues of low self-image and self-esteem."

McNulty is now a sports psychologist with his company Motiv8, which prepares professional athletes for a career outside of the training room.

Few rugby professionals choose the time and place of their retirement -- for the majority, one's own body makes the decision after years of hard knocks and poundings.

"I loved playing rugby and I just couldn't play. I had injury problems for two years coming into when I finally retired," Flannery explains.

"Rugby is a very reward-related game if you work hard, but I felt like I was getting nothing back for the amount of effort I was putting in.

"I found I was getting beaten up an awful lot mentally from my injuries. It was very hard to walk away from rugby and you become very jealous you can't play," adds Flannery, who is currently studying for a Masters in Sports Performance in University of Limerick.

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