Tuesday 22 October 2019

The game changer: elite sportspeople tap into field skills to establish a second career

Elite sportspeople can win fame, fortune and adulation. But your career is over before you hit 40. Establishing a second career takes determination - but many find the skills learned on the field of play can help them tackle the challenges of business. Fearghal O'Connor reports

Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Getty
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Getty

Fearghal O'Connor

Johnny Sexton could tell there was plenty of post-match criticism last week when he brought one of his children to swimming lessons. "I tend to ignore a lot of the noise and the press. But you know it's bad when people are coming up and asking are you OK. They mean well," he says.

The current World Rugby Player of the Year shipped plenty of blame for his own performance in a disappointing Irish loss to Wales.

But life goes on. Three days later Sexton is in Dublin's Westin Hotel talking about the future. He has swapped his green jersey for a black suit and is thinking about life beyond and after rugby.

Even the best, highest-profile sports stars eventually face the inevitable reality that their career cannot last forever.

For Sexton, a new deal he has signed to become brand ambassador with recruitment giant CPL is, he says, more than just the usual corporate ambassadorial role that sports stars sign up to - it is potentially his first exploratory steps into some as yet unknown new future career.

At 33, he is still completely focused on playing in the World Cup this autumn - and is contracted to continue playing through to the next British and Irish Lions tour in 2021.

"Unless they revoke my contract after the weekend," he says with a mischievous laugh. It's a joke, but he also knows that in the context of a professional rugby career - as a player approaching his mid-30s - time is not on his side to have ambitions in the sport beyond that tour.

"Of course it is something that you fear as a professional athlete. You fear the day that it ends because we have such a privileged life and a career doing what you love to do. I dread the day that it finishes, but the guys in CPL have promised to give me a full-time job whenever I decide to finish rugby." Again he laughs: "A 10-year contract on the same wages I'm on now."

But Sexton is actively thinking about what comes next once his rugby career winds down in a couple of years.

"I have a business degree from UCD, so that is very much a possible route. I'm very interested in management and leadership. Coaching is another possibility. I love the game. I would love to give back to the game rather than retire and just give out about all the other rugby players around the country. There are amazing young players in around the country, and in Leinster especially, that I'd love to help. But it doesn't always work like that. Sometimes as a coach you have to travel and I have three young kids so I don't foresee myself going travelling again - I have already had that experience."

It's a dilemma that many sports professionals face: stay in the game or cut your ties and build a new life beyond it. The deal with CPL is "potentially" the first step for Sexton to build a professional life outside of the game, he says. "I'm delighted to get a chance over the next two years to learn what goes on at a senior level and about their leadership roles and styles. It's something I'm looking forward to."

Cormac Loughlin, CPL client services director, says the role will involve six to eight events a year as part of the company's new World Talent Series, as well as strategy days with CPL clients.

"Johnny wants to learn a little bit about our business and we want to learn a little bit around what Johnny has to offer around high performance. For us, high-performance athletes don't become under-performance businessmen. It just doesn't work like that. So we are looking forward to learning and Johnny I'm sure is looking forward to learn from us too - what we do as a business, our product and service lines and meeting a few of our customers."

Sexton says: "For me it is great to be in with these guys so that I can learn how to deal with people in that environment.

"In rugby you can say or do what you want in meetings - it's no-holds barred - but in business it is slightly different, you have to watch your P and Qs a little bit. Learning those types of things is valuable for me."

For CPL, the attraction of having the World Player of the Year on their books is obvious. "We are looking forward to having a bit of fun with Johnny at some of our events," says Loughlin. "We have some children's days arranged and things like that." "I don't do fun," Sexton shoots back with a wry smile.

By Thursday Sexton is back in the rugby bubble and on his way to Edinburgh for Leinster's Friday night match at Murrayfield. His coach at Leinster, former England coach Stuart Lancaster, briefly played professional rugby but worked as a PE teacher during his playing days. He appreciates that even players as high-profile as Sexton need to put effort into their careers off as well as on the pitch.

"I was a lot different from the lads who are playing now," says Lancaster.

But, he says, even now, a typical non-international Pro 14 player certainly does not earn enough to sit back for too long when their final contract runs out.

"There's no way you would earn enough money to put your feet up for longer than 12 to 18 months. The financial reality of not earning an income soon starts to bite," says Lancaster.

He sees the pressure around retirement from professional rugby and what to do next inevitably building for players as they go into their 30s.

"That pressure does build, but it builds if the player hasn't done much about it until that point. But the players who constantly look for personal development and opportunities to work outside of professional rugby and gain experience and qualifications and network during their career, they tend to transition into work from full-time professional rugby reasonably well.

"Where issues occur is when players don't use the window between the ages of 20 and 30 effectively. Ultimately, as the clock ticks down towards that last contract it leads to questions of 'What am I going to do next'?" That moment, he says, can leave a huge void in a player's life.

"Their sense of purpose, their regular weekly schedule changes, their financial situation and income changes and it can leave players struggling. But I do think clubs are doing more and more to help players."

What stands out to him at Leinster is the number of players that have studied for a degree while at the club's academy.

"The sensible ones are the ones who build on those qualifications and develop their network and experiences during their 20s."

Recently retired Kerry Gaelic football legend Kieran Donaghy knows all about how difficult it is to keep the flame burning for as long as possible. Like Lancaster, he did not have the benefit of a professional wage to sustain him through a football career that saw him win four Senior All-Ireland medals. During the early part of his career he worked for one of the major banks.

It was not for him.

"When you are 26 or 27 you are just rolling along with the team, trying to win at all cost. Nothing else matters. Next thing you know you might have a kid, you are getting a bit older and your body is not what it was when you were 21 and you are asking yourself 'How long is left'? Your mindset certainly shifts to what else you want out of life and there are loads of opportunities."

Like the goal poacher he was on the pitch, Donaghy grabbed one such opportunity that arose at an event he was attending on behalf of the bank. The speakers included Colin Teahon, the managing director of Kerry-based PST Sport, a leading installer of artificial grass pitches. Donaghy was so impressed with his talk that he walked up to him and asked for a job. Teahon said no, but called him back the next day. Donaghy is now business development manager for a company that has laid pitches for everyone from Munster Rugby to Chelsea FC.

"I played my better football when I moved from the bank to PST. I found that how I played had a lot to do with how things were in my personal and work life.

"If a player is worried about what he or she is going to do next it can have an adverse effect on performance. If you are happy in what you are doing or happy in what your plan is to do next you will perform better."

But Donaghy is concerned that in the GAA world there is a growing tendency for elite amateur players to stay in college for as long as they can because the student lifestyle is more conducive to the stresses of intercounty football.

"The working life is hard for these guys. A lot of them opt to stay as students so they can basically live a semi-professional kind of life. But they hit 30 and next thing they are not the star player any more. They are dropped off a squad and they find themselves with no work experience, no mortgage, no house. That's a worry."

Agencies such as Bernard Brogan's Legacy - which represents Sexton - or Dublin-based Sports Endorse, which has grown rapidly over the past year to now represent well over 100 Irish sportspeople, including Donaghy, work to support athletes by managing sponsorships, appearance fees and other opportunities.

Professional boxer Jason Quigley, a Sports Endorse client, last week secured a commercial deal to represent Ireland West International Airport. Tipped by many as a future world champion, he was preparing for his next bout this weekend but still made time to deal with the business side of his career.

"A lot of people in boxing just think about becoming a world champion and a multimillionaire," he said. "But name five fighters who have made serious cash from boxing. You'll struggle to come up with names and look at what those lads have done with their money as well."

Boxing, he says, is a sport full of reasons that will stop a fighter fulfilling dreams of becoming a world champion and a millionaire so it pays to plan ahead.

"People put all their eggs in the one basket whenever they become a professional and the majority of them come unstuck at the end of it. It is something I feel boxers should be educated on more."

Quigley says that although he is in boxing to become a world champion and to make money he knows there are no guarantees. He stays in the sport because he enjoys it, not for the promise of riches.

"I'm just hitting my peak as a boxer and I have to fully focus on that but I do take time to reflect on who else I am. I'm not just Jason Quigley, a boxer. It's important for sports people to not just be identified by their sport," says Quigley.

They need to have relationships, a community, businesses, investments outside of their sport, he says.

"So I have to conduct myself well inside and outside the ring. I've been doing a lot of commentary work for example with ESPN, Sky Sports and TG4. So I've dipped my hand into a few different adventures that could happen after boxing as well. I enjoy the relationships I am building with the likes of Ireland West International Airport.

"It would be an incredible achievement to become world champion but I am not afraid of failing, because I know I have a lot to give outside the sport too."

Just like Sexton with CPL, Quigley wants to learn as much as he can about that world outside boxing before he has to move on from his sport.

"The next time you hear of me I could be fighting in Vegas for a world title for a couple of million. Or I could be starting up a psychology sports group for young up-and-coming athletes. Who knows? There's no guarantees in life."

Johnny sexton: how to handle adversity

What have you learned in sport that you can bring to the business world?

Dealing with setbacks and adversity is one. It is about getting over them and bouncing back. I've had periods of my career where things have gone bad and I've always found a way to bounce back and become better off the back of it.

Speaking of adversity, what went wrong against Wales last weekend?

Look, it wasn't ideal. We started the game poorly and then the conditions came in and made things even worse when you are trying to chase a lead. We had chances to score at 7-0 and at 10-0 and we didn't take them and it came back to bite us a bit when we had to chase the game hard. It was very disappointing but we'll take big learnings from it.

So how do you deal with adversity like that when things aren't going well on the pitch?

That's the hardest bit of sport isn't it? Trying to snap out of those bad moments and get to a good one. It's the biggest challenge in sport. You are going to make mistakes in every game and it's about bouncing back from them. We didn't do it that well as a team - and me personally - but we'll learn from it and be better for it. Dealing with success and dealing with failure is key in sport and in business.

How do you pick yourself up in the days after a poor performance?

I talk to the people that I trust. My coaches, my wife - people that understand you and have been around you for a long time. Ignore the noise. It was only a month or two ago where you were winning everything and being labelled this and that. Then, a couple of bad games and you are bottom of the barrel. It's about finding a happy medium. There are some mistakes where you just have yourself to blame and there are others where they can't be helped. It's such small margins. Resilience is another skill that I feel is easily learnt in sport that transfers directly to the boardroom. In both sport and business things don't always go your way. The key in both is to retain your focus, strategy and belief - this allows you and your team to deliver on your objectives.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business