Saturday 20 January 2018

Life after rugby

Alison O'Riordan

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.

With the modern game being so high impact and brutal, it's not at all unusual to have a career-ending injury.

Ireland and Munster player Jerry Flannery was forced to retire in his prime in March 2012 due to a calf injury.

"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.

Every athlete worries about what they're going to do after their sports career and these concerns can start in their mid-20s.

And although the issue of retirement beckoning is an odd concept for a young professional to grapple with, an exit strategy is imperative.

"If a player is not prepared, if there is not something valuable and fulfilling afterwards which gives the same sense of purpose, there can be very dark days," says McNulty.

A retired Irish rugby player for Ireland and Leinster, Malcolm O'Kelly feels one is "chiselled" by what they have done in the past and that it comes to define you.

"You come out into retirement and you have to use everything you've got to get you where you need to be, which is not easy, and not too many companies in Ireland or across the world can give the player a job with the same salary they had in their previous sport," he says.

Former Irish rugby coach Eddie O'Sullivan thinks retirement is the wrong word to use, as rugby players don't make enough money in their careers to retire from work forever in their 30s.

"Usually, when they stop playing, they have got to find another job but, along with the stress of trying to find another career, they have to make a huge adjustment in their lifestyle and that's the big difference," says O'Sullivan.

"They are making a career change in their 30s and adjusting to do a 9-5 job, which is quite a change."

Rugby pundit George Hook highlights the difficulty players face in finding a new career.

"Rugby players are not prepared for anything -- they have no skills," he says. "We know they can pass, run and kick, but we don't know what else they can do.

"By and large, most of them don't have real professional qualifications. These guys have nothing except rugby -- you take that away and what is left?

"It's going to take an extraordinarily resilient person to cope with that," says Hook, who insists the modern employer can't afford a passenger.

Emmet Byrne, an RTE analyst who played at prop-forward for Leinster and won eight caps between 2001 and 2003 for Ireland, isn't aware of any guys who came into retirement in his time who didn't have at least a year of a fairly tough ride to get themselves on their feet.

"It was after a couple of guys from my generation started to run into problems that it became highlighted as a major issue," Byrne explains.

"You would hear of struggles of people trying to find their way and being lost, and going for two to three years with nothing to show for it; chopping and changing their minds all the time."

Byrne always had the urge to do medicine, but the practicalities of doing this when he was coming towards the end of a rugby career at the age of 34 seemed minimal.

"I had to accept that I was starting from scratch, which was a tough pill to swallow," says Byrne. "When you are giving up 10 years of your life or more in your mid-20s to 30s, that is when everyone else is developing their skills to get jobs.

"You're essentially giving that to rugby -- there is little time to learn any other skills at a high level."

Byrne retired from professional rugby in 2006 and only graduated as a doctor last week aged 39.

"After five years I'm back on salary, which is the most important thing. It's the first time I've had a proper salary and job since I played rugby," he admits.

Paul Wallace, who played tight-head prop for Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, found retirement difficult as his buddies "had completely moved on. There are disadvantages career-wise, and others have had a head start on you", he says.

Due to the time and effort devoted to training and competition, an athlete's self-esteem, confidence and identity is wrapped up in their sport. When faced with retirement, some forget that there is much more to themselves than playing rugby.

Some also forget that they can't get that adulation and attention forever, and find it hard coming to terms with the fact that the crowd is no longer chanting their name.

"A lot of athletes are caught up in a cocoon; they are a goldfish in a very small pond," says McNulty. "They will find out that no one really cares about them one or two years after they finish their career.

"That adulation, euphoria, self-esteem and self-worth attached to being a sports star can leave very quickly after the ball stops."

And so, too, does the celebrity factor of the game.

"You're now outside of the stand looking in at the game, like any other spectator. You are never going to be in the arena again; your life changes radically," says O'Sullivan.

Byrne laughs: "It's important to just accept you're not going to get 50,000 people singing your name if you make a good business decision."

While some players steam ahead, Shane Byrne felt a huge loss of self-worth upon retirement, as rugby gave him a role to play in life, a sense of purpose.

"The sense of achievement through rugby is enormous. In almost every instance in rugby you can achieve something," he explains.

"If someone runs at you, you might tackle them. It's an achievement -- even though it's a mundane part of your job, it's still something to do.

"For that split second, one of your teammates might clap your back and get you up; obviously in life you don't get these things," he adds.

O'Kelly is of the opinion that a player's self-recognition can become fragile, a fact every player must deal with.

"When you have a big impact and are involved in a professional team, it's hard to find that real sense of impact in the real world, when you're doing something that is very worthwhile like rugby."

It is not unrealistic for a top international player to be performing in front of a crowd of 80,000 in March and then be on the top of the scrapheap in June, which can have severe consequences on the ego.

"My self-esteem was low when I retired," says Emmet Byrne. "It's an extremely acute finish; there is no tapering here. One minute you're the man and the next minute you're gone, and that is the reality which still has a banger and is difficult to get your head around."

The ego taking a battering is a normal consequence of retirement from a professional sport and it is very much a case of out of sight, out of mind.

"It is a huge issue," says New Zealand-born rugby analyst Brent Pope. "Suddenly they have to face what normal people do -- a 9-5 existence without the adoration, without the travel, without the days off and the big money; overnight, all that is a goner."

O'Kelly had to swallow his pride and tried several careers until he decided to become a medical rep.

"Everyone has built you up into this big man and then suddenly you realise you're flesh and blood like everyone else and you just have to take it."

The loss of camaraderie is another big part of what many players struggle with upon the final whistle.

Flannery missed the banter of meeting the lads every day and of being in a big team environment.

"I was very conscious that you need to move on straight away and I didn't want to be that guy who hangs around, sniffing around the team all the time," he says.

Wallace took the same viewpoint, finding it too hard to sit and observe what one is craving to still be a part of. "Once you're finished your outfit you have got to move on, which is quite tough."

Shane Byrne says that even palling around with best friends who you have known all your life is not the same as being part of a professional rugby unit.

He admits that his wife had to make him snap out of it a few times.

"This isn't an insult to your lifelong friends, you just cannot replicate that team ethos," he explains. "You rely on these people, in my case in the front row. Your life depends on people left and right with you.

"That bond is absolutely irreplaceable, and you can't find that. For it just to be gone was really hard to take. All of a sudden, you become an individual as your best friends are still in the changing room," he adds.

According to Phil Moore, sports psychologist with the Irish Sports Council, a certain rush comes with match day -- the banter that's part of any team, the shared elation of victories and desolation of the losses.

"It can seem pretty dull when you have to get off the roller-coaster," Moore says. "For many, it can feel like bereavement and a sense of loss."

For Shane Byrne it was like going through a period of mourning, feelings he says he can't dispel to this day.

Initially he found it difficult to watch games, as he feels he didn't achieve all his goals in his career, so his sense of satisfaction with his professional life as a rugby player was undermined.

"I still can't look back on my rugby career with joy -- I haven't totally let go. I feel I need to get 10 years away from it," Byrne explains.

"I look back on some of the greatest things we have ever achieved and think, 'God, I should have done that with the ball' or 'I missed that tackle or lineout'.

"I don't have any jerseys or trophies around my house as it's not something I feel like celebrating. I can't really be comfortable with it, as I haven't exorcised those demons.

"If you look at my CV you would say I fulfilled my career," he continues.

"I played for Leinster for 14 years, I got 41 caps for Ireland and I went on a Lions tour and played in every test. I did more than I ever dreamt of, but when you break it down, I never won a Heineken Cup or a Grand Slam, which are the things you look back at."

For Flannery, his phone went into overdrive the day he announced his retirement.

"My phone just never stopped hopping for three days. You get a bit emotional when you retire and then you get over it, but then another person drops you another really nice text and that would set you off again," he says.

"It would have been nice for everyone to text between just, say, 9am to 10am in the morning to let me get on with the day, but it kept coming for days after," he laughs.

To make it to the top in any sport, relationships have to be sacrificed.

For many professional rugby players, much of their adolescence and adult life has been played out on the pitch, which meant relationships suffered as a result of being removed from family and friends for long periods of time.

"They suddenly go from being away from the house in the evening to being around friends they haven't connected with for 10, 15 years, and all their sporting colleagues are still in the changing room and on the sporting pitch," says McNulty.

Emmet Byrne still doesn't think his family understood what it meant for him when his career came to an end.

"Sometimes people make the assumption that you are lucky to have been a rugby player, but they don't get the whole transitional phase of going into the real world," he says.

However, retirement did give Shane Byrne the opportunity to get to know his lifetime friends again.

"It changes your relationships. Former rugby players don't hang around with current rugby players because it's too hard. I got reacquainted with old friends I didn't see as much," he says.

Meanwhile, retirement made O'Kelly realise how important his family were. "I had to rely on them a lot more. They were really there for me."

To this day, Shane Byrne feels the sport is like a drug he cannot give up. "It's the game itself that drives you, that 80 minutes on the park. That's why, at 40 years of age, I'm still playing the game," he says.

"I've tried triathlons, boxing, marathons and all sorts of things, but I've always ended up going back to rugby because you can't get that buzz, that emotional high you get from the team sport; the craic out of the changing room."

Failure to find adequate support in retirement can lead to loneliness. Athletes spend all their career in the company of teammates and coaches, but few see each other after the game is over.

Pope, who has gone through this emotion himself, reflects on his experience.

"You feel alone, as if you are so replaceable at any given time. You feel empty for a while. It's akin to a relationship breaking up; a huge sense of loss. You have played a game for most of your life and it is now over."

Players also find themselves faced with new responsibilities upon retirement.

During their career, the sporting bodies or clubs usually spoonfeed players and spoil them somewhat, managing their daily routine -- including travel arrangements and diet.

Shane Byrne argues that this organisational structure is necessary in any professional set-up.

"Everything was done for us," he explains. "You had a professional structure around a professional team, and the professional team was there to play rugby and get as good as it possibly could -- not to book flights, not to check the hotels out, not to do the logistics of the whole operation.

"They were there to play rugby, so any issues that could arise from a team going from A to B were taken away from the players, and rightly so. Every professional set-up is the exact same."

Wallace, however, feels that this structure can create players who are incapable of making their own decisions: "Once you come out the other end, it's a bit of a shock to the system."

One overriding feeling true to all rugby players is that it is nearly impossible to recreate the excitement felt on the pitch in life after sport.

"When you are playing rugby it's the best thing in the world, and when you are walking away from it you are thinking you want to enjoy something just as much," says Emmet Byrne.

"I don't think there is anything that replicates the feeling after a big win, and that is what makes rugby so special. That is the intensity. You would walk out the door of the hotel with the hair on the back of your neck standing up and go into a stadium where there is an intensity of sound with screaming and the national anthem being played," he adds.

"What can replace that? Very little."

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