Friday 15 December 2017

When the floodlights fade, remember you are worth a lot more than your last game

Tallaght Stadium, Dublin
Tallaght Stadium, Dublin
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

I was introduced to a former international footballer a few weeks after my playing career ended. He was probably in his early 50s at the time. Without any prompting from me, or indeed any inclination that I wanted to hear it, he gave me a rundown of his career high points, his appearance stats and his playing strengths. He had a lot of memories and seemed determined to share them all.

I stood politely for about ten minutes as he bored me to tears, but he made an immediate and lasting impact. I made a decision on the spot not to let myself end up like him. I didn't know how I would do it, but I swore I wouldn't spend the rest of my days focusing mainly on what I did in my early 20s.

I even went as far as thinking that it would be a failure of sorts if I hadn't found another role for myself beyond being known for what I used to be able to do. First I needed to come to terms with being an ex-footballer. At the time, though, I had no idea if that would even be possible.

It was while attending the recent RTE sports awards that I was reminded of how things used to be and how consuming a career in sport can become. Or more specifically, how the attitude that served me so well when I played caused so many problems when I eventually had to retire.

On and off camera, I heard the same sentiment expressed several times. Boxers talked about only being as good as their last fight, athletes said they were only as good as their last race and the GAA lads believed the same about themselves too. It's a familiar cliché and maybe people don't pay it much attention, but imagine the difficulties it causes for those who genuinely believe it, particularly when their career inevitably ends.

It was a phrase I was told many times as a player, presumably designed to keep me motivated at all times and it was something I bought into. And I don't just mean it's how I viewed my role within the team. While it did help me many times to maintain focus, I couldn't just forget about it and move on as soon as I retired. Without being consciously aware of it, my only measure of who I was or how I felt about myself was centred on my performances on the field.

According to my mother, my mood around the house as a child was dictated by how I felt about my game the previous weekend. My self-worth in later life was shaped in the same way. It's not an uncommon thing for sportspeople to develop, but new strategies are needed when it all ends. Again, my problem was that I didn't know how that could be achieved.

Of all the advancements sports science has made in professional sport, one of the most significant is in the area of psychology. The expertise available to competitors now is greater than at any time in the past, but the main focus is still, understandably, on how to improve performance. But it was the result of countless hours seeing a variety of professionals -- sports psychologists, psychotherapists, and counsellors -- that seeing myself as something other than a footballer could be made possible. So much more was involved than simply hanging up my boots.

With so many men speaking openly about their mental health difficulties and about ways in which they sought treatment, the practice of asking for help has been further normalised among men in general. I knew I needed help when things began to get on top of me, but it was help I would have benefited from years before. Preparation for retirement can begin at any stage and the benefits it can bring are considerable. The knowledge and expertise is there, all that's needed is the willingness to seek it out.

That player I met was proud of everything he had achieved in his career just as I am today about my own. But I see myself now as something other than a former footballer, which would have been beyond me before I got the help that I did. Financial planning is one thing, and learning other skills is an important aspect, but the emotional impact of playing my last game was something I was unprepared for. Maybe it takes going through it to fully understand the difficulties, but so much pain can be avoided by preparing for the inevitable.

The athletes at the sports awards can tell themselves what they like but every one of them is worth more than their recent performances. For their own sakes, hopefully they will one day be able to appreciate that.

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