Looking a little like Jerry Seinfeld in sneakers and jeans, I had the pleasure recently of sharing the rugby training pitch with the Maidenhead Rugby Club and England & British Lions rugby legend and commentator Will Greenwood.
Will, who had helped my brother Dean and his wife through some tough off-field challenges in their time in England through the Borne Medical Research Charity, was again helping by offering to share his insights into life after sport through his own journey.
In return, he asked that I could somewhat unpreparedly share some coaching tips, hence the Seinfeld outfit, as he ever so sprightly ran around with the teams looking still capable of the feats he was known for in his playing days.
Now a teacher, it seems helping is in his DNA, and his answers below contain some assistance to athletes developing plans for the future or who may be currently in transition.
You retired from Rugby a bit over 10 years ago now. What have been some of the challenges and rewards of leaving the professional arena?
Challenges: at the age of 33 when most of my friends were fully immersed in business and the community, I found it difficult to understand who exactly I was aligned to or what organisation I belonged to. The assumption was that as an ex-professional sportsman, the world is ready to give you a free lunch and you can do whatever you want. The reality is very different.
You have to find a passion. You have to find a job that allows you to give the same levels of dedication you did to becoming a better tackler or passer. You have to find something you love. The problem is in the desperation to be involved with a ‘team’, you say “yes” to everything and anything, and sooner or later you have to come to the very harsh realisation that half of what you have signed up for is similar to concrete boots, weighing you down.
However, once you realise that mental health is more important than financial wealth you can see things through clearer eyes, make better decisions. The life of a professional sportsman is a very selfish one of complete dedication to oneself. The real world requires you to change. That perhaps is the hardest of all.
Do you think this transition is becoming easier or harder for full-time athletes across all sports?
I believe athletes are being supported more, given access to development tools, and being talked through their options; I do not believe there is a magic wand, though.
I do believe any ex-professional athlete returning to the ‘normal’ world, where everything is not done for them, will go through a period of reflection and turmoil as the next 40 years will not be filled with protein shakes and ice baths.
Is there any advice you wish you had been given to make the transition easier or more enjoyable?
Trust your gut. Deep down we know instantly if something feels right. Be brave enough to ‘fail fast’. Keep truth on your side…
I know you have used some career and behavioural profiling tools along your journey. Do you think these are useful tools, and when do you think athletes should be thinking about these sorts of options?
Thomas International – I wish I had visited them 10 years ago! Understanding who you are and what drives you is critical to the next phase.
Watching you run around the field with your local club, how important do you think it is to maintain a connection with the game or sport in general?
I genuinely think this depends on why you played the game in the first place. For me, it is now a critical part of my life. I love sport – chasing a ball of any shape and helping others chase their ball better is at my core.
I look back on 7 years, when I walked away from the playing side of the game to focus on the journalism, with some regret. My journalism has been a real source of joy. But I could have done both much sooner.
I am alive on a rugby field or educating. For me, Tuesday and Thursday at my local club is a part of who I am. My wife calls Maidenhead, “my other woman” – I am having an affair with my rugby club on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But she understands it makes me happy. In any relationship, you have to let your partner chase their dream.
Understanding that the experiences of other athletes can empower growth and change in other sports men and women, we hope that these insights will be of value in your own journey.
Thanks to Will for his generosity and best of luck to the lads at Maidenhead Rugby Club for the rest of their season.