Life after Rugby – understanding the transition process.
Leaving professional rugby as a player is guaranteed at some point in your life. As a players’ association, Rugby Players Ireland will never apologise for reminding you of that. Few people are in the privileged position of being a professional sportsperson, but that doesn’t make the end of that career necessarily any easier.
No matter how well prepared you are for life after rugby, the transition out of the game will affect all players in some way. Alan Quinlan has spoken about this process, likening it to a “little death”. Like most professional players who have been through the retirement process, nothing can quite prepare you for the fact that part of your life is over and won’t ever come back. This is because the process of transition will alter your daily routines, your relationships, your roles and your assumptions about yourself. It’s a major life change and change can be difficult no matter what you are doing.
The easiest, most basic way of understanding change as a process is to break change down into three phases – Current, Transition and the Future. Unfortunately, as someone who is used to setting goals with a fixed point, the “future” is not a set defined point, and can take years to fully integrate to.
While all players will face retirement at some point, the impact of that retirement will differ, but knowing that there is a process, and realising that you are not alone in going through this process, will help.
A simple way of examining how you might deal with retirement is to look at your 4 S’s – your Situation, Self, Support and Strategies.
Did you retire on your own terms? Players that are forced to retire, through injury or being released for example, often find the process more difficult to come to terms with.
Did you achieve your sporting goals? Players who have not achieved their expected sporting goals express more difficulties with retirement including loneliness, missing people related to sport and difficulty in organising their post-sport lives.
Have you engaged in education or personal development? A lack of non-sporting life experiences can make the transition out of sport more difficult. Educational involvement and career planning are positively associated with post-sport life adjustment.
Are you facing other challenges? Are you moving to a new location? Are you about to get married, have children? Are you dealing with serious injury? Dealing with concurrent stressors at a time when you are transitioning can make it all the more challenging.
Do you have a very strong athletic identity? While a strong athletic identity has helped you to play rugby at a professional level, players with a very strong athletic identity will take longer to adjust to the post-retirement life.
Are you an optimist? Those with optimistic personalities tend to cope better with change and players with high self-confidence are also likely to have more belief in their abilities to achieve new career goalss
Have you planned financially for your future? Financial problems can cause transition difficulties and limit post-sport life choices.
Do you plan on staying physically active? Staying physically active in some way can help you with feelings of anxiety associated with new routines and feelings of loss resulting from no more competition or training.
Do you have a strong social support? Even if you don’t want to unburden yourself to others, being in the company of people who support and love you can be of comfort. Where possible though, try and let those close to you know how you feel. A strong social network is one of the key predictors of a more positive transitional experience.
Are there other past players you can turn to? While a loss of social networks after your sport career has ended can be difficult, reaching out to other players who have retired can help.
Did you have a good relationship with your coach? Some retired athletes who did not have a good relationship with their coach expressed more difficulties in the career transition process.
Can Rugby Players Ireland help you? Most definitely yes. Even if you never engaged with us as a player, Rugby Players Ireland is there to help you through this difficult and confusing time. We are only a phone call away.
What coping strategies do you tend to use? Not all coping strategies are created equal. Unhealthy ways of coping – usually classed as “avoidance coping” as it does little to deal with the actual stress – may temporarily reduce stress, but they cause more damage in the long run:
– Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities.
– Excessive time spent on social media/Internet
– Alcohol / Drug use.
– Over-eating, binging on junk food or not eating/changing your eating patterns
– Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
– Over sleeping, staying in bed
– Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems
– Taking out your stress on others (lashing out, angry outbursts, physical violence)
What are the best ways to cope with transition? It is important to note that no single coping strategy will work for everyone, all of the time. Find strategies that work for you and try different techniques that make you feel comfortable. Research has found that some of the best strategies include.
– Social support. Share how you feel with others, especially those closest to you.
– Be active and healthy. Remaining active and healthy is great for your mental wellbeing. Why not try the activities that you were precluded from whilst playing?
– Set new goals. Invest the time to set goals in both professional and personal areas of your life. What makes you excited now?
– Control the controllables and allow yourself to feel. Pretending that the transition from rugby is easy helps no-one! Instead of trying to control every emotion you feel, accept what is outside of your personal control, allow yourself to feel and then take action to improve how you live your life.
– Make time for you. Try to do one thing every day that makes you feel good. Just 20 minutes will make a difference.
– Seek professional help, if you need to.
Research suggests that it takes up to two years to fully transition out of sport, but please remember that this is an individual process, and every player will move through it at different speeds. No matter how prepared you are for it, there is a normal process of grief or loss that you will go through. Letting go of the life that you once had is difficult, and it is very important that to know that many of the emotions you may be feeling have been felt by the many many athletes that have gone before you.
While it is never too early to plan for your life after your rugby career, it is also never too late to seek support. Rugby Players Ireland offers all of our Player Development Programme services to retired players, through the Clubhouse, regardless of how long you have been out of the game. We can help you with career advice and guidance, education, re-training and skill development, self-awareness, financial planning and support as well as emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.
Some (not all) of the things a retiring athlete might experience
– You could be ecstatic, starting on a new journey. However, even if you are looking forward to the day you hang up your boots, it is not always plain sailing.
– You might be feeling lonely. The environment you surrounded yourself with every day is now gone. You are told how much you contributed to the team and that the door is always open for you, but you’re removed from the WhatsApp group, you have to work regular hours and there are no more long lunches with your team mates, you don’t understand the funny # on Instagram or twitter.
– How do you introduce yourself? You were always “a rugby player”. Finding out what to introduce yourself as can be difficult.
– With no routine, no training, no set timetable, no competition, you feel “ordinary”.
– You may be angry or hurt. You may be embarrassed or you may feel that you have let your family and friends down in some way. These are normal feelings and emotions. The reality is however that your loved ones will just want to support you and will be very proud of your achievements.
– Maintaining a positive attitude can also be exhausting and difficult. You may feel “no one understands” when in fact, a lot of people do – it’s worth the effort to call a mate and go for a coffee or catch up.
– You might compensate for a lack of training and physical highs by “being busy”, partying and socialising. The lack of physicality might now make you angry.
– You realise that you are not a player anymore, so might avoid watching or going to games. You don’t want to give your opinion on games, but being an ex-player you are constantly asked for it.
– You might like the new freedom that being out of the limelight holds and find it liberating when you are not recognised! Being evaluated for other skills and competencies outside of rugby might motivate you to transfer your energy into new activities and roles.
– Someone once described retiring being similar to taking a bungee jump. While some players might make the decision to jump, many are pushed. You know there is going to be a big fall, but no matter how prepared you are for it is still a very scary ride. Once you have made that initial jump there are plenty more ups and downs along the way until finally you level off and find some stability, balance and an ability to look back on the experience and accept it for the thrilling one that it was.
– Always remember you have done an amazing job to get this far in a very tough profession. This will stand to you and just take one day at a time with your transition.
A rough guide to some of the stages of transition.
The trigger: Retirement
You may feel a loss of control.
Your daily routines will change, your role as a player will change, your relationships with teammates and coaches will change, and your assumptions about who you are will be challenged.
New lifestyle. You may not be as active, and have no set physical routine.
You can experience a range of emotions from the excitement of starting a new life, or you may be in shock, be feeling angry, or experiencing fear or anxiety about the future. It’s very common to feel all of these things at once.
Athlete v Ordinary. You are no longer a player, but haven’t quite yet found a new identity.
Financially. You might find it very hard to adjust to salary levels in the real world!
The roller coaster ride
It can be tough trying to accept your new lifestyle
New skills. Your physical and technical skills may not be relevant for your new career so learning new skills may be difficult.
Search for social support. Where once you lived in a “bubble” you know have to take total control of your own development. You may find it difficult making decisions.
Next career. You might find yourself moving into a new career quite quickly but you find it unusual not to have the regular debriefs about your work. You’re used to experiencing constant feedback and that may not happen in your “new” workplace. You may be struggling to find meaning in your new career and may not be able to “see yourself” in your future.
Finding some balance
Acceptance of your new life can take time and can also require a lot of work. But back yourself!
You first, second or even third career choice may not be the right one for you. You may make several career changes before you find what is right for you. Don’t be afraid to admit this 1, 2, 5 or even 10 years down the line.
Learning to love your new identity, roles, responsibilities and relationships may not be easy. There is help and support out there. Talk to someone who can help – whether it is physical, emotional, mental or financial support that you need.