The long goodbye
‘‘The hardest time in a man’s life is when he faces death. The hardest time in a footballer’s life is when he faces retirement.’’
Allan Jeans, AFL Hall of Fame coach
Rarely do they give it up. It is a decision made for them. For the ’lucky’ ones, the body will choose. More often it will be the judgment of their club. Either way, be it doctor or coach, someone will need to tell them their time is up.
From that moment, the footballer is expected to let go, but how can he? Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton said:
‘‘I spent my whole life gripping a baseball, and in the end I found out that all along it was the other way around.’’
Jim Bouton – New York Yankee Pitcher
This is the footballer’s Faustian pact, trading the glories of his first-life for the appreciation that can only be understood in his second life.
For the recently retired or delisted, this reality is waking up with them every morning. Stories about the current model of footballer and their effort to ready themselves for the approaching season. Just a few weeks ago, it was a brotherhood for which he belonged. Now life seems loose and vague.
Often there is little real compassion for the ex-athlete and that is simply unfair. For all of the idolisation, there is also envy and resentment, those who enjoy the revenge the sport is exacting on the ex-footballer as they struggle to find a life beyond the game. This can leave them vulnerably alone and too proud to admit it.
Being a footballer isn’t just something to do, it is something to be. They love it and they are good at it, most likely significantly better than anything else in their life. They’ve devoted everything since childhood to getting better at it. Then it stops, and they are expected to make peace before they’ve unstrapped their ankles.
For many ex-footballers, the transition from first life to second life will require a purging of emotions, hopefully in a broadly healthy form, yet often on their own.
Their first emotion is likely to be one of denial, and as much as most will not admit it, there is also anger. The sense of injustice that their body and/or club has betrayed them. There may also be some bargaining, seeking one last moment, to run out one more time. Then sadness that it is indeed over, and then their reality.
There will be regrets. Yes, the goal missed and money unsaved, but also be the selfish responses and unformed relationships, realising too late the opportunities lost in the sensory whirl of the game.
Now for the ’real’ world as it is described and defined for them. But the footballer’s world is not the same. They’ve always been made to feel as though they’re different. As a teenager they were given a special diet and weights program and expected to follow to the last kilojoule whilst their mates were eating twisties and surfing. People around them sacrificed their goals for his. They were given a scholarship to a private school, but missed exams and the school dance.
At so many levels, the footballer receives the most extraordinary education and learning, underestimated outside of the sport, much of which can be taken into the next life. The daily discipline and the will to compete. The selflessness required to play their role in a team environment, to lead and bounce back from setbacks, failure and disappointment. In a game of errors, learn to make as few as possible whilst having the confidence to take risks.
In AFL clubs, footballers soon work it out. Grow up fast and age slowly. But age they must. The game they love will eventually wear them out. It will be done with them, before they’re done with it.
There is always a lot of talk about the culture of elite sporting teams and clubs, often from people who have never lived it. Contradictions abound. For all of its collegiality, it shakes itself back to its true form when futures are decided at the selection and trade tables. You are valued whilst you produce what is required of you, or unless someone quicker, bigger and more skilful, or younger, cheaper and less riskier is available and then you are replaced. It is a game of constant tradeoffs.
Players know this and they talk about it amongst each other. It is part of their daily existence. A week after seeing off a tearful teammate, they are shaking hands with the next generation, sizing them up, hoping they can help them win but also wondering whether they will take their place.
Post career, footballers are required to pick up the remnants of many things, including relationships. Friends and family they’d moved away from in their teens. Partners who have dealt with their moods and the selfishness the game demands.
Initially there may be support from those who surrounded them during their time in the game. Care but without the eagerness, and perhaps the urgency their situation requires. This support will fade unless mutuality remains in the relationship, which is rare. It moves onto the current breed and the hope it represents.
I’ve heard people talking about ex-athletes in terms of loss of identity, the need to align it to something other than their sport. But it is far more complex. Many former players cringe at the identity they forged whilst in the game. The things they did to fit in, hide weaknesses and vulnerabilities for fear of being judged in a career limiting way and to survive at combustible moments. They know this identity outlives their time in the game even though it didn’t represent the man then, and certainly not the man now.
But there is light, and perhaps meaning, which they can only understand in their retirement. They are reminded of this often. Part of them will always be on the sporting field, something for which they can be forever proud. But it is not a standard from which their life should be measured, or how they define themselves.
I always enjoy the opportunity to talk all things culture and high-performance, and the development of leaders to achieve it.
Here are three ways to start the ball rolling:
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CEO & Founder
“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.”
– Jack London
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