This piece was written in order to remember many former players who feel forgotten and struggle with the start of a new season. It was mostly constructed before the devastatingly sad news of my Brumbies teammate Daniel Vickerman. It starts with a type of ode written for all struggling sportspeople. I’ve chosen not to include Dan here in the name of sensitivity but reiterate that everyone from the whole rugby world mourns his loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. Please, if you are struggling seek the help you need.
You close your eyes at night but there’s nothing to see anymore.
Where vivid imaginings once waited like a spring ready to explode into colourful scenes of the next battle there is staleness, darkness and silence. The squirming spasms of future visualized moments are no longer. Even the foolhardy nightly flashes considering a miraculous comeback, breaking the shackles of physical reality, have almost ceased. In your mind the moments of what is to come have already been and gone.
The only dream of glory your sub-consciousness can muster is the recurrent one where you are called unprepared from the crowd into the sporting contest. Freud would reveal this symbolically says that you feel naked and ill equipped for life itself. Who are you? That’s a question you ask of yourself when stripped naked of your sporting identity.
You are now a retired sportsperson. Someone defined by what they once did or for some, what never really happened. You are a once was or a never was. Yet there is a way forward! There is hope!
Despite the hopelessness that you feel surrounds you there are ways to break the binds of who you have seemingly become. It starts with an understanding of how you may have got here and why it is so damn hard to admit what is going on for you.
To recognize the traps you may have set for yourself in pursuing greatness. It can be complicated but you must first admit there is a struggle because when you do there is an opening. There is a path forward!
Owen Slot, a reporter for The Times wrote on rugby retirement and provided this insight …“Probably millions of us grew up wanting to be a professional athlete. I am not sure, however, how many would want to quit being one.”
The challenge is that for many sportspeople, they don’t know who they are outside of their sporting identity. The blur between illusion and reality is increased within the chaos of this transition.
A pronounced challenge at the end of a sporting career or sometimes even within a career marked by injury is that you can physically no longer do what you once did. If your life is defined by your ability to hit someone hard or evade the person trying to hit you really hard there comes a point where in your own eyes you are not the person you once were.
Where your identity is built on the belief that you are someone who can do whatever you put your mind to or in blasting through every roadblock, you come to a place in life where that understanding of yourself just no longer makes any sense. It doesn’t hold true. What you thought you knew about yourself is a myth.
This is an important but difficult lesson where life is much like a dance. Sometimes we feel like we’re leading and suddenly we are spun around into the reality that ultimately at times life is very much in control. When you first come to realise this you can feel a sense of powerlessness and also a sense of weakness in even feeling that way. For some the first time is retirement.
Control over your external environment is something that made you who you are. You come to understand that there are times where you can only control your response to the hand that life has dealt you. That can seem so unfair and cruel.
If you have grown to believe that ever speaking of struggles or even having to struggle itself is a weakness then you may well feel trapped. You will not do the very thing that will help your recovery because that would be to bow down to weakness.
But could your belief be wrong? What if seeking help is actually strength? If you had an injured shoulder would you not seek the best treatment you could find? Would not avoiding help be avoiding the very thing you must do and in a way be denying reality?
English rugby legend, Johnny Wilkinson, last year spoke of his retirement struggle and how the inflexibility of his beliefs, which worked as a young player, then started working against him. The rigidity of some perfectionists is in doing whatever it takes to get the job done. No excuses! The rigidity of some men is that they can never show weakness. No compromise!
Although those creeds work well for a while in sporting environments they don’t translate well to family life or the world of pushing papers in an office job, particularly when you feel like you are starting as a nobody. There’s also no longer the sense of being a part of a team that battles together every week and knows its success or failure after 80 minutes of pushing yourself to the limits.
Another trial can be derived from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote… “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”. If sport has been a way in which to cope, driven by a compulsion to do whatever it takes to avoid dealing with past trauma and rejection or satisfy some other inner conflict then these terrors have been waiting patiently, crouching ready at the door of retirement. Dealing with these things often takes speaking with a professional to help find resolution and although that person may be just one phone call it can seem some invisible force is holding you back. Use a moment of clarity to make that call or to reach out.
We are grieving both the loss of a part of our lives that defined us and also unfulfilled dreams that now can never happen. We can try to silence this grief by finding new accomplishments to make us feel ok or numbing the pain through alcohol, drugs and new relationships.
Some however, do find healthy means of dealing with these challenges and at least create some meaning from their rugby career’s end. Some vulnerably share their pain with family, friends or a mental health specialist. Some will need medication. Some will find a team environment cycling in the crazy hours of the morning.
Others partake in a type of pilgrimage by pushing their body in new ways for a charity or cause, things greater than and outside of themselves. They outwork the pain of their grief into constructive and purposeful endeavours for the sick and less fortunate.
Others have grounded themselves in a new identity based on more enduring qualities such as character, virtue or values. Shedding a superficial layer of what they thought makes them. Some find freedom in letting go of the constraints of who they were. Most will need to develop a more realistic and flexible understanding of themselves and their role in the dance that life invites us to share.
In this time you are not alone. You are not forgotten. You are not a burden. We want the best for you. Please seek help. There is always a way forward. There is always hope.
If you, or anybody you know, needs help please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636). Current and former contracted players, and their families, can reach out to RUPA and access the Player Development Program for assistance at any time.
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
What has stirred and shifted in the hearts of the Australian Rugby supporter? What have Michael Cheika and the Wallabies done to return the prodigal sons and daughters back home to be embraced by the game they once loved? What are we even admiring in the current Wallabies? If you want to understand what has transpired you may well go back to an interview with Sarah Ferguson on the ABC after Cheika had seemingly turned the NSW Waratahs into a team worth believing in again. The themes that run through the article I believe speak to our cultural identity and therefore the narrative lens through which we see ourselves as a nation. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2014/s4060684.htm
When asked what he brought to the team Cheika answered “simple hard work” and creating training environments where the players were “sweating together and bleeding together to build respect”. Those that were fortunate enough to play with Cheika will know those words are true of his character, a real competitor. Opposition teams no doubt have other names for him for he was one who never took a backward step. I have to admit that he is the only team-mate in 25 years of playing Rugby to ever split my head open in the days when rucking (i.e. removing players lying in a ruck from blocking access to the ball by using the bottom of one’s boots) was allowed. Instead of being angry with him at the time I realised that if he thought that I was in the way of getting what he needed, and in this case the ball, it would have been (at least in his mind) justified. He is a man who knows both who he is and what he wants and furthermore he’s not afraid to go get it. Whatever that may take. He makes no apologies for his passion.
From the outside it appears that the Wallabies have really focused on getting a new identity from which to play. Most leadership groups have traditionally just asked, how do you want to be seen and then found behaviours that fit with that branding, keeping players accountable to those behaviours. The new era goes one step further by following businesses that ask about the why. Why do we do what we do? From this position the Wallabies that we have seen at the RWC will fight tooth and nail to “play our way” despite the increasing pressure. They too know who they are and what they want. This attitude has earned the respect that the team had lost from the Rugby lovers of old (N.B. let us leave alone the Wallabies team of 1997, which I was a part of, remembering that once they rid themselves of the deadwood they went on to win the World Cup two years later. Further note - I did not play in the 1999 RWC).
Interestingly, the All Blacks as the dominant side for more years than my memory cares to reflect on, have needed to find further ways to motivate a team already constantly winning. They are the front-runners in Saturday night’s clash. It’s not a label that either country really cherishes. We have forged shared and separate identities of being the under-dog. To the credit of the All Blacks they have created a different focus and have chosen something that transcends winning and losing.
They are expected to be better people as measured by respect, humility and responsibility. They are expected to be humble winners and humble losers but they also demand the highest performance possible each time they play. They are searching for the perfect performance. This appears a distinctly different perspective from the Wallabies. It also may take some pressure off a team representing a country of supporters who know that every game they play their team should win.
The AB’s narrative will no doubt alleviate some of the pressure of the all or nothing approach we love to place on our national teams, as perfectly described by athlete Harold Abrahams in the movie Chariots of Fire. “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But WILL I?” You are, after all, only as good as your last game according to the common man’s wisdom.
It is the performative based and continuous need to prove our lives and ourselves as meaningful and important. We have got what it takes. It positions every game as having the potential to destroy the foundations of everything you have created. From a psychological perspective it’s dangerous but elite teams seem to enjoy and thrive the massive highs and lows that come with that pressure.
As I read the recent articles on coach Steve Hanson, my patriotic competitiveness against all things Kiwi Rugby was melted into simple respect. I have watched players like Jerome Kaino sin-binned in the semi-final and not a word is offered in his own defence as he obediently runs off the field. As I watched I felt guilty for all my ill-disciplined ramblings at referees over the years. I suddenly remember the days of lining up at the start of games to shake the oppositions’ hands, of calling the referee ‘sir’ instead of a few other words I later learnt (probably from Cheika!) and then forming a tunnel to clap off the opposition at the conclusion of games. It’s all starting to make sense again! Distant memories of the traditions of the Rugby culture and of players who seem to appreciate their opportunity come flooding back in an age of unmerited entitlement. I’m sure it has always been there but I can finally see it again and with clarity.
I’m going to be honest here. I have not consistently watched or enjoyed rugby for a long time but something within all of this reminds me of my favourite Australian movie. It is obviously dangerous to find metaphors that compare war and sport and please see that this comparison is based purely on the narrative through which I see both. When I watch Gallipoli and Mel Gibson is sent as a runner to find someone who will over-ride the orders to keep sending the troops to their deaths, I become him and feel that part of me who wants to give all he has for the people around him. The people whom depend on my performance for their survival. When I watch the character waiting for his turn to try to take Turkish artillery positions, I’m telling myself that I’m going to run 'as fast a leopard' until I give my last breath for my mates and my country. I know, in my imagination, that despite what might happen I’ve just got to have a crack. It is a reality of war I’m fortunate to never have experienced but the movie takes me to a place where I am a more noble self. I cry.....then I remember it’s a movie, make sure no-one has noticed and I move on. I watch David Pocock or Michael Hooper and can believe that they fit the virtues our country was built on. They are men of passion and self-sacrifice. Selfless in getting the job done.
The story of the current Wallabies team fits this heroic narrative (or at least we force it to) but obviously it does not replicate the indescribably different environment and experience of war. It has once more become easy to identify with the players because we perceive them to carry the virtues that we were taught as kids to be important. That our country’s story is one involving courage, humility, discipline, respect and responsibility. We have some cultural challenges ahead but surely those facets of character should not be ignored in debate.
Meanwhile, the players are bleeding for one another. They are fighting for the privilege of the jersey - a story we have always heard but it feels like we as a country are finally willing to believe again. We are vulnerable enough to express our passionate support for the Wallabies knowing that we can trust this team to give all they have on Sunday morning. That is it! We trust them to honour the position they have been given in representing our country. They are suddenly worthy of our emotional investment! So many supporters have returned home during this World Cup to the game they play in heaven and it has embraced us all with its arms wide open. And doesn’t it feel good. It has been an amazing World Cup so let the celebrations begin!
So what is the moral of the story? Regardless of the result let us respect the efforts of both teams and learn from our neighbour’s wisdom, that apart from the obvious bragging rights, the result of the game does nothing to change our individual or national importance. It is a celebration of the character our players demonstrate. Esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman wrote years ago of attributional styles or in other words how we deal with success and setbacks. When we think of this in terms of the identity research it is worthwhile asking ourselves who do we see ourselves in victory and defeat.
The All Blacks have created a culture where winning or losing is subservient to displaying the characteristics required to play the perfect game but including virtuous aspects. The Wallabies have set a stage where they are desperate to leave the field proud of what they have achieved. To ‘make’ the country proud of how they have played. It may set up a dangerous all-or-nothing approach but as the underdog, that in itself plays perfectly into our Australian National identity. We can see our own potential nobility in the character of the players.
Go the Wallabies – Just have a red-hot crack!