It’s hard on the mind when you stop

The dif­fi­culty of re­tire­ment for an elite sportswoma­n lies not just in the phys­i­cal side but the emo­tional test it poses. Jim White ex­am­ines how best to live well af­ter sport

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

In sport, re­tire­ment is of­ten not a mat­ter of choice. Fre­quently it hap­pens at the very point a ca­reer seems to be tak­ing off. Take Han­nah Gal­lagher. Back in 2015, aged 24, Gal­lagher was fly­ing as a rugby player. Re­cently turned pro­fes­sional, the back-row for­ward had 29 in­ter­na­tional caps and nursed am­bi­tion to notch up at least 50. Then, when train­ing with the Eng­land squad ahead of a Six Na­tions en­counter with Scot­land, she snapped her cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment.

“It never crossed my mind that I would have to stop play­ing un­til I de­cided to stop,” she says. “So when I had the in­jury, I just thought: ‘I’ll be back’.”

For nine months she worked ex­haus­tively on her fit­ness.

Then she made a re­turn. But in her first out­ing with her club Sara­cens, she felt her knee go again.

“I feared the mo­ment it hap­pened it was over, but I told my­self I could get back,” she says.

She could not. Her knee was shot. Even­tu­ally, af­ter three fur­ther op­er­a­tions, she came to the con­clu­sion her ca­reer was fin­ished.

“I suf­fered mas­sively when I re­tired,” she re­calls. “I still thought of my­self as a rugby player and I wasn’t any more. I re­mem­ber peo­ple com­ing up to me a cou­ple of years af­ter my in­jury say­ing, ‘didn’t you used to play for Eng­land?’ And me go­ing, ‘yeah, yeah I’m just in­jured at the mo­ment’. I’m not sure who I was kid­ding.”

Gal­lagher was by no means unique. Very few sportswome­n get to take a farewell tour, re­tir­ing fi­nan­cially in­su­lated, ful­filled, without a back­wards glance. Many find them­selves sud­denly stripped of in­come, point and pur­pose.

Goldie Say­ers, the for­mer Olympic javelin thrower, stud­ied the phe­nom­e­non for her dis­ser­ta­tion when com­plet­ing a masters in Sports Sci­ence af­ter she stepped back from com­pe­ti­tion in 2016.

“The phys­i­cal side of re­tir­ing is the easy bit,” she says. “It’s the emo­tional side that’s hard. The big­gest thing is iden­tity. Sport is who you are. You get put on a pedestal that is not par­tic­u­larly help­ful.

“The is­sue is, when you are en­gaged in elite sport – par­tic­u­larly full-time pro­fes­sional sport – you don’t get the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop other iden­ti­ties.”

Even for the most suc­cess­ful sportswome­n, find­ing a sec­ond pur­pose can be tough.

“It was dif­fi­cult ini­tially af­ter I re­tired,” the gold-medal win­ning hep­tath­lete Denise Lewis ex­plained at an event in Wind­sor be­fore lock­down. “You have the burn­ing de­sire to be suc­cess­ful and that needs to go some­where when you fin­ish.

“When you are in a sport, there is a plan to reach for per­fec­tion in a cer­tain week in

Au­gust and it gives you a fo­cus in life and in ev­ery­thing you do around it. It’s a strate­gic plan that is mapped out over sev­eral months and that plan is some­thing I found hard to re­place in my life.”

These days Lewis hap­pily fits in work as a tele­vi­sion pun­dit and pres­i­dent of Com­mon­wealth Games Eng­land around look­ing af­ter her four chil­dren.

And like Lewis, it took Gal­lagher some time to dis­cover an­other plan. Even­tu­ally, af­ter much trial and more er­ror, she landed a po­si­tion at Life Af­ter Pro­fes­sional Sport, an or­gan­i­sa­tion ded­i­cated to help­ing sports peo­ple into sec­ond ca­reers.

It was there, as she ad­vised some of LAPS’s 3,000 mem­bers on their next move, that she came to ap­pre­ci­ate how much for­mer ath­letes have to of­fer in the work­place.

Rugby and af­ter­wards: Han­nah Gal­lagher

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