When the ap­plause goes quiet

Elite ath­letes can find life af­ter sport a strug­gle, de­spite ap­pear­ing to have it all

Life & Style Weekend - - READ - BY Tim Howard

THE death of for­mer Wal­laby Dan Vick­er­man has given a tragic depth to the ob­ser­va­tion that a pro­fes­sional ath­lete dies twice and the first time is the day they re­tire.

The 204cm Vick­er­man, renowned for his in­ten­sity on the rugby field and his friendly na­ture off it, ap­peared to have han­dled the tran­si­tion in text­book fash­ion. He’d even taken time out mid-ca­reer to pur­sue a univer­sity de­gree in land eco­nomics at Cambridge.

When per­sis­tent leg in­juries forced him out of the sport in 2012, his tran­si­tion from pro­fes­sional sport to a ca­reer in com­mer­cial real es­tate ap­peared seamless. On the strength of this, the or­gan­is­ers of the Cross­ing the Line sport sum­mit in Sydney at the end of last month had ad­ver­tised Vick­er­man as a key­note speaker.

But the demons were lurk­ing, as for­mer Wal­laby Owen Fine­gan ac­knowl­edged in the days af­ter Vick­er­man’s death at his Sydney home on Fe­bru­ary 18.

“I think ev­ery­one was shocked by it. It was dev­as­tat­ing – we all play on an old boys team called the Sil­ver Foxes and Dan had ex­pressed a num­ber of times how dif­fi­cult his tran­si­tion was and it is dif­fi­cult for a lot of pro­fes­sional sports peo­ple, es­pe­cially when you’ve had 10 or more years at the top of the game,” Fine­gan told the press.

The man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Fi­nal Whis­tle, Greg Mumm, whose com­pany helps ath­letes through these tran­si­tions, signed Vick­er­man up to speak at the sum­mit. He said his com­pany fo­cuses on the ca­reer as­pects of tran­si­tion rather than men­tal is­sues.

“Ath­letes ex­pe­ri­ence a range of chal­lenges phys­i­cally and men­tally at the end of their ca­reers,” he said.

“Their hor­mones change al­most overnight. There’s a de­crease in the pro­duc­tion of en­dor­phins. There are so many ar­eas where ev­ery­thing changes at the end of a ca­reer.

“There’s the men­tal as­pects, ca­reer, fi­nance and re­la­tion­ships.”

He said Vick­er­man’s tragic death showed that “hav­ing it all” – the ed­u­ca­tion, the job, the fam­ily – some­times was not enough.

“Ath­letes are used to dis­guis­ing it when things aren’t go­ing their way,” Mumm said.

“They’re trained to re­spond by push­ing harder when things get tough. That’s re­ally help­ful when you’re lift­ing weights or on the train­ing pad­dock, but it’s not help­ful if you’re strug­gling with men­tal is­sues.

“It’s im­por­tant to learn to ask for help if you’re strug­gling.” Some ath­letes, like cham­pion Bri­tish cy­clist Vic­to­ria Pendle­ton, em­brace re­tire­ment. Pendle­ton said she couldn’t wait to get on with the next part of her life.

But for many, their ex­pe­ri­ence is more like that of box­ing leg­end Sugar Ray Leonard, who fa­mously said, “Noth­ing could sat­isfy me out­side the ring … there is noth­ing in life that can com­pare to be­com­ing a world cham­pion, hav­ing your hand raised in that mo­ment of glory, with thou­sands, mil­lions of peo­ple cheer­ing you on.”

Mumm said it was im­por­tant ath­letes took time to in­ves­ti­gate what might in­ter­est them af­ter their ca­reers were over and do it sooner rather than later.

“We rec­om­mend they get ex­pe­ri­ence in an in­dus­try and test it by spend­ing some time in it be­fore mak­ing a de­ci­sion,” he said.

Mumm said ath­letes com­ing into re­tire­ment tended to see ev­ery­thing in life as win­ning or los­ing, which could cre­ate prob­lems.

“Of­ten they for­get how long it took them to be suc­cess­ful in their sport. Some­times they have to be re­minded it’s okay to make mis­takes,” he said.

Mumm said there were strate­gies that ath­letes could adopt to help over­come this.

“Some ath­letes find it help­ful to be re­minded about all the things they couldn’t do be­cause of sport,” he said.

“It is of­ten sim­ple things like re­mem­ber­ing sac­ri­fices – go­ing out with friends or sleep­ing in – that can make the tran­si­tion pos­i­tive.”

Pro­fes­sional sport has also grown ex­po­nen­tially in the past two decades, which has fun­da­men­tally changed peo­ple’s at­ti­tude to play­ing the game.

“It used to be there were only three or four sports that could sup­port full-time pro­fes­sional ath­letes,” Mumm said.

“But over two or three decades more sports have be­come fully pro­fes­sional and given more ath­letes a chance to con­sider sport as a ca­reer.”

Mumm, who is the brother of Wal­laby for­ward Dean Mumm, was one of those un­til in­juries put an end to it.

“Af­ter six knee op­er­a­tions at the age of 19, sud­denly the sports ca­reer was all over,” he said.

He said it was just as im­por­tant to help young peo­ple whose ca­reers were cut short to make the tran­si­tion.

“Many of these young ath­letes have fo­cused en­tirely on sport and don’t have any­thing to fall back on when they find out they are not go­ing to make it, or they get in­jured,” he said.

“It can be just as dev­as­tat­ing for them that their ca­reers never get go­ing.”

The re­luc­tant re­tiree

Grafton’s Brent Liver­more, who cap­tained the Aus­tralian men’s hockey team that broke its gold medal drought at the Athens Olympics in 2004, did not take re­tire­ment eas­ily.

“To this day I have never ac­tu­ally an­nounced my re­tire­ment,” he said last week.

To his frus­tra­tion, Liver­more found new Kook­abur­ras coach Barry Dancer and the selec­tors mak­ing the de­ci­sion for him.

“I was still recog­nised as one of the best 11 hockey play­ers in Aus­tralia, but I was told the coach was look­ing for new play­ers while build­ing for the Lon­don Olympics in 2012,” he said.

“It was hard to ac­cept. I was still play­ing at my peak of per­for­mance, I was still a leader and player in the group, but I wasn’t flavour of the month with the coach.”

While the Kook­abur­ras might not have wanted him, he was in de­mand with hockey leagues around the world and took up of­fers to play in the Nether­lands, In­dia and New Zealand as his play­ing ca­reer wound down.

“In a way I was lucky: be­cause of the money in hockey, or lack of it, I was al­ways aware I would have to pre­pare for life af­ter­wards,” he said.

Ath­letes ex­pe­ri­ence a range of chal­lenges phys­i­cally and men­tally at the end of their ca­reers.

Liver­more Recog­nis­ing­did a a busi­ness­re­turn to stud­i­es­the na­tional course colour­sand net­worked­was un­likely, as­sid­u­ously.

“While I was still com­pet­ing I knew I had to utilise the pro­file I had,” he said.

“There are also many things pro­fes­sional ath­letes do that trans­fer to life af­ter sport. “In a way sport was my ap­pren­tice­ship so I could go into a higher role in busi­ness or work, with­out start­ing out again at the bot­tom of the lad­der.”

Liver­more was in de­mand in the cor­po­rate speak­ing cir­cuit and worked as a prop­erty in­vest­ment con­sul­tant, all the time

con­tin­u­ing as a hockey coach and player. The hockey fam­ily has reached out to Liver­more and he once again finds him­self wrapped in its arms as a head coach at the NSW In­sti­tute of Sport and ranked as one of the top seven

coaches in the sport.

“At the start of the next Olympic pe­riod I could be head

coach­ing with the Kook­abur­ras, or over­seas as a head coach of a team. But if Hockey Aus­tralia goes crazy and de­cides for what­ever rea­son it didn’t want me, there are other things I can do.”

The world’s his oys­ter

Be­ing a pro­fes­sional squash player has opened the world up for Yamba’s Cameron Pil­ley. At 34 he’s closer to the end than the start of his sports ca­reer and has started to imag­ine what re­tire­ment might be like. “I think I will be both happy and sad at the same time,” he said.

“In some ways I’m look­ing for­ward to lead­ing a ‘nor­mal’ life of set­tling down, not trav­el­ling as much, get­ting into a reg­u­lar

daily rou­tine and not putting the body through so much pain dur­ing train­ing and com­pet­ing.

miss “On – the the other trav­el­ling, hand, the how­ever, dif­fer­ent that cul­tures,is ex­actly see­ing what friendsI think from I will all over the world. It’s ex­cit­ing to see what the fu­ture brings.”

But Pil­ley hasn’t tried to imag­ine how he might feel the day af­ter he re­tires.

“Hon­estly, I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it un­til you asked the ques­tion, and I re­ally can’t an­swer it,” he said. “Pos­si­bly a sense of ac­com­plish­ment or an ‘end of a chap­ter’ type feel­ing.”

Pil­ley, ranked 14th in the world in men’s squash, who has won a Com­mon­wealth Games gold medal and holds the record for

the hard­est hit squash ball at 175kmh, said he would miss a lot of things about his sport. “I will miss the trav­el­ling for sure,” he said. “Go­ing to air­ports, get­ting flights, ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent cities around the world.

“The big­gest thing I’ll miss, how­ever, is the adrenaline and the high of com­pet­ing on the world stage in front of a huge crowd.

Com­pet­ing in iconic lo­ca­tions, be­ing a part of a great match, and be­ing ap­plauded by the crowd for your ef­forts is some­thing spe­cial.” Pil­ley feels his sport has equipped him with some use­ful skills for his fu­ture life.

“As a squash player you need to be able to make quick de­ci­sions,” he said.

“Sharp re­flexes, fast feet, quick hands and then be­ing able to play the right shot, all at the same time. I think this type of quick

de­ci­sion mak­ing and think­ing will be very valu­able post sports ca­reer. “I come into con­tact with so many peo­ple from so many

dif­fer­ent cul­tures that the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate well is also a valu­able skill I have learnt over the years.”

Ide­ally Pil­ley would like to stay with the sport that has given him so much and re­turn some­thing to the game. “I would like to stay in­volved with the sport as I would love to help Aus­tralian squash be­come a pow­er­house on the world stage once again,” he said.

“But who knows what op­por­tu­ni­ties may arise? Coach­ing is some­thing I am in­ter­ested in, es­pe­cially coach­ing as­pir­ing pros.

“As a rule you never say never, so I will look at all op­tions once I have re­tired.” Pil­ley said he has net­worked well dur­ing his ca­reer which should give him op­tions in the fu­ture.

“I haven’t done any­thing stupid with my money, so that is also a good thing,” he said.

“I met my wife on tour and we are set­tled which pro­vides a lot of sta­bil­ity away from squash.” On the down side, squash, like many pro­fes­sional sports, does not pro­vide any men­tor­ing or coach­ing for play­ers tran­si­tion­ing to re­tire­ment, but there has been talk of chang­ing

this.

“It’s ac­tu­ally some­thing that the sport is look­ing to im­prove,”

Pil­ley said. “They are ac­tively try­ing to help us play­ers think about the fu­ture and plan for life af­ter sport.”

The thing I’ll miss is the adrenaline and the high of com­pet­ing on the world stage in front of a huge crowd.

PHOTO: DAVE HUNT/AAP

Dan Vick­er­man died at his home in Sydney last month.

PHOTO: FILE

For­mer Aus­tralian men’s hockey team cap­tain Brent Liver­more coaches a clinic in Grafton.

Sqash star Cameron Pil­ley in ac­tion against Egyp­tian Omar Mosaad. PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

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