Westbury column: Every athlete dies twice – we need to talk about life after retirement

By Isabelle Westbury

Every athlete dies twice. Once when they take their last breath, and the other when they hang it up. Throughout my teens and early 20s, I thought this cliché belonged only to cult films like Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, or the corniest of all, Rocky. It was neat, but not a feature of real life, surely.

It is perhaps as a reflection of my own advancing age, or departure from a brief flirtation with professional sport, that this is a phrase which suddenly feels much more relevant. The retirement of the ever-present Alastair Cook is also a timely reminder. It is likely however that it is also because mental health, and its context within sport, is being spoken about much more freely and frequently.

It was not that long ago that Marcus Trescothick departed prematurely from an overseas tour due to at first ‘family reasons’ then ‘personal reasons’ and, only a full two years later, was it described for what it was, depression. Now, physical and psychological wellbeing are a core component of any sports training and development programme. The PCA, alongside ex-pros and other campaigners, are one of the reasons that cricketers, over most other athletes, are now far quicker to reveal and address these issues where they arise.

There is an argument that the nature of cricket, with its high individual pressure, and the substantial part played by luck, conditions and what happens in one second of sometimes five days of play, means that its players are more prone to mental health issues. There are some vocal opponents of this view, so I voice it cautiously. Regardless cricket is, on the whole, far ahead of other sports when it comes to discussing and improving mental health.

This is why when Ryan Sidebottom, the former Yorkshire (and England) fast bowler, appeared on the daytime chat show The Wright Stuff to speak about his own mental health challenges following his retirement as a player, it was received with little fuss. Which is good – and bad. It is good that mental health is being spoken about so freely. Yet it also shows that there are some areas, notably how to help a player transition into retirement, where there is still much suffering.

Psychologically and economically, it is a phenomenon still not very well understood, nor addressed, mainly because so few experience it.

Sidebottom spoke crisply about the potential for anxiety and depression once an athlete retires. “It is quite a short career and you do, you lose your self esteem,” explained Sidebottom. “You feel you are letting everyone down and wonder, ‘where am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to support my family?’

“Regardless of whether you’ve got another job, it’s what you’ve known all your life so when you retire it’s such a huge thing,” Sidebottom paused. “Regardless of whether you’ve set aside some money, with everything, it’s a very difficult time.

“I’ve really struggled,” conceded Sidebottom, now working with Surrey as a bowling consultant. “I really have. Even though I’ve got a job with Surrey, I’ve still struggled.”

Most athletes retire with at least half their actual physical lives still to come, if we consider average life expectancy. “You’ve structured all your life, when you were in sport,” continued Sidebottom. “You’re told what to do, And then it all comes to an end and you don’t have the support network; you might lose your friends, you feel as though you have no one to talk to. It’s about speaking out, talking to people and asking for help if you need it.”

And that’s where Sidebottom’s disclosure, as well as that of other professionals, such as Trescothick, Sarah Taylor and Graeme Fowler, is so vital. Because while a mental or neurological disorder is something that one in four people will be affected by at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organisation, in the context of professional sport, it is something very few will have to contend with. This does not mean that it is no less acute for those that do.

Opening up: Still going strong at Somerset, Marcus Trescothick has spoken publicly of the challenges he has faced with his mental health during his career (photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Their incidence in post-playing retirement, beyond just the fact that more are willing to talk about it, will likely increase dramatically in the future. Thirty years ago, most professional cricketers had another job, or skill, or educational qualification. Some still do, thanks to the likes of the MCCU and other PCA-backed programmes. However to many, if not most, young athletes these are perfunctory, a box ticked to satisfy others, as their pursuit of professional cricket overrides all else.

When I was in my late teens, the jealousy towards my male peers who, at the same stage of their cricketing careers, were signing professional, lucrative (to a teenager) contracts was searing. I wanted nothing else but to have the same opportunity, to just play cricket, without the burden of working towards an alternative career alongside it. More than a decade on and I now understand my parents’ insistence that I take my studies seriously.

And it is not just the psychological challenge of leaving a professional career, towards which you have worked your entire life until that point, to start something completely different. There is an economic hurdle, too.

The economist Annamaria Lusardi founded the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center in Washington. A few years ago she started teaching financial literacy specifically to professional NFL footballers. Their circumstances, as the Freakonomics podcast-host Steven Dubner noted, are “quite atypical”.

A career lasting six years, the median length, will provide an NFL player with more earnings than an average university graduate will get in an entire lifetime. However, in a sample of retired players studied by Lusardi, she found that 12 years into retirement, 15 per cent declared bankruptcy.

This is a bankruptcy rate higher than overall men in that age group, despite earning already a career’s worth of income. While cricket is not as lucrative, on average, as NFL, a player’s earnings over their career are not insubstantial and similar problems arise.

The PCA, as the professional players’ union, and other independent charities, like Opening Up, have a large and growing remit. The more support and attention they get for an issue which on the one hand is being spoken about more candidly, but on the other will likely become more serious, the better.

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