When the spotlight suddenly flicks off, the darkness can be overwhelming.
Star athletes in Australia shine brightly in a sports mad country, but the fame and fortune attached can be fleeting, and increasingly those who have left the stage are sharing stories of the mental strain of such an abrupt – and sometimes unexpected – change in their lives.
As a former Wallaby and Westpac’s national head of industry specialisation, Tim Horan has a unique perspective on the transition sports stars need to make. It’s a timely conversation as several sporting codes prepare to draw the curtain on another season and Perth-based rugby club The Western Force faces the axe from the Super Rugby competition.
“It's certainly a challenge for any professional sportsman or woman to go from their trade and what they are doing and all of a sudden you retire and you have to reinvent yourself,” says Horan, who oversees Westpac’s department that helps athletes manage their finances after a storied rugby career.
“I often say to people you retire twice in our career because you retire once around that 30/32 years old and then you retire again when you're 60 odd.
“It’s a very small span that you’ve got an opportunity to earn a living and then it drops off…a rugby union player is on say $250,000 a year. When he retires most likely he’s going to be on less than half that, so how do you actually bridge that gap, one with investments along the way and smart people around you, but also preparing yourself for life…after professional sport.”
Assisting athletes with retirement from professional sport – which can be driven by declining on-field performance, injury, or displacement by a newer generation – is an increasingly significant challenge for all sporting codes. For the Australian Rugby Community, the impacts of this dislocation were brought home swiftly this year when former Wallabies second-rower Daniel Vickerman, a literal and metaphorical towering figure in the game, took his own life.
“You go from being the king of your domain, where you know exactly what your job is, the influence you can have on your teammates,” Brendan Cannon, Vickerman’s close friend and former teammates, told ABC’s Four Corners program in May this year as he revealed his own struggles when retiring. “Then all of a sudden, you’re standing on your own in a room full of strangers, which are your new work friends.”
For Horan, the timing of Vickerman’s struggle fits a pattern for those trying to reinvent their lives. And while the travails of star players regularly make headlines, many others also struggle transitioning to the “real world”.
“The first year, maybe the second year there's a honeymoon period from when you retire,” Horan says.
“Then that third and fourth year you need to stand on your own two feet, and you probably need a bit more support in those times.
“And that's where poor old Dan Vickerman was, you know, three, four years after finishing playing his professional career, [Dan] was jumping around a couple of different jobs, he wasn't too sure about how he fits into the community.”
This is where Horan believes the Australian business community can help out. He proposes structured pathways into the business world including formal work experience or cadetships during athletes’ careers and longer support networks afterwards.
“You've really got to make sure you're not retiring from something, you're actually retiring to something and you've got something to go to,” he says.
“I think there’s a gap there. The sporting bodies are trying, trying to doing as much as they can but I don't think anyone has really nailed it yet, anyone has really understood what professional athletes’ psyche is, what they're good at away from the game or the professional sport that they're playing, so it's a challenge and it's a challenge that will go on for a long time.
“(But) imagine if we had 25 companies in Australia that said ‘OK, women's sport, men's sport, we can provide cadetships for the last two years of your career so that the third year when you retire we have a full time job for you’. The welfare of that person, to take that opportunity, would just go to another level.”
Horan believes athletes need to start focussing on their post-sport careers much earlier, and in addition, receive a longer period of transitional support after they retire. He revealed advice he was given that it was better to retire a year too early than one too late.
“The average professional sports [career], whether it's AFL, rugby union, rugby league, is about 5.2 years and that's getting less. Most people think you start a professional career in rugby league or rugby union or AFL, I'll get 10 or 12 years out of that. But the majority of the time it's under 5 years,” he says.
“You don't know that as a young 21, 22 year old but you've got to start to sample some options on the way ... because the earlier you do that the earlier you'll work out what you're good at and what you’d potentially like to do.”
The shortened timespan and pressure to deliver also appears to be having an outsized impact on the Australian rugby competition as the ARU struggles to retain talent in a booming worldwide market. Tellingly, when asked about the decision of star backrower Sean McMahon to depart Australian rugby for an overseas contract, Horan says the shine on the Wallabies jersey for today’s players may have dimmed.
“For a guy like Sean McMahon I've got no problem with him going offshore and doing that because he might stay and potentially play for the Wallabies for two years and play 20 test matches. Which is great and he does get paid for that, but if he gets injured through that and it's a career-ending injury, he misses out on the opportunity to make sure he's financially secure for the rest of his life and for his family and kids.
“So I've got no huge issue with it, but we've got to make sure the lure of playing in the gold jersey, there's more hooks for players to stay in this country.”