“My transition was really tough; at 25, 26 I realised I could no longer undertake the rigour or demand, and realistically that started at 18, so I spent six or seven years holding onto the coat tail of football as it was pretty much all I knew, the level of expectation on my shoulders was enormous.”
Former Luton goalkeeper Scott Ward’s experience is not a unique one in sport but it has driven him on to do his best to ensure others do not go through the uncertainty he had. The 36-year-old knows about the ecstasy and agony of professional sport, having saved a penalty with his first touch in the Football League as a teenager but then having to retire due to a back injury a decade ago with little to fall back on, becoming a refuse collector to make a living, while his brothers Elliott and Darren were playing at the top of English football.
“I was meant to be this, I was meant to be that, Elliott and Darren were flying in the game and the language of choice within my own family was driven by football, so the fear for me was not only the external perception of me but how that would change my own family dynamic,” Ward tells The Independent. “It was only when my wife undertook her degree that I realised I needed to start to doing things of my own accord, doing things for myself, so my wife inspired me to do my MBA and it was when meeting all these people on my Masters that I realised that the more voices that you can contribute to something, the richer and more balanced view you can offer.”
Becoming a professional sportsperson requires immense talent and to dedicate themselves to their chosen sport from an early age. An athlete’s identity is defined by their career, which often has the benefits of fame, money and adulation but when it comes to an end, at a relatively young age, many compare retirement to falling off a cliff-edge.
The majority of sportspeople progress through elite academies and become almost institutionalised by their repetitive world of training and playing. Many struggle to mature from a societal standing as they live within the sporting bubble and align their identity to their sport rather than becoming more rounded human beings. By emboldening sportspeople and making them more self-aware, it could bring an equilibrium to those most at risk.
There is no shying away from the statistics relating to what happens to sportspeople after their career has come to an end. Within five years of retirement 40 per cent are divorced and it’s the same figure for bankruptcies, a sign that there is little help to ensure a smooth transition for those who have dedicated their life to sport. And almost two in five footballers suffer from depression or anxiety during or after their career.
“The research has shown and the people that we’ve spoken to who have all suffered from depression that they’ve felt that the lack of preparation is the largest contributing factor to them falling off that cliff-edge at the end of their sporting career,” Ward explains.
Olympic gold medallist Mark Hunter is another member of Ward’s team at Ernst & Young, who offers a different perspective of elite sport. Footballers only have a few hours a day at the training ground, whereas the rower had three sessions seven days a week in order to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport, resulting in minimal time to plan for life beyond the boat. Their Personal Performance Programme has been years in the making and now they are working with sporting clubs and bodies to implement their system.
“When I met Mark it was like we’d known each other for years,” Ward explains, “we understood the importance of preventative action, we think we have a pretty good understanding of what an athlete needs based on experience but also the research I’ve undertaken.
“I’ve spoken to athletes globally about this, I’ve spoken to global sports bodies about this, I’ve looked at trend cycles and in terms of what’s been delivered to athletes historically, what has and hasn’t worked. Only through that five-year cycle have we been able to invent something that we really feel will be able to change lives over time but it will take a cultural acceptance within sport and a long-term commitment.”
Now they are taking the project around the world with sporting bodies and clubs showing interest in implementing it. As part of the programme, athletes undertake workshops and online courses to learn business skills, how they can utilise their current capabilities away from the sporting arena once their career comes to an end and mindset development. The likes of 23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps and Gail Emms have openly discussed the problems they have faced and the mental health issues they have suffered since retiring and how they need more help to adapt to life outside of elite sport and this could be the missing link.
“When you think about the process in athletes, you don’t just turn up on performance day, you go through a whole process of months, days, weeks and hours, so why should this be any different?” Hunter asks. “When you’ve got that mindset of someone working towards something to get the best performance on that day, then they will want to deliver this when they step out (of professional sport), so it’s not just an overnight thing, it’s not just turning a tap on and it’s going to work, it has to be a long-term goal and using those skills you’ve developed as an athlete in that environment.”
Sportspeople often do not have to think for themselves, working under the control of coaches and a club, being told when to arrive for training, what to eat and even how to perform on the pitch, leaving little space for personal creativity. Many football clubs employ player liaison officers who are there to source all a player could want from food to housing and everything in between, limiting their chance to live a more normal life by interacting with the general public, which can be a reason why footballers suffer from mental health issues post-retirement as they try to adjust to life away from the game. The programme aims to increase self-awareness and the ability for a sportsperson to make their own decisions away from sport.
“We just need to be able to give them the toolkit to make those decisions and it’s argued currently athletes are being developed for an output of athletic performance while still being given some type of academic qualification,” Ward says. “During our research it’s been shown that while academic qualifications are useful and financial wealth is extremely supportive, the real cliff-edge trauma is being faced by those who have not had that mindset preparation, that conscious development that most people will get through their societal growth period between the ages of 16 and 21, at college, university or work.”
Ward’s own brother Elliott, formerly of West Ham and Bournemouth, is a good example of someone with one eye on the future. At 33 he is currently plying his trade at Notts County but knows he can’t go on forever. His career almost ended before it began due to a back injury at 18, although he was saved by surgery, but it left him realising the fragility of his chosen path. Over the years he has regularly spoken to psychologists and this has spurred an interest in doing similar once his playing days do come to an end.
“Football has been my life from a young age but I’ve only just signed for a new club,” Elliott Ward told The Independent. “I had a two-month period where I was thinking about if nothing came about and I didn’t sign for anyone, what am I going to do?”
Elliott Ward is one of many without qualifications having submerged himself in football from the Premier League to now being in the lower reaches of League Two. Football is all he’s known and he is now trying to use his experience to potentially propel himself into a new direction when his time comes to hang up his boots. He hasn’t enjoyed the advantage of a mid-career education, something his brother is hoping to provide to many others.
“I never got too many people pushing me in one direction or another but nothing has really grabbed me,” Elliott Ward says. “I can only go off personal experience from where I’ve had my injuries throughout my career where I’ve used psychologists and I’ve used them throughout my career where they’ve helped me process the injury, the thoughts that come with it and how to speed up the recovery. I’ve definitely put some thought into it in the last six months and now I’ve signed for a new club I can go back to learn a new skill, go to uni and find something that will grab me when I do retire.”
The message from Scott Ward and Hunter is a simple and passionate one, they are in it to avoid other athletes succumbing to some of the post-career pitfalls and reducing the sad statistics around retired sportsmen.
Hunter explains: “I was fortunate enough to meet Scott and then we shared identical values in how this could help people and the thing about it is that we care about the athletes and that is the main driver behind this, we’re trying to make sure we don’t see athletes fall off that cliff or trying to minimise the fall and make sure they’re better equipped for that transition out.”
Things will not change overnight but the shift in dynamic could make all the difference to thousands of athletes.
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