When players become people

Photo: No copyright consent

The challenges sports people face when retirement looms can be daunting. But it is not the end, just ask former Wigan Warriors fullback Kris Radlinski who sat down to speak with SportSphere editor Tom Earnshaw

Sport is full of ‘hard’ men; for many fans and professionals it is defined by the aggressive determination and tenacity behind getting the better of your opponents. Fans find themselves defined by their animalistic dedication to their teams and players by their chiselled physiques and physical dominance.

But what happens when players hang up their boots? When they say goodbye to the routine of training; of player comradery; of the thrill of waking up on match day?

Athletes face immense struggles when the glittering lights end and they have to adapt to a ‘regular’ life, and research has shown that a significant number of athletes experience psychological complications as a result.

clarke carlisle

In December 2014, former footballer Clarke Carlisle (top middle) attempted suicide after struggling with his mental health in retirement. In an interview with the Guardian, Carlisle said: “It’s incredibly difficult. For the vast majority of players there is a huge hole to be filled. Everything in your life when playing is structured and all of a sudden that gets taken away.”

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Terry Newton. Photo: No copyright consent.

There is the distressing story of former Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls forward Terry Newton (bottom right). After being diagnosed with depression in 2008 after the death of his sister, he was also banned from the sport he loved in 2010 at the age of 31. Terry ended up taking his own life later in the same year.

For former Wigan Warrior Kris Radlinski, the future was also daunting when retirement arrived abruptly. “At first, I was alright. I didn’t rush into the decision,” he told SportSphere.

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Radlinski with Chris Ashton during his playing days. Photo: No copyright consent.

‘Rads’, as he is known to fans, retired early at the age of 30 due to a serious back injury. “I ended up playing when my body wasn’t fit to play because I couldn’t do enough training. It was a vicious circle where I was trying to protect my body but in order to get physically ready to play rugby league I had to train,” he said. “I was playing and I wasn’t doing myself justice.”

After a bit of downtime immediately after retiring, a time came where Radlinski experienced the same process as other ex-pros. “As a rugby player you’re institutionalised – you’re told what to eat, when to sleep, when to do this, when to do that,” Radlinski explained. “It comes to a point where you have to fend for yourself. I was 30 and although I’ve had lots of experiences and good things happen to me, I’d never really lived as such. The reality came where I needed to sort myself out and get in to the real world.”

“The reality is that I still had a family and a nice house,” he pointed out, but the struggle was real. In his 2009 autobiography, Simply Rad, he wrote: “One minute, I was worshipped and wearing the Wigan and Great Britain number 1 shirt, with a purpose in life; the next, I was a has-been.”

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Glory days. Photo: No copyright consent

Radlinski’s transition to ‘real life’ came in 2009 when chairman and owner of Wigan Warriors, Ian Lenagan, appointed him as Rugby General Manager after various discussions. “I spent a lot of time developing myself and learning the business. It’s been tough with some harsh moments along the way,” Radlinski said.

And with Lenagan’s appointment as Chairman of the Football League in 2016, his role increased dramatically. “Mr Lenagan said ‘I want you to run the club on a daily basis’. Now – I guess people wouldn’t realise – every single department in the club reports to me. Marketing, youth, designing kits, everything,” Radlinski said.

Radlinski believes this level of business is where former professional athletes can excel. “There’s a lot of businesses in the corporate world that are now employing sports people because they are of a mindset where they work hard, they don’t mind criticism, and they’ll go the extra mile,” Radlinski said. “The traits that make the best sports people transfer to the skills that make a better business or businessman.”

And ever-increasingly better provisions are now in place to help sports stars gain the necessary foundations and qualifications for when their playing days end.

“In the past the welfare officer at a club was a tick box exercise – the groundsman could be a welfare officer. Now we have designated guys who are trained and educated, whose job is to care for players’ lives after the game,” Radlinski said. “Education is put at the forefront. At Wigan, everyone is encouraged to do courses, to get trade, to have a career.”

He added: “We’re fortunate enough that head coach Shaun Wane is understanding. He wants players to think about themselves, so if they need to miss training you’ll be able to do it.”

The Rugby Football League (RFL) is doing its bit to help when it comes to financing these new provisions. The governing body offers extra salary cap dispensation to clubs that achieve their key performance indicators (KPIs) in regards to players’ career engagement. “There’s incentives for clubs to encourage education and the importance of a relationship and an outlet with someone players can trust,” Radlinski said.

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Football is following suit, with the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) subsidising courses that ex-players take once retired. It states that a player’s wage could drop by as much as 50-75% when they stop playing, and estimate the average career to be only seven years.

Not every athlete has the lifestyle of the likes of Marcus Rashford or Tony Bellew, but even the most prosperous athletes are only ever one disastrous injury away from coping with having what they love taken from them.

Sport is learning to care for what comes next to those we value so much when playing the sports we love. And governing bodies are helping players realise early on that this wont last forever, which can only be a good thing.

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