After Sport

What is Athlete Identity Crisis and how could it connect recent rugby tragedies

There is a law in New Zealand that prevents me from talking about the specifics of Dan Vickerman’s death but by now many will understand that he was battling “The Black Dog”.  Former Wallabies great Owen Finegan has relayed that Dan had found the transition from professional sports into post career extremely difficult, and after years of researching athlete welfare I can tell you Dan was far from alone, in fact from my experience the problem is so widespread that EVERY retired athlete I’ve spoken to has been affected by it in some way at some point in time, it’s extreme version even has a name; Athlete Identity Crisis.

Growing up we develop identities, each of us will form a number of them. They are the roles we play; I am a mother, I am a brother, I am a teacher, I am a coach and so on. They help define us. I like running and I play rugby are very different statements to; I am a runner, I am a rugby player. “I play rugby” is something you do, but “I am a rugby player” is something you ARE. Many of you will say; so what?

That simple but powerful language from a young age coupled with the physical and emotional rhythms of sport – going out to battle with your brother or sisters every week – the often tribal nature of sport where win lose or draw you are subjected to immense chemical highs and lows together forms a very strong identity.

And there are two sides to identity. Our private identity is the way we view ourselves, which includes our attitudes, beliefs, feelings and emotions. Our public identity on the other hand is concerned with how we think others see us, or indeed may judge us. Where some people may think these are opposites in a spectrum, in fact they are very closely connected. Like it or not the way we believe others view us effects how we view ourselves. This is true for even the humblest athlete; the result is an expectation, imagined or not.

The very nature of sport means that after 20 years of this intense conditioning, one day, often suddenly and almost always unexpectedly, everything is gone. No more World Cup on the horizon, no more immediate goal of making the team, no more physical high of game day. And what makes it worse is that often the rest of your great mates are out there the following week while your cousin asks you the toughest question; “What are you up to these days?” When you’re in sports, an athlete can answer that question with world class ease because sport itself is easy to navigate, making the team, finishing the season well, performing well at nationals, aiming to win a world cup. Sport is full of goals set up for you like beacons and they’re amazing, interesting, challenging goals. In the transition post sport, that simple question “what are you doing now?” can often be the worst five words an athlete can hear. It’s much more difficult to make “looking for a job” or “working with my cousin in construction” sound as glamourous as getting ready for the Olympics.

Athletes Die Twice

The result can be disastrous. Many athletes replicate their team environment by building a “team” around them, an entourage that bleeds them dry, some self-medicate and drink the pain away, most spend. I found it shocking that across every major sporting competition that has collected data that over 50% of athletes were broke five years after retiring. That includes the English Premier League, the NBA, and the NFL. The pressures of keeping up appearance, that “public identity” rearing it’s ugly head again.

A sense of purpose

When we began our journey at WeAreTENZING one of the founders, entrepreneur Derek Handley, challenged us with a simple question; Is there a way we can sustainably improve athlete welfare? Very early on we realized how big a problem Athlete Identity Crisis is and how it’s being ignored by many in the industry. The first and most important part of our solution has been built around purpose. We chose WeAreTENZING as our name as a tribute to how Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay translated a simple sporting goal, climbing a mountain, into post career purpose. Hillary only climbed Everest once. Once he’d achieved that he used his global platform, his fame, to help build over 40 schools and hospitals in the Himalayas. Now a third generation of Hillarys and Tenzings are continuing their legacy. Two weeks before climbing Everest if you asked Hillary what he was up to he’d have been able to tell you step by step how he planned to climb the mountain, an admirable goal. In the years following, if you’d have asked him what he was doing now he’d have been able to relay how he planned on helping the people of the Himalayas, what school was next, where a hospital was needed and how he fitted in to making that happen, and upon their death beds Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were no doubt proud of climbing a mountain, but my guess is it paled in comparison to what they achieved after.
If we can help athletes during their career to define what their purpose is, their “schools in the Himalayas” it can become a goal set that lives well beyond their retirement. That “what are you up to these days?” question is much easier if we’ve defined an amazing goal; wiping out Rheumatic fever in the Pacific, helping eradicate homelessness, working with their sponsor to eliminate plastic shopping bags by 2020. What’s more there’s never been a better time for athletes to champion impactful causes, social media means they now have their own delivery channel to help spread their message. We can help them define that message, partner them with others that believe in it and communicate it to the world.

The title speaks to a connection between rugby greats, all gone too soon and all, I believe let down by an industry that makes the most out of it’s athletes while they’re playing but clocks off the moment they retire. I can’t pretend to know what they went through, each had their own challenges but if it’s reflective of what many of their brothers and sisters have told me they are going through then we can no longer ignore Athlete Identity Crisis and how it affects these amazing people that bring so much joy to us all.