The continued search for meaning after retirement

guest post from Dr Chris McCready, Player Care for Manchester United FC

Finding meaning in my work after retiring from professional football is something I’ve given a lot of thought. Now that I do not have the option to find meaning in my work life through kicking a football, I’ve had to find it elsewhere.

I wrote a blog a few years ago for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust (DKHT) trying to capture my thoughts surrounding career transition and had been reading books like Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I sensed that life away from football would be challenging and would require a shift in the meaning that I attached to situations that had become commonplace for me as a footballer.

Big performances in full stadiums (or not so big performances in not so full stadiums!) or feeling in peak physical condition; lots of the experiences that had become expected and natural were going to change when my career was over. I worried that if my main sources of meaning and purpose were derived from these experiences, then who would I be without them and how would I move forward to enjoy what was next?

Meaning and purpose are areas that I still think are very important for consideration and I think that at least trying to grapple with such powerful ideas as our sporting careers come to an end and we consider ‘what next?’, is vitally important.

I wonder if without considering meaning and purpose, how will our future careers make sense to us and how will we believe in them sufficiently to push ourselves to become great at them?

Finding Meaning

I delivered a talk last week for LAPS summarising my conclusions from my PhD and discussing some of the work we have implemented at MUFC in the 4 seasons I have worked there. As I was talking and reflecting on the experience afterwards, it dawned on me how important this work is to me, and how I had come to see it in this way.

To set the scene the statistics are clear. Within football and perhaps all professional sports, a system has been created wherein children start from (often) very young ages with the hope of achieving adult success and whilst many try, most of them will fail. Some will succeed, but they will be in the clear minority, an uncomfortable and inescapable fact of all performance environments.

Perhaps we could work to reframe this journey as being of benefit to all who try, as opposed to only beneficial to those who succeed. That might be the next project, but for now let us put that to the side. For those that are successful, the career is often shorter than hoped for and will always come to an end at some point. Most often this ending occurs with half a life still to live.

Having devoted a large chunk of my time thus far to becoming a successful footballer, I know how hard it is to achieve success in one specific field and then to have to move on to do something else. In addition, I have watched and listened as friends leave the game and find it hard.

Some find it harder than others but I think rejection stings however you package it and however old you might be.

In completing the first study of my PhD, I interviewed young footballers (U18) before they knew their first contract decisions:

  • about their experiences
  • how they saw the game
  • how they saw themselves
  • who they were
  • what was important to them

The interview process was tough, knowing that statistically most were going to fail despite all of them wanting to achieve and giving it their best shot. These interviews, and my subsequent reflections about them, led me to consider what might be important to me moving forward in my second career.

how a diverse identity smoothes transition

The process of interviewing these young players further attracted me to the concept of identity as it seemed to be, at least in part, underpinning the conversations. They fell into two rough groups:

  1. Those capable of discussing themselves as young people, alongside the footballers they were desperate to become, appeared to be coping with the uncertainty. It felt to me as if their progress as a footballer could be a nice addition to their identity, or how they saw themselves, instead of it consuming all of their understanding.
  2. The young players that I spoke to who did not appear able to separate themselves from the footballer and who were inactive in exploring who they were alongside their sport, seemed to find the uncertainty very challenging.

This view was solidified as I interviewed a number of the same players numerous times over the next season. The conversations were often difficult to hear as the reality dawned upon them that they were unlikely to get back into the game after being released and that an identity as a footballer was no longer viable. In effect, they were asking themselves (and me, in some way),

‘Who am I now?’

One of the interviewees in particular really got me thinking. He was such an interesting young man, really determined to be a successful footballer and captain of his youth team, yet also very broad in his outlook; he saw himself as a footballer and a young man with multiple interests and ideas. He showed me how things could be done and despite his release from football, he went on to re-think and re-work how he saw himself. Of course, it was hard, but I am convinced it was less traumatic than most because of how he saw himself and how he understood his identity to be more than one thing.

The value of a new identity

Around the same time as completing this study, I met Dan Jolley and Simon Williams from League Football Education (LFE) and Adam Whitehead from DKHT. These guys had already started a travelling workshop to try to help young footballers think about what next and life after sport.

They kindly offered me the opportunity to collaborate and we discussed how understanding identity could be key to young footballers being ready and able to make alternative plans. If they did not understand the concept that identities could be multiple and broad, as opposed to singular and narrow (i.e., I am ‘just’ a footballer), then this could mean they were unlikely to embrace alternative career planning as it would be too challenging to their current understanding.

The workshop was an incredible experience and I managed to integrate it into my PhD as something akin to an Action Research project. The findings suggested that an intervention is required to support and develop young players understanding of identity and Personal Development and that this understanding can be supported and developed during their career.

We do not have to wait until post-career to start this type of work.

Players’ understanding is most often underpinned by ‘loss’ (i.e., what will happen to me if I ‘lose’ this identity?) and/or by current performance (i.e., I need a break from trying to be the constant 24/7 footballer).

I was in the process of writing up the findings when a job in Player Care at Manchester United FC was advertised, and it was an easy decision to take the job when it was offered to me in 2017. Amongst providing other broad support services to young players, the role has allowed me to create a curriculum designed to help young players understand identity and start to consider their ongoing Personal Development alongside their football. We feel that this will help them to perform and even find more enjoyment in their work. By learning new things, finding balance outside of work and planting seeds for what they might do when they need to change tack in the future, they almost bring a greater focus and freedom to their work when they’re at the club.

The performance and enjoyment angles are important as most of the young players at MUFC are not considering a future without football due to the stature of their current employer. This is completely understandable, so for them to see a value in these types of ideas there needs to be something of tangible, immediate benefit to them.

The Table

To start this process, we ask the players to build a table. This is an idea that came to us on the travelling workshop as we looked for ways to make the central ideas of Identity and Personal Development more interesting and understandable to young players.

The concept of identity is a big philosophical and challenging idea for all of us as we navigate life, so we needed to find a simple representation. The challenge starts by giving the players sellotape, newspaper and some laminated card with the instruction to build the strongest table possible using the newspaper for the legs and the laminated card for the top. The winner of the challenge is the table that can stand up and take the most weight on top of it. The players believe that this is some sort of team building exercise and usually get stuck into the task within their small teams.

After a bit of fun in watching some of the makeshift tables fall over before they can be tested and assessing the others for the weight that can be added on top of them, the analogy is gradually revealed with a first question,

‘Why has no team built a table with one leg?’

The logical answers follow that a one-legged table would not be very stable and would not be able to take as much weight on top of it when compared to the tables built by the successful teams which always have multiple legs. This multi-legged design allows those tables to stand and take weight.

After these engineering ideas are discussed, they are presented with the actual reason for the task; the table is a visual representation of identity. Using my own footballing journey, I explain how getting relatively good at football at an early age encouraged me to metaphorically build a table with one leg. All my friends were footballers, all I thought about was football, everything else in life needed to be dropped to allow me to become a 24/7 football machine.

The table I constructed had one leg.

However, when expectations and pressure grew as football became more important, like the paper cups on top of the table in the challenge, is the one-legged table able to stand up to the challenge and take the weight? Is it offering me enough support to help me perform and enjoy my days, without offering strong foundations? And crucially, if or when I cease to be a footballer, what will happen to the table when the one leg is removed? These questions are asked rhetorically.

To counter this approach, the comparisons are drawn between the tables that are not particularly sturdy and those that have four, five or six legs and offer a more stable platform. I then refer again to my footballing journey and liken the successful tables to my own career as I managed to develop other interests and ideas about who I was alongside the footballer, including my personal relationships, family, studying at university, meeting new people and so on. These examples became the extra legs of the table which allowed for better performance, more enjoyment and importantly, an idea as to where I might go in the future and who I might become.

Crucially, no less importance was given to the footballer ‘leg’, but it was supplemented with others. It allowed me to feel like I was developing as a person alongside the footballer.

More than just a football shirt

The next challenge is to bombard the players with examples of successful footballers who have more to them than ‘just’ being a footballer. Did you know that Vincent Kompany studied for a Masters degree, had a busy family life with a wife and children and won the Premier League in the same year? Or that Hector Bellerin produces his own podcast, enjoys fashion and engages with multiple charities? Once you look beyond the headlines of goals and assists on the pitch, there are numerous examples of footballers maintaining excellent performances and developing as a person alongside their chosen career.

Young players are always surprised to hear such stories, the assumption being that the 24/7 approach is the only one available to them. This understanding of identity and Personal Development instead gives them other stories to consider. We know that if the players consider these ideas now, it may help them both in the immediate sense, and when their inevitable transition occurs.

From a personal perspective,

this is my new source of meaning and purpose in my second career

I try to offer young players different stories and encourage them to think about who they are underneath the footballer’s shirt. For me, this is an important addition to the development journey and one that needs our attention.

It dawns on me that I have definitely moved forward after football, definitely more than I thought anyway and I’ve come to an answer that I’m finding satisfying. I believe that my meaning at work is to educate and help others find their own sense of meaning alongside sport. To be in a professional sporting environment you’re already great in many respects. The deeper you explore who you are away from the pitch, the more chance you have of becoming great at something else when it ends.


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