guest post from Ben Alexander
I’ve been writing about some frustrations and disappointments from my time as a professional footballer.
But the point of this blog is to write about life in retirement from footy, and to give an insight into the challenges sportsmen and women face when the full-time whistle is blown on their sporting careers.
The main challenge varies from player to player, but there are a few common obstacles that anyone retiring young faces.
Whether it be retiring from a sport, the military, or just figuring out what you want to do next in life, the transition is tough.
I didn’t decide to retire until the day before I announced it.
Maybe I was in denial, but a few factors converged that made the decision to retire a straightforward one.
And while I’ll keep saying the word “retiring”, what I really mean to say is “transitioning to what’s next” and there are a number of reasons why I think retiring from professional sport is hard.
Note: I am in no way a psychologist and what I will talk about has come from my own experience.
If you’re struggling, please reach out to a mate or seek professional help.
I bloody love YouTube.
I could spend days going down a rabbit hole (a series of videos) on a topic, not knowing what I might learn.
While I was playing, my favourite rabbit hole to venture down was one about the “chemicals in the brain” and how they make our brains function.
Every time I saw an article about an athlete suffering from depression in retirement, I would read it curious to know more.
And when former teammate Dan Vickerman took his own life, I thought maybe the same could happen to me.
But as I watched clip after clip on how the brain works, I became confident that when the time came to retire, that I would be ok.
I’d found it fascinating learning how the brain works, as I used to think that describing depression as a “chemical imbalance in the brain” was a load of sooky nonsense.
While I didn’t play a huge amount of footy with Big V, the two of us bonded during the 2011 Rugby World Cup as part of the Wallabies engine room.
We’d both badly broken our legs, requiring metal poles to be inserted inside our tibias, and he’d regularly ask me about my recovery.
I was lucky that I’d suffered the injury early in my career and I’d made a full recovery once the pole was removed.
But Big V courageously powered on during that World Cup with the pole inside his leg, causing him tremendous pain.
I only played briefly with the pole in my leg during a season in England with the Bedford Blues. But I remember the pain would be so intense after a running session that I would have to crawl up the stairs to make it to my bed.
Big V and I last spoke after a Brumbies/Waratahs match, when he stormed into the Dock to kick on with celebrations as part of a past player catch up.
Looking back, I wish I could have said something helpful as with the benefit of hindsight, there were some warning signs and it wasn’t the first time I’d been unable to help him.
I’ll never forget a conversation the two of us had after we’d lost to the All Blacks in the semi-final.
While we drowned our sorrows on the balcony of my hotel room, he turned to me and said:
“I can’t do this anymore”.
I didn’t know what to say and I remember thinking “mate… you played unbelievable” as he’d been consistently one of our best.
I’ll never know what he was referring too and I thought he might have been hinting to the pressure of representing your country on the world stage.
But now I think he referring to the ongoing agony of playing with such a painful injury, and that he would soon hang his boots up for good.
I hope that by sharing this someone may be able to help someone they know.
Someone they know who might be struggling, as I believe this difficult topic isn’t talked about enough.
Suicide has been the biggest killer of people I know.
It has robbed my Nanna of her brother, my mother-in-law of her father, and it robbed my 3 daughters of the chance to meet all 8 of their Great Grandparents.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Big V ever fully recovered from his injury and to think of how he must have been feeling in the weeks and months before his death is heartbreaking.
I hope everyone believes me when I say this that while I’ve never had any suicidal thoughts, I did have a tough patch when I first retired and my grandmother passed away weeks later.
My brain became foggy and I had no energy.
A combination of coming to terms with a loved one’s passing and the huge shift to my weekly routine knocked me for six, as I was now totally responsible for my daily schedule.
For my entire career, my schedule had been set for me, with the bulk of my days consisting of exercise with blokes whose company I enjoyed.
But what got me through that tough patch was exercise… and my mates.
YouTube helped me realize that to get my daily dose of Endorphins and Oxytocin, all I had to do was to turn up to training and do what I was told.
In other words, the professional Rugby environment is just running around all day with your mates while getting regular hits of the happy brain chemicals.
All the necessary ingredients to make Ben one happy chappy!
And it’s no wonder players feel sad when they stop and turn to other things to make them feel better.
But it doesn’t have to be the case.
After learning how these chemicals work, I realized that I had to make a conscious effort to schedule a time for exercise with mates into my weekly routine.
When I tried to exercise on my own… it very rarely happened.
During my career when I’d have my end of season holiday, after a week or two away from training, I started to feel off.
This feeling would then force me to return to team training a week earlier than required, misleading people to think I was dedicated.
But the truth was I just needed to get back exercising with my mates.
Getting to spend time with friends was the extra carrot I needed to get my shoes on and my arse out the door.
Still to this day, I really struggle to get a sweat up if I’m left to do it on my own.
Whether it be the Tuesday Trotters, the Wednesday Walkers, the Friday Flexers, the Man Walk, the Running 4 Resilience mob, or the parkrun crew… I’ve yet to find a better way to start the day than exercise followed by a coffee (or beer) with good people.
A big dose of endorphins, oxytocin, and caffeine! The perfect morning cocktail!
And while that delicious morning cocktail doesn’t solve all my problems… it does put me in the right frame of mind to work through them.
Long may it continue…
I wasn’t sure if I should cover such a sad topic, but if sharing my story can help one person… then it’s worth it.
This blog originally appeared on Ben’s Substack. There are 2 further pieces on this topic that you can find there. Ben keeps very busy with his 3 girls, his venue The Dock, studying computing and being co-founder of start ups fam and Alfred.
You can read and sign up to Ben’s blog at – https://benalexander.substack.com
Twitter – https://twitter.com/benny_alexander
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-alexander-684228b6/
LAPS Members can discuss Ben’s post on our Community page.