It was the fictional fashionista, Derek Zoolander, who asked himself, “Who am I?” as he peered poignantly into a puddle that bore his own reflection in the 2001 cult classic Zoolander, only moments after losing the male model of the year award to his arch rival, Hansel.
In defeat, he lost his identity. If he wasn’t the best model on the planet anymore, then who the hell was he? The movie jests, but I have seriously asked myself the same question several times in the last 12 months during the “transition”.
The “transition” I speak of revolves around the well-travelled journey of elite sports people from a fast-moving lifestyle that encompasses plenty of new and exciting, twists, turns and challenges, to a life of … well… not those things.
Long after the bright lights fade, and the “oohs” and “aahs” of the feverish crowds extinguish, and the body finally relents to the years of wear and tear, the mind still flickers. “Who am I now?” it asks.
And it’s in the quieter moments, usually after retiring or being dropped from something you have worked your whole life to obtain, that the pressures and struggles of establishing your new identity gain momentum.
All of a sudden, a huge chunk of your identity, purpose and sense of belonging has been removed. A life that took not moments, not days, not weeks, but years of effort and devotion is gone, with nothing but a set of “guidelines” and a good luck email left to help you overcome the slippery slopes of the “transition”.
Normal, everyday questions for sports people become obsolete. How much rest time do we have today? Where is today’s recovery session? I wonder if the game debrief will involve me? Why did I let that ball go? Who is talking about my performance, and on what social media platform?
And the questions posed above usually, and stupidly, arise before we even get started on the intricacies and important issues of family life, work dilemmas, study clashes, health problems and everything else life can muster.
Lauren Jackson revealed earlier this year the impact retirement had on her mental health on SBS’s Insight and the ABC’s Four Corners. She admitted the sudden change in people’s attitudes towards her while moving from being an elite athlete one day to a retired sports star the next took a toll on her. She said it felt like she had been “put out to pasture”. I echo her sentiment and wonder what Basketball Australia is doing now that the cameras are turned off and Jackson has retreated back to her new life.
It is essentially a year since I last played hockey for Australia, yet I still deal with both mental and physical issues that arose during my time with the program.
I played at the top level with severe and chronic achilles tendonitis in the latter stages of my career. I was administered cortisone injection after cortisone injection in order to play and represent Australia where needed, but away from the televised events, I limped around the training ground for 18 months struggling from contest to contest.
Cortisone injections worked for a few weeks at a time, until the pain finally returned. It wasn’t a happy place to exist. I was also diagnosed with a generalised anxiety around the same time I was dealing with the achilles issue, something that can’t be attributed to my injury, but is well and truly related now.
I still wake up every morning and walk down my hallway in pain; I struggle to chase my six-month old puppy around; I haven’t been able to play basketball, a love of my life, for over a year; and couldn’t wear Havaianas, Nikes or boots for the entire year of Olympic preparation.
These might seem like trivial things to some, but one day it’s not unforeseeable that I could replace “dog” with kids; “basketball” with walking; and “entire Olympic preparation” with entire life. I was receiving treatment and guidance for my ailment, but largely from a very helpful friend and ex-team physio.
Now that I’ve joined the “real” world I expect those mates rates favours will eventually run out. Services that were supplemented before now cost money, and the reality is I have to earn a living somehow.
At the moment, I work casually doing brand development work for my hockey equipment sponsor Voodoo. I teach hockey to kids at Guildford Grammar School. I am at university two days a week (I graduate at the end of 2017), I recently finished an internship at the Western Force and I freelance write a bit.
I returned to competitive sport in June of this year, playing first grade club hockey for Fremantle in the Perth Hockey Competition. Nothing can replace or replicate the joy that sport (and in particular, hockey with Freo) brings to my life. A sense of belonging, a family environment, a brotherhood of mates, a physical and mental challenge each and every week, and a home away from home.
Unfortunately, some won’t transition. The worst part of it is navigating the initial few years post-retirement where you attempt to carve out a new life. And not a mediocre life either, one that hopefully resembles the remarkable and extraordinary sporting life you lived only years earlier.
The life that teaches you to reach for the stars; to push the boundaries of what you deem possible; to fight and grind your way through numerous ailments and setbacks; to endure the heartache of defeat; appreciate the fruits of victory; and be thankful, not bitter, about the sacrifices you made to get create those moments.
So who am I? At the very least, I’m the guy that speaks openly and candidly, not only about my own struggles, but the struggles of others, in the hope a more balanced and well-rounded support program can be developed and introduced by the nation’s sporting bodies.
I’m the guy trying to educate, inform and engage people on the serious issues and challenges being posed to an industry that not only brings us some of the most inspiring and uplifting stories of our time, but some of the darkest and most disturbing as well.
By writing this I’m hoping others transitioning from being centre stage to a face in the crowd will realise they’re not alone. Don’t lose your sense of worth.
So although I may not have found my true identity yet, I am hell bent on ensuring the next generation of sportspeople know where to look for theirs.
- This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Sunday Times and on the website PerthNow.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Hotlines in other countries can be found here