The rigorous training, daily meetings, pilates, going through vision, game days. The life of an elite athlete cannot last for ever and that realisation hits every athlete during their career. For as long as athletes can remember, they have been working towards a goal; to the be the best they can be, to do better, to be better, to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
But what happens when it’s time to give it up, when the body shuts down and mentally, you can’t go on?
What will my life look like? How will I support my family? What qualifications do I have? These are the thoughts that go through an athlete’s head when they are thinking of retirement.
For some, it can be a stressful time, their plan doesn’t work out, they don’t know what’s going to make them happy, the transition isn’t smooth.
For retired West Coast Eagles footballer, Daniel Kerr, this is what the first couple of years after professional football looked like. In and out of trouble, constantly in the headlines, life was getting out of control at a pace that Kerr was struggling to control.
“I was ready to go, like I was really and truly done I started working for a place called Affordable Living in real estate, I didn’t like that I thought I would have a couple of months off and that couple of months just turned into, kind of just went longer,” he says.
“By the end of it I was divorced, I was in the paper, I was in lots and lots of trouble financially because myself and the wife were fighting. It was really quite challenging.”
Kerr was drafted in his last year of school and concedes he felt like he had missed out on being a teenager and enjoying his younger years. “Going straight from high school, I kind of always felt that I never let my hair down. I was married, I had kids, I was a good father, but there was a little piece of me that still wanted to be wild.”
Kerr believes the general public thought the problems he had after he retired from AFL stemmed from him missing the game, but he says he never once regretted his decision to leave the game.
“Never. Strange you would think with the way I behaved after football that I had some mental anguish from not being around the club. I haven’t missed it once. I have not had that thought. When I was done I was like ‘stick a fork in me’, I just can’t play this game anymore, it’s just too tough, it’s a very, very tough game.”
According to AFL Players’ Association head of mental health and wellbeing Brent Hedley, the AFLPA has been able to transform how they help retiring players with giving past players a platform to talk about the problems and struggles they have faced after retirement.
“Research with our past player group shows that many players have struggled with their transition out of the AFL system which has contributed to mental health issues,” he says.
“The recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) sought to address this issue through a significant investment in this cohort to assist with transition, injury and hardship support following their football careers.”
Hedley says all past player AFLPA members have access to the AFLPA National Psychologist Network, a free and confidential service.
Even with these resources and support given to the governing body, sporting clubs also have a duty to have their own support networks to help transition players out of the game. Whether or not players want to use and take advantage of the support is another matter.
Fremantle Dockers player development manager Mark Anderson says in the last couple of years players are starting to seek the resources out more than ever.
“It probably came about when the Players Association started to provide funding for players and I think at that point players actually started seeking it out themselves and then I think what happened really was that it fell onto the clubs to support that.”
He says that he hopes that more programs become Western Australian- based so the players get more support when it comes to transitioning out the game. “The AFL could look at more localised programs so there is an outduction program which is based in Melbourne and a lot of the networks and the contacts that people make will be Melbourne based so a similar type of arrangement back in WA would be really helpful.”
Daniel Kerr feels that he did not take advantage of such support services.
“They offered assistance, but they don’t force it and because I had a job and I had a family and I was financial, I didn’t really need any of their assistance.
“I think the AFLPA have done a really good job, we got our retirement fund now. I’ve never contacted the AFLPA not because of any other reason than I kind of just gone through my own journey.”
“From early on they’ve been completely immersed in this idea that they were going to be an elite sports person.” – Associate Professor Stephen McKenna.
On average the life span of an AFL career is six years according to the AFL Players Association.
On average the life span of a professional soccer player is eight years according to the Professional Footballers Association.
A successful transition out of sport on average, will take between two and three years. For an unsuccessful transition, it can take a lifetime, according to The Final Whistle, an Australian company that specialises in helping elite athletes transition out of sport into their preferred working job, with career development tools.
The Final Whistle website states athletes don’t realise how expensive a transition out of sport can be, saying sports people can experience up to 75 to 80 per cent decrease in income.
Most athletes face a transition out of sports between the ages of 25 and 35 years, as well as facing the fact that they have to start upskilling themselves to enter the work force, the organisation says.
Curtin University Associate Professor Stephen MeKenna says some sportspeople find the transition really challenging.
“They have a real problem making that transition and part of the reason is because they haven’t put in place the kind of things that need to be put in place when they are playing and that’s kind of the key issue …they haven’t [got] … the support structure to help with that transition.”
While some struggle, others can recapture the success they had in their playing days into their new work career straight away.
For Jamie Harnwell, ex Perth Glory captain in the A-League, this is what retirement looks like. He may have struggled with letting go a little bit, but the move from playing football every week into working a nine to five everyday was smooth.
“It was always drummed into me from my mum and dad. When I went on trial when I was 17 or 18, I was desperate to be a professional player and they sent me to England to trial but the proviso was that I did well enough in school to get into university. You know do this right, do that right and you will get a free trip to England, you will go experience what it’s like over there.”
Harnwell, a 256-game veteran of football, played for Glory in the National Soccer League and after that disbanded, was the inaugural captain of Perth Glory with the A- League. He also had stints playing in England and Liechtenstein, where he dealt with missing home but said that wasn’t the hardest part of his career. The hardest part was the 18-month period between the NSL disbanding and the A-League beginning, where he faced a period of bouncing between jobs.
While he says this was tough, it made him realise that he needed to start thinking about life after football.
“The hardest thing was just trying to make ends meet in the meantime and going from full time professional player to you know I worked with my dad at the pie company as a delivery driver for six months,” he says. “Not sure anything really prepares [you] and I can say I never had a really well thought out plan into what I would do when I retired I just knew that I wanted to stay in the game. I knew I had to develop skills outside of soccer outside of football to make sure I was employable in whatever aspect that looked like.”
McKenna says education is a key issue that needs to be focused on more while players are still in their playing years and not waiting until they have retired to start thinking about it.
“Education is an important element in and of itself to help people transition simply because it opens other opportunities getting a degree is crucial because it makes sure that people have other things to focus on other than sport and at the same time are preparing themselves for the future beyond sport.
“It’s about putting in place the kind of plan for making sure that when you do leave the sport you are ready to move into another part of life,” he says.
According to a study by FIFPro, the worldwide representative organisation for professional footballers, 39 per cent of former elite football players suffer with mental health issues.
McKenna says for some, retiring from an elite sport can feel like they are saying goodbye to a loved one. “It’s kind of like a grieving process, it’s like a big sense of loss.”
Harnwell believes that nothing really prepares you for leaving the game, but having something to look forward to will help the transition. “I’m not sure what else I could have done or wanted to do it’s a tough thing to try and realise that at some point you’re going to stop doing the thing you love regardless of how good you were. There needs to be a thought process of what will I enjoy trying to find other things that you enjoy, other passions outside of football.”
Kerr on the other hand, believed for himself to have the career he had, he needed to be completely focused on himself in that moment and not thinking about outside distractions, which included his kids. “I wish I didn’t have kids while I played, looking back they take away from your concentration and the amount you can train.
“It’s a really selfish sport, I found it hard on my kids”
Kerr does believe that more can be done to help players when they retire, and his suggestion is making a compulsory program where players can figure out what their passions are outside of the sport. “Have a program where they work out what players other interests are because the shock to the system of doing something you love every day to doing something you don’t, that’s the risk finding players other passions whilst they are playing years before they retire, I think that would be [a] reasonable program to make compulsory supposed to optional.”
“I didn’t have that edge anymore where I wanted to train hard and I didn’t have that edge I thought I would need to continue.” – Daniel Kerr
McKenna believes more can be done for transitioning athletes, that there will always be more for clubs and organisations to do for retiring sports people but especially from the industry side. “There is a lot more that can be done for sure we try to connect people from a business and industries with players [and] connecting them together.”
McKenna sums up the feelings that athletes have after retiring saying, “Sports people tend to sometimes come out and think I can’t do anything because all I’ve done is play AFL.
“It’s been said that “elite sports people basically die twice”… they die once when they give up sport and then they, in the future, die.”