There has been a lot of incidents in the news recently of ex-rugby stars suffering from depression. Some players have suffered whilst still on the pitch, and others have developed the disease after retiring from the sport. Either way, the disease has become more high profile thanks to professional sports people who are now willing to speak out about their experiences in a bid to help others.
Being a professional sports star is the ultimate dream for many aspiring men and women, but with the role comes a high level of commitment and responsibility, not to mention the fact you can never walk down the street again without being recognised - something many famous people in general struggle with.
Below, Centurion examines the struggles behind retirement from professional rugby and how one ex-rugby star, Rory Lamont, has struggled to make the transition back to ordinary life.
The experience of retirement is often very difficult to come to terms with as an athlete. It can often be a rapid, traumatic move due to sudden injury, or the change can be a personal one, but on the whole it will involve a degree of anxiety and new levels of self-awareness. There are 3 categories of retirement in professional sport:
Age specific retirement - when a rugby player retires after a long career due to age, de-selection or no longer being physically able to compete at the highest level.
Involuntary retirement - where there is no choice in the matter due to illness, injury or being 'released' from their club.
Voluntary retirement - this can occur at any age, when an athlete decides off their own back that it's time to move on.
Athletes who fall into the first two categories are most likely to struggle with adjusting to their new lives once they've left, in fact, according to figures released by Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) 31 per cent of retired rugby players claim not to be in control of their lives within two years of retiring.
Battles with depression, drug addiction and financial problems are all associated with retired rugby players as they try to adjust to their new lives away from sport. For many professional players, rugby will have taken priority over almost everything from a very young age - social lives, dietary choices, sleeping patterns and how they conduct themselves.
Very famous rugby players will also have been controlled by when they can take holidays, where they might be seen, when and how they can use social media, how they conduct their daily lifestyle and which choices they make in their future - in fact there are very few decisions they will have been able to make on their own.
After retirement, all of the above changes. Athletes no longer have the intense training schedules, the buzz of competing in a stadium in front of thousands of supporters and the daily routine which goes alongside being a professional sports person.
Athletes can feel like they have lost a piece of their identity and are now faced with the challenge of creating a whole new life. This is when problems can occur - many athletes will need to go through a grieving process and then a rebuilding process in order to move forward at all. During this period, athletes may experience feelings of depression, anxiety and loss.
Case Study: Rory Lamont
Rory Lamont announced his retirement from professional rugby on 26 April 2013, citing his inability to recover fully from the broken leg he suffered against France the previous year as a deciding factor.
Lamont said: “I was thinking, ‘finally it’s over’. I felt like an animal being put out of its misery. I’d had a miserable year, people questioning my integrity, and I couldn’t wait to crack on with my life and all the amazing things I was going to do.”
But Rory couldn't have predicted the events that followed - he became a social recluse, battled depression and had frequent suicidal thoughts. In the first four months following his retirement he lost 25kg and was unable to stomach solid food for a further five months - this was not what he signed up for.
“Rugby is great at masking insecurities. You get this bullet-proof vest: you’re part of a team, everyone’s telling you you’re great. But it’s just a comfort blanket. Once that’s removed, you’re that little child, completely scared, totally vulnerable and very much on your own.”
“I know this is what a lot of guys go through. We need to change the culture. By me speaking up, hopefully people will see there’s no shame in admitting you’re struggling. Guys who have gone through this maybe need to be a bit more vocal about what it’s like to drop off a cliff. Unions won’t do it, clubs won’t do it — it has to come from players, former players, and the players’ union.”
Lamont remains eligible for support from the Rugby Players Association. He hasn’t explored this option due to the “shame and stigma” he feels it will bring him. Instead he is keen to focus on a future helping to “drive the change that needs to happen. Other people going through this need to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”