By Ben Mercer (@wherebenmercer2)
It’s the end of the season and some players are saying their goodbyes. Some move on to new clubs, at home or abroad, whilst every year a cohort of players say their goodbyes to the sport and hang their boots up for good. Retirement beckons every player at some point, whether brought on by age, injury or apathy.
I hung up my own boots last year after a stint in the French lower divisions with Stade Rouennais Rugby. Having spent almost a year post full time rugby here are some of my tips and advice.
You will miss your teammates
Every old pro says they ‘miss their teammates’ and there is certainly nowhere like the changing room. Before a game it becomes a highly charged environment with all sorts going on but I actually preferred it in the week. Being creatures of habit we claim a little spot to ourselves on arrival and that becomes where you sit, socialise and set the world to rights. The changing room can be a harsh place where your valuables can be hidden, your fashion choices mocked and your performance (in all sorts of endeavours) dissected. It can also be a place where you learn about a player from the other side of the world, share everything with everyone and learn to love a teammate sat next to you with whom you have nothing else in common. You will miss them.
The world is a lonely place
Don’t underestimate how different the work environment will be. It’ll be hard to find another workplace where you all have such a strong shared interest, where you walk in every day to a huge group of people around your age and where there is plenty of time for laughter between great spurts of effort. You won’t hang out with your work colleagues every day after work, you won’t go and play cards with them and they may not have or reveal anything in common with you. This is a hard thing to get your head around and it’s easy to feel alone. Make sure you get yourself out there and organise your fun. This is very important.
Do some exercise
Until now exercise has not been a choice for you. Sometimes it has been something you hate, even if you know why it’s happening. Fair enough you will never again have to do a bleep test, a bronco, an RFU fitness test, a runway, a Hennie Muller, a yo-yo, a gasser or any other sort of sadists’ fantasy unless you want to but you should do some exercise. Have a bit of a rest, go on some holidays, go to the pub on a Friday, but make some time for exercise. Until now it’s not been a habit. It has been forced upon you. Making it a habit is so important and you will understand how people never get around it. Doing some will help you. So do it!
We are used to pushing ourselves past what we thought were our limits. Sometimes it’s a marine camp where you’re crying out for some sleep. Sometimes it’s the last five minutes, you’re down by six and you’re out on your feet. Whatever it is we’re ok with it and learn how to deal. It’s the same in the real world. You might feel uncomfortable saying ‘I don’t know’, you might not want to go to a networking event or you might think it’s weird trying out a new hobby. These are all reasonable and fair and you should push past your discomfort. You never know what you might learn about yourself or who you might meet who can help you out.
You are a curiosity
You will start a new job or a course or an internship or a hobby and you will be odd. You’ve been doing something out of the ordinary and this will set you apart, make you explain yourself over and over again and can define you if you’re not careful. You will have to develop some strategies to deal with these things. Some people will love rugby and talk to you about it all day long whilst some might not care and ask ‘never managed to play for England then?’ You are moving on and will have to respect what you did before whilst moving forward. This is something that is difficult.
Things will take longer than you want
Very soon after I stopped holidaying I had an offer of work from a friend and local business owner who needed some extra hands on deck. We both knew it wasn’t for me but that it could help out for a few weeks while I got other things going. He said ‘this will take longer than you want it to’ to which I thought ‘No no I reckon I’m moving along here’. He was right. A family friend with a retired rugby playing nephew told me the same thing two months afterwards and I thought ‘thank god it’s not just me’. It is not just you.
I think the last sentiment is a good one to end on: It is not just you. Athletes from all disciplines struggle with their transitions from full time sport to something else, whether it’s foisted upon them or not. Make sure you get out there and talk to other retired professionals, people who have been on a similar journey or to your friends and family. Your team will move on without you. You need to move on without them.
Ben Mercer played for Cornish Pirates and Plymouth Albion, before finishing his career at Stade Rouennais Rugby in France.