22 Oct 2021

Athletes fear not being 'useful'

1:55 pm on 22 October 2021

Life after sport is not always a straightforward transition regardless of how full an athlete's trophy cabinet is.

Black Sticks hockey player Shea McAleese.

Long-serving Black Stick Shea McAleese called it quits after the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

New Zealand's Tokyo Olympians are now at a pivotal point as they decide whether to aim for Paris 2024.

To help with their decision making, the athletes are getting advice from on how to bridge the gap between a life working to get on the podium and life working for a paycheck via a conference called Crossroads.

Olympians at varying stages of their sporting careers tuned in for advice from experts and other top athletes on personal development, wellbeing and work-readiness.

Chris Arthur of Sport New Zealand's Athlete Life programme said coming down from the high of an event like the Olympics could be difficult.

She likened it to a grieving process.

"You've been building up and building up and putting so much time and energy into a huge event, when it's over there is this big feeling of flatness that often athletes feel.

"So one of the things we want to do is normalise that grief process and [say] you're now at a decision point where you can choose to recommit for another campaign or you may choose to do something different."

Emma Twigg (NZL) wins gold in the women's single scull.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Rowing at the Sea Forest Waterway, Tokyo, Japan on Friday 30th July 2021.

Emma Twigg has committed to Rowing New Zealand for the next Olympic cycle after winning gold in Tokyo. Photo: Steve McArthur/Photosport Ltd 2021

Will I be useful?

Four-time Olympian Emma Twigg was worried if she would be "useful" in the workforce when it came time to hang up her oars.

Twigg tried out retirement following the 2016 Olympics but made a comeback to win gold in the single sculls in Tokyo this year.

"When I was younger I was really worried about what the next step would be and so at times I think maybe the focus was detracting from what I was doing in sport," Twigg said.

"But having been through it all and got my Masters and had some work experience, now I look at sport from a bit of a different angle."

Having improved her own perspective, Twigg encouraged others to be as brave.

"When people ask what I'd say to my younger self, I'd be to take your time in making decisions and not be in any hurry to be achieving what you want on the sports field but also to be figuring out big life decisions.

"There's so many doors that open with sport and you don't need to be in any hurry to take the first thing that comes at you."

Will I be left behind?

At 37-years-old, and a couple of months into retirement, Shea McAleese is comfortably enjoying time at home in the Hawke's Bay with his wife and young daughter.

It is the kind of life the four-time Olympic hockey player had watched his peers tackle years before him.

And a life he didn't know if he would get a decade ago.

"I debuted when I was 20 and then post-London in 2012, after the event, and I think it happens to a lot of Olympians, you look in the mirror and you struggle to figure of what's next.

"I had just turned 28 and I thought all my mates who aren't sportsmen and sportswomen had actually started the rest of their life and I started getting a bit nervous around what was the next step going to look like for me."

Shea McAleese during the FIH Champions Trophy play-offs hockey match between Germany v New Zealand, 8 December 2012. Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Daniel Carson | photosport.co.nz

Shea McAleese pictured in 2012, in year in which the post-Olympic comedown hit him hard. Photo: © Daniel Carson

McAleese now has several jobs, he's a school sports director, works for Hawke's Bay Hockey and runs his own hockey coaching and equipment company.

He credited a change in a approach ahead of his final Olympics for getting him to where he is now.

"Post-Rio I basically went life has to take over sport so that's where I committed more to work and then if I was still able to play sport then I was going to but it had to be on the basis that my wife was going to allow me to do it but also that my work would allow me to do it as well."

McAleese was on a panel for Crossroads and stressed to athletes the importance of thinking ahead.

"I've been really lucky to be a long-serving athlete so I was able to get to a point where I had to start sorting out the other side of my life.

"The big piece of advice I had for all of the athletes that were on that CrossRoads talk was to actually start now, whether it's just starting communications, applying for jobs for a bit of fun to just tweak your CV and see where there is some holes and if there's some things you might be able to do like study or whatever to try and fill in the gaps, I think that's really important to start that now.

"The last thing you'd want is to get deselected, injured, or something else crops up that ends your career and then you're going to struggle into that next phase.

"So if you can do it while you still can, I think it actually makes you compete in your sport better as well."

Athletes helping athletes

Olympic cyclists Sam Dakin and Callum Saunders are doing their part to help their peers into the workforce.

The Tokyo Olympians launched Podium Recruitment, a platform that connects athletes with employers.

Athletes from any sport, and at all stages of their careers, could sign up to gain work experience or employment both at the end of their careers or while still training towards their goals.

"You hear stories about athletes who have retired from their sport after giving it everything and have nothing to go to," Saunders said.

"They have no concept of who they are without their sport, and if they haven't had the opportunity to gain work experience or figure out what they want to do post sporting career, it can make it hard for them to move on and have a successful career."

Dakin said Podium would help athletes find interests away from their sport and build their capabilities and confidence.

"We know athletes out there are thinking about what they want to do when they retire, so we want to make it easy for them to dip their

feet into the career pool and see what's out there for them," Dakin said.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - 07/08/2021 - Cycling Track - Izu Velodrome, Izu, Japan - Yuta Wakimoto of Japan, Kevin Santiago Quintero Chavarro of Colombia and Callum Saunders of New Zealand in action during the men's Keirin first round heat five

Photo: SWPix

Starting small and local, Dakin and Saunders began Athlete Community Link for Waikato-based athletes to find employment in 2020.

This led them to a meeting with Jake Riggir, and to the partnership with recruitment and attraction agency HainesAttract, to get Podium up and running with a wider national focus.

Riggir was encouraged by the growing number of employers who wanted to advertise roles on the platform.

"We have had a lot of employer interest in the platform, which is a testament to how desirable the transferable skills of athletes are," Riggir said.

Saunders saw Podium as a crucial tool for supporting athletes who had not made it on to the podium.

"So often we don't hear or talk about the athletes coming fifth, seventh or tenth at the Olympics and Paralympics or who narrowly miss out on selection all together.

"It's so easy to forget they're there or that they've sacrificed the same amount as any of our medalists. This platform is for all athletes, but it's especially for them because they are the ones that need our support, and I think often they haven't been getting it."

Losing support networks

Not every top athlete comes from a code with the means to help usher them into their next phase of life.

Former Kiwis and Warriors rugby league player Monty Betham wanted more assistance for athletes from all sports once they retired.

Betham hung up his boots in 2006 and switched to boxing before forging his path in business and broadcasting.

He now mentors current athletes who are planning for their futures.

"No matter who you are and what you're doing when you're leaving professional sport all of a sudden all those support networks in and around you are gone and when you are used to being told what to do for a long period of time in your life and you've got a process and you've got to start that all over again it's really hard," Betham said

Struggling to find their identity and place in society could trip former athletes up.

Betham said NRL clubs made an effort to help transition players out of the professional environment but clubs should do welfare checks with past players more often.

Monty Betham in action during a 2007 fight.

Monty Betham in action during a 2007 fight. Photo: Photosport

"Ideally once you leave the sport you'd like to feel like you're not just a statistic and that's it you're done and you're used and they would have something a bit more ongoing and consistent for players but that hasn't seemed to be the way, but I don't think that's just across NRL I think that's across everything."

Shea McAleese agreed.

McAleese said it would be hard for sports organisations to keep up with former players for years but he suggested a possible six month or one year check-in.

"I think it is important that we are still reaching out to people and just checking in, and what that check-in looks like could just be a txt or a call or whatever but I think it is important that they just don't stop and still do feel supported to some degree."