Surviving normal life at the end of a high-profile sporting career can have devastating results for thousands of sports people.
This week, in a first-of-its-kind initiative for professional rugby players, the After Rugby Career Consultation programme (ARCC) was announced to help prepare players, physically and mentally, for life after their careers ended.
Sport rakes in massive revenue, with soccer, rugby and cricket attracting huge global interest, and players often gaining global celebrity status.
Soccer alone has an estimated four billion fans worldwide and while rugby looks to launch ARCC, the sport is playing catch-up as the SA Football Players’ Union confirmed it already had such programmes in place.
But for most sport professionals, there is little-to-no safety net in place when they go from hero to zero, through retirement or injury, and are left to deal with normal life without the glamour, fame and rigid schedules on their own.
Research has found that a sporting career leaves not only physical scars, but issues such as depression and anxiety, alcohol abuse and eating disorders ‒ all of which can kick in when a career ends.
Former Springbok and Sharks player Stefan Terblanche, who has been involved for a number of years in supporting rugby players and is a strong advocate for after-career assistance, confirmed the new ARCC programme this week.
He said the focus on the health of ex-professional players started when rugby unions from South Africa, France and Ireland conducted a joint research project on life after rugby for professional players in 2015. It was the first of its kind in the world, headed by former professional footballer for France and the Netherlands, Professor Vincent Gouttebarge from Amsterdam University Medical Centre, affiliated to the University of Pretoria.
The research, which has been published in the SA Journal of Sports Medicine, found that after the end of professional sporting careers, players could battle with four major issues: alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety and eating disorders, while physical pain from past injuries also factor in to the player’s overall health.
Terblanche said the ARCC programme would be launched in South Africa by Gottebarge and his team in conjunction with major roleplayers in South African rugby.
“The research, which came out in 2015, was very disturbing, but important.
“In life after rugby, the general perception is that a successful sporting career is naturally followed by a glamorous life. This, however, is not always the case. It is not always lights and fast cars. To fit into a normal life after rugby is not easy.
“While there may be around 20 top players who earn big money, there are thousands of professional players who will not survive after rugby unless they get a proper job.
“We have to educate players when they are still playing on how to plan for life after rugby,” said Terblanche, adding that the age of 35 is the expected end to a rugby career, if not before.
He said players moved from school straight into professional rugby where they followed a highly structured schedule. If a contract ended or the player was injured and his rugby career vanished, the player was left without any set routine.
“As a player, you always knew where you were going to be every day and you were told exactly what to do; everything is regulated and routine. When you are playing everyone loves you, but when the lights go off and everything is taken away, the player is left trying to cope,” he said.
World Rugby has been asked to allocate funds for research and follow-up initiatives, but did not respond to a request for comment from the Independent on Saturday.
Terblanche acknowledged that rugby as a sport had been battling to survive and was especially hard hit by the Covid pandemic. “World Rugby has neglected the well-being of players. Of course it is a business with its main concern and its main drive to make sure the business survives,” but he add, it was the teams’ players who made the industry.
SA Rugby Union could not be reached for comment and KZN provincial team Cell C Sharks did not respond to a request for comment.
Gouttebarge’s research showed that sleep disturbance issues, anxiety, depression, alcohol misuse and nutritional issues found among former sports professionals, not limited to rugby, were higher than the general population. He also found retired players may have earlier onset and a higher prevalence of osteoarthritis (OA) than the general population.
SA Football Players’ Union president Thulaganyo Gaoshubelwe said yesterday that he had worked closely with Gouttebarge for a number of years and as a member of Fifa, programmes and projects had been implemented for South African soccer players.
"On the issue of players and post careers, we start by taking care of them in their playing years so they have a safe landing pad when they retire.
“It is important to have these systems in place and preparing the player while he is still playing.
“Not a lot of people realise the pressure of professional football and being a role model.
“With regard to mental health, we work with LifeLine and we have been working with Professor Gouttebarge to understand and monitor the careers of players who participate in projects.
"We don’t have to re-invent the wheel as we have medical doctors we work with and who monitor the health of players. We are engaging continuously so we can address these challenges,” said Gaoshubelwe.
Gouttebarge said the study on rugby players focused on precisely which health issues should be prioritised for the benefit of retired rugby players.
“It found that the mental health, physical rehabilitation and education surrounding lifestyle choices and life after retirement warrant real consideration.
“You should start by being educated about potential challenges during your career, not after,” he said, highlighting that continued exercise was crucial because it had physical, physiological, cognitive and mental advantages, while injury prevention was also important.
In his research, Gouttebarge also highlighted that in professional football, the concept of “exit health examination” had been advanced, while the After Career Consultation was recently developed to empower the sustainable physical, mental and social health, and quality of life of retired professional footballers.
He said when the relevancy and added-value of the support was positively evaluated by retired footballers, “the after-career consultation was globally implemented in the professional football industry by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa, the sport’s governing body) and Football Players Worldwide (FIFPRO: international players union). Analogously to football, and because of the unequivocal duty of care stakeholders towards retired players, support measures should also be developed and implemented in professional rugby”.
The Independent on Saturday