Books

Waking from the Dream – transitioning to regular life after a career in elite sport

By Kirsten van Heerden 28 May 2018

Professional sport looks glamorous. It partly is but what comes after retirement is often a shock. In a new book, Dr Kirsten van Heerden speaks to 19 of South Africa’s greatest athletes from across sporting codes to provide some answers to hard questions.

You live in a temporary fairy tale” – NFL Coach Carroll to his players

Professional sport is not a long-term career, yet many athletes think no further than making it into the professional ranks and staying there.

Then, at around 30 years old (if they are lucky), they need to build a whole new life, often with very few skills outside of their sporting ability. With the dream over, the reality of normal life can be stark indeed.

The death of Cape Town-born Wallaby rugby player Dan Vickerman, is a reminder of how very real this issue is. On the surface, Vickerman was the poster-child for a “good retirement”.

Australia Wallabies Dan Vickerman

He studied while competing, built a successful property and development business, had a young family and was even involved with the Australian Rugby Players’ Union, helping other players to transition out of the sport. However, he had confided in his close friends and team mates about just how difficult life without rugby really was.

While his death speaks to more than just transition out of rugby, it should unsettle all of us that someone as well-prepared as he was, could still fall prey to the void retiring from international sport can leave.

Unfortunately, there is a still a culture of silence in sport when it comes to issues such as retirement and the psychological difficulties that are faced by athletes.

Sport is a theatre of dreams, but while competing, many athletes forget about the alarm clock waiting to ring and wake them up to normal life. If I am no longer an athlete, who am I? How do I structure my life now?

Can I find new meaningful goals? How will I earn money? These are some of the tough questions athletes are faced with when they transition out of sport. The problem is that many are left to figure out normal life by themselves because retirement is an often-avoided topic in the sports world.

Waking from the Dream is a collection of retirement stories from 18 of South Africa’s greatest athletes from across sporting codes, that provide some answers to the hard questions. The athletes give insight into the challenges of the transition, what they would do differently to prepare for it, and how they have managed to build a life apart from sport.

I forgot about tomorrow. I didn’t plan for the future because the present moment was too good. I had to learn that there was life after sport and you needed to prepare for this life.” – Hezekiel Sepeng, Olympic Silver medallist.

For 16 years (half your life!) soccer will dominate everything you do; and now, overnight, it’s gone. Waking up outside of that structure is going to be a big challenge. You now have to decide for yourself what to do every day, and what sounds so simple in theory, is so much more difficult in real life, because in the end, all you really want to do is play soccer. Losing the game will create a void in your heart, which will be difficult to fill.” – Phil “Chippa” Masinga, Bafana Bafana legend.

Philemon Masinga during the 2015 Castle Lager Football Academy at the Balfour Park Sport Field in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 17, 2014 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

I ended up being a multimillionaire by the time I was 30, but by 32, was well on my way to bankruptcy. By the time I became World Champion in 1986, I had started making real money, and as people say: more money, more problems. People crawled out of the woodwork when that money started coming in. Everyone wants to manage you, advise you or offer you an investment opportunity; and of course, everyone wants to take their cut or commission. One of my big disappointments in life has been getting into business with friends and being let down, time and again, by the people I trusted.” – Brian Mitchell, 14 x World Champion boxer

Penny explains that only after 10 years of retirement, did she feel that she was emerging from a long dark tunnel and seeing the light of a ‘normal’ life again. After swimming practically every day for a large part of her life, Penny didn’t get into, or near, the water for many years after her last race in Sydney. This was partly because the prying eyes of the public would be everywhere, and she didn’t want to have to be Penny Heyns the swimmer any more, partly because she hated it, and partly because she had lost confidence in herself, which was a surprising addition to the difficulties that retirement brought.” – Penny Heyns, triple Olympian, 14 x World Record Holder

Penny Heyns Photo: BrandSouthAfrica.com

I recently spoke to some elite high school athletes about entry into, and exit out of, professional sports, as well as the challenges that they would face along the way. Well, it was as if I had become the Grinch who stole Christmas.

At the end, one boy asked me why we were focusing on all the negatives – surely, we needed to focus on the positives and keep dreaming big? What many athletes fail to understand, is that reality is not negative, it is just reality. And yes, you need to dream, but those of us involved in sport are doing athletes a huge disservice if we don’t help prepare them for when the alarm clock goes off and the dream slips away in the morning light. DM.

Waking from the Dream by Kirsten Van Heerden is published by Viking Publications

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