Life after sport: getting back to living after injury

Many athletes face long-term struggles with no support or advice

 

The Rugby Six Nations began with a bit of a whimper from Ireland, and at least some of the blame was placed on our injury woes, with Johnny Sexton side-lined with a calf injury, and Peter O’Mahony suffering from hamstring trouble.

Playing sport at any level is associated with a risk of injury, but for some players those injuries can be career-ending, and ultimately life-changing.

Players’ associations are now trying to provide adequate help and support for former players affected by serious or long-term injury.

Research carried out a couple of years ago by Xpro, a UK charity established to advise and support former professional footballers, suggested that four out of every five former players will have osteoarthritis.

But it’s not just the health impact. The research also found that two out of five ex-players will experience financial difficulties within five years of retiring from professional football, while one in three is divorced within 12 months of retiring.

Stephen McGuinness is general secretary of Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI). He says the association has seen “first-hand” the issues that long-term injury cause former players.

“Our association is funded to assist current professional players up to one year after retirement. As everyone knows, most sports now are geared around younger players with the average age in our sport at a professional level being 24. This leaves many athletes facing long-term struggles with their bodies with no support or advice,” he says.

The PFAI is now working to establish the Former Players Association of Ireland as a signpost organisation to assist former professional players who need help and support. McGuinness explains that a golf fundraiser at Castleknock Golf Club in March, along with a Futsal tournament at the new indoor arena in Abbotstown with 12 teams, will start the ball rolling in relation to funding and networking.

“With over 3,500 players playing in the past 20 years in the league, that shows the scope and size of the assistance that players may require,” he says.

FIFPro, the world players’ union, is carrying out a major global survey to see the effects of injury on current and former players.

“The PFA Ireland and World Players’ Union (FIFPro) strive constantly to increase the quality of the counselling for current and former professional football players. This is a big international study about the health-related quality of life among both current and retired players, and it will be interesting to see the outcome of that report,” according to McGuinness.

He emphasises that it isn’t just the niggling pain or inconvenience of a long-term injury, however; for many players, it’s the loss of identity and purpose after retiring, and this can lead to significant mental health problems.

A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that a rugby union player who involuntarily retires is 2½ times more likely to experience a mental health problem than a player who voluntarily retires. Some 28 per cent of former players reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression after retirement, while 24 per cent reported adverse alcohol behaviour.

“That’s why you see marriages breaking up and bankruptcies with former Premier League players – those guys don’t know how to do anything else. At least for many players in Ireland, who are semi-professional, there is something of a balance between the two. But there is a lot more we could do for former players.”

Contribution

GAA players know all about balancing sport with work. Tyrone Gaelic footballer Gemma Begley, a two-time All Star, is the project co-ordinator with the Women’s Gaelic Players Association (WGPA).

While the male footballers and hurlers have been in receipt of Government funds for the past seven years, it is only recently that Government funding has been made available to their counterparts in ladies football and camogie.

“We have been petitioning the Government for funding to recognise the contribution that ladies footballers and camogie players make to their communities,” she says.

They have now been pledged funding of €1 million over a two-year period, which is ringfenced for specific areas, including injury prevention and rehabilitation activities. It will be administered by WGPA, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and the Camogie Association. “Most ex-players suffer from niggling foot and ankle pain, for example, so the more ‘prehab’ and rehab they get during their careers . . . it will stand to them for the rest of their lives.”

Begley agrees that support for former players forced to retire due to injury is sparse. Although ladies football has an injury scheme and camogie players are covered by insurance, this is “very limited”, she says.

“They might get treatment and any operations paid for, and some physio sessions but, long term, there is probably not enough provision in place. It is something we at the WGPA would love to develop in the future.” This also includes emotional support, she adds.

“The sense of identity and the social circle and the pride they get from playing; when they retire that all just disappears. It is almost taboo for players to talk about, even though everyone suffers this sense of withdrawal to some degree. We have a 24-hour support line for members and obviously ex-players can continue to use that but we are really only getting started on that kind of help.”

Sean O’Connor’s story

Sean O’Connor (34) was a professional footballer for 10 years, playing for St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers, among other clubs. He suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury in 2015.

What made me retire from football was rupturing my Achilles’ tendon. It wasn’t a normal rupture – the Achilles snapped but it also detached from the heel bone, and took some bone with it. I also ruptured my tibialis posterior tendon and did a whole lot of other damage to my ankle ligaments.

That happened in a game against Sligo Rovers in June 2015. I had surgery the next day, which was great, and I assumed that I would be back playing within a couple of months. But when I got out of the cast after six weeks, the medics found that the tibialis had ruptured again somehow.

That meant I had to have another, bigger operation, where they used a hamstring graft to reconstruct my ankle, and there was a long recovery time. The way contracts work in League of Ireland, you never get anything longer than a two-year contract. At the time of the injury, I was on a one-year contract with Shamrock Rovers and it happened midway through the season. Obviously I was still under contract until the end of the season but after that you have no source of income, and it did affect me financially. Insurance covered the cost of the operations but after that it was a case of medical certs, etc.

I spoke a lot to Stephen from the PFAI during that period. It’s depressing when you are out injured and in a cast. You are used to training every day and all of a sudden you can’t even get around. It’s a shock to the system.

I did return to Shamrock Rovers and tried to even do a bit of jogging but there were still issues with my ankle, with some scar tissue, so I had to have a third operation. The orthopaedic surgeon now wants to operate on it again, which would be the fourth operation, so I am waiting on confirmation of that.

Right now, I am still not back 100 per cent, and I don’t know if I will ever be. I do a small bit of coaching with Crumlin United but I coach for an hour and I am in agony after that. The next morning when I wake up and have to go to the bathroom, I literally have to crawl there. I feel it every single day when I am just walking around. I can’t go to the gym and hop on a treadmill; the only exercise I do is non weight-bearing.

I obviously never got offered another contract as I was so badly injured. After the second operation I had to officially retire. When Damien Duff signed for us, he put me in touch with his specialist in London. The club sent me over there but the surgeon told me straight out he wasn’t optimistic about my chances of coming back, and that he had had to retire a few professional footballers for the same kind of injury.

I do get some income from the little bit of coaching I do, but it would be nothing near what I was earning before. It’s so frustrating for me. Now I tell young lads in the clubs I am involved in to prepare for life after football. They need to have a plan B in place.

Molly Dunne’s story

Molly Dunne recently retired from the Galway Senior Camogie panel after nine years having suffered with a chronic back injury for many years.

I have prolapsed and degenerated discs in my back, which has been recurring since 2010. I have had several different procedures carried out in a bid to maintain it over the past seven years, just so I could take part in training and play matches. I have had four epidurals on my back, and I knew these would never fix the problem but it was just so I could continue to play the sport I love.

At the moment I am seeing specialists to see if I can get back playing at some level. Right now, I am not even able to watch a full game as I couldn’t stand for more than an hour, and I wouldn’t be able to drive long distances. It’s something I have to consider constantly. Thankfully I work as a sports development officer in Galway-Mayo IT so I can work around it, and I don’t have to travel etc. I can see that for people with other types of jobs, where they are on their feet all day, it wouldn’t be possible for them.

I am only 29, I will turn 30 in March, and I thought I had at least another couple of years in camogie. My brother has taken over the senior county team this year and I would have loved to be part of that set-up. I had hoped to maybe play with my club, Eyrecourt, but right now I still don’t know if that will be possible.

It’s so hard because I wake up and I have the energy to get out and go for a run or to train but physically I am just not able. I can do some swimming and Pilates, just something with no impact. That’s where the struggle is. I am trying to do a thousand other things to fill the gaps, because trying to replace it is the problem. Sometimes I wonder if I was foolish to do the things I did, to put my body through so much just to keep playing but, honestly, looking back I wouldn’t change it because I got so much out of it.

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