The final whistle on a career can come quickly, and usually too soon. It can leave a foreboding sense of the unknown. A feeling of inexpressible loss. The fear that weekends will not now carry their usual lofty purpose or meaning.
“It was never that he was completely sold on athletic virtuosity as the be-all and end-all of all problems; the trouble was that he couldn’t find anything better.”
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in 1933, in his essay about the American sportswriter Ring Lardner, a wider reference perhaps to those who operate inside or else alongside the sporting arena. Finding anything better can often be the trouble, an old conversation which has only gained in purpose as sport steps increasingly further into the professional era – where, as TS Eliot said, in between the idea and reality lies the shadow.
It’s what made the conversations with former Ireland rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll so telling this week, first with Donald McRae in the Guardian on Monday, then with Joe Molloy on Wednesday’s Off The Ball, in both instances to discuss matters raised in his documentary After The Roar, which premiered on Friday night on BT Sport.
Even stepping out of his gilded era and age as he did – 141 Test matches, the 2009 Grand Slam, his final Test in 2014 ending with another Six Nations crown to boot – O’Driscoll found his retirement to be no walk in the park.
“I don’t know if I could ever say I’d been depressed,” he tells McRae, suitably cautiously. “That’s for a doctor to describe but it’s also why I saw the doctor before I retired. I wanted to pre-empt the downside. Like everybody I get low sometimes but my emotional state usually never fluctuates greatly whether dealing with euphoria or disappointments. That’s my make-up.
“Other people are totally different. But there were definitely times you’re just plodding along … the lack of purpose was huge.”
In After The Roar, O’Driscoll recounts another conversation with former Irish footballer Richie Sadlier, who now works as a psychotherapist, telling him his “worst fears would be that you never find anything to live up to the satisfaction level that you’ve had up to that point, that life has peaked.”
With Molloy, on Off The Ball, he cuts straight to the chase, O’Driscoll admitting he had to step out of his comfort zone just to talk about these matters in the first place, aware he was showing certain vulnerabilities for the first time; however, increasingly aware it seemed of this crisis in mental health, particularly around male sports.
After The Roar also references studies which show over half of former professional sportsmen and women have concerns about their mental health, with only 40 per cent of those seek help after retiring
He also draws on the troubles some of his contemporaries found in retirement, including Tony McCoy, Gareth Southgate, and Anthony Ogogo, the British boxer who won Olympic bronze as an amateur in London 2012.
Ogogo’s career was later cut short by an eye injury, and in After The Roar he explains how he ended up crying on his kitchen floor, wanting to die. It was only after he lost his best friend to cancer in 2020 that Ogogo’s perspective changed. One of the lucky ones.
After The Roar also references studies which show over half of former professional sportsmen and women have concerns about their mental health, with only 40 per cent of those seek help after retiring.
In Sport Ireland’s latest High Performance Strategy 2021-2032, published just prior to last year’s Tokyo Olympics, one of the key 10 outcomes was to ensure athlete welfare and support transition. This was first identified in the Athlete Performance Transition Programme, set up in the aftermath of London 2012 by Gary Keegan, the former performance director of Irish boxing.
Keegan saw for himself how many Irish athletes struggled post Beijing Olympics in 2008: seven months after winning silver in Beijing, Kenny Egan officially went AWOL, later admitting that drink was driving his boxing career down the drain, and only thanks to family and friends was he able to save it.
It will be 13 years ago this Wednesday, just over a year after winning Olympic middleweight bronze in Beijing, since Darren Sutherland was found dead in his apartment in London, the roar of his Olympic success, and the pressure to build on that professionally, driving him into a deep depression.
After The Roar premiered on the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day, which since 2003 has been trying to raise awareness of how each death is a public health concern with a profound impact on those around them.
More of the conversation around it must now centre on men’s mental health, in and outside the sporting arena. Cycle Against Suicide, a national charity for suicide awareness, is this weekend also staging its coast-to-coast cycle, from Dublin to Galway, and has written an open letter to Mary Butler TD, Minister for Mental Health and Older People, highlighting the fact three out of four suicides in the country each year are male.
This in turn has created an increasingly pressing need for a targeted approach to mental health awareness, education and suicide prevention among young and middle-aged men in Ireland. A national men’s mental health plan, with a focus on preventing suicide, is almost entirely absent.
Their White Paper, an overview on male suicide in Ireland, also references how concepts of masculinity can influence a man’s mental health literacy and “their inclination towards seeking help”.
It also talks of how many young Irish men are still unfamiliar with the concept of seeking help because doing so “may jeopardise their in-group membership, personal image or public image”.
It’s the sort of conversation still frequently referenced as needing to happen more inside and alongside the sporting arena, with O’Driscoll certainly doing a service on that front, even long after his own roar.