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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 13 December, 2018
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Column: What becomes of an athlete after they retire?

Having bowed out of inter-county hurling three years ago, Tony Griffin discusses life after top level sport.

Griffin playing for Clare in 2009.
Griffin playing for Clare in 2009.
Image: INPHO/James Crombie

Can the real AN Other please stand up

I REMEMBER BEING around 7 when I realised AN Other was not actually a real person. I had begun to wonder why the same person popped up on teams on various programs in several matches. An ‘aha’ moment (something that happens to people like me with small brains alarmingly regularly) of huge proportions dawned on me when my father solved the mystery. AN Other was an alias for that identity on the team that had not been identified prior to the publication of the match program.

This article is about the phenomenon that occurs when an athlete has spent the majority of his/her life working towards a dream in sport and what happens afterwards. This is a story that is mostly true about when identity can either be a ceiling of possibility or a self-limiting cage. But first, we must start with how donkeys appear on the roofs of houses.

Donkey hoisting

On the Greek island of Naxos, there is an ordinarily quiet, most beautiful town called Kinidaros. We have come here five days in to our honeymoon to see with our own eyes the most peculiar of local customs. Yes, my friends, in the village of Kinidaros, for one day only each year donkeys are hoisted on to the roofs of the houses and then lowered to the ground the following day. It is a long standing custom that hails from a time when all the roofs were made of straw and earth and in order to keep the roofs compacted the donkeys were hoisted up and left there to stamp the earthen roofs in to a more waterproof seal.

As we approach the town square an old man beckons us over. Giorgeo is his name. He is in his seventies and he proclaims to be the unofficial mayor of Kinidaros. He has very little English and we little Greek but before long is leading us up a winding donkey path to his home. “You are my guests, I will not accept money, you are my friends”. Giorgio lives with his wife Maria in the most picturesque of houses resting precariously on the edge of a mountain. We eat together, we drink cold Greek beer together and we talk until the sun drifts low and the sky darkens.

When our talk lands on the one true common ground between most human beings – sport. I am saddened to hear that our Greek friend has never heard of hurling and worse still has never heard tell of the pantheon of the GAA; Croke Park. My attempts to enlighten him are futile. This man may be one of the kindest men I have ever met but he is unable to grasp the massive cultural and political significance of our ancient games.

The identity of an athlete

As we descend the long winding road from Kindaros back to the port of Naxos and we freewheel for almost 15kms down hair pin bends, I begin to think about what happens to athletes, regardless of the sport, after they retire. What do they become long after the sun has set on their greatest days on the field of play? The question is of particular relevance in the sport of GAA because the sport is so unique. Think about this. If you play inter-county GAA you play in the top level, in front of the bumper crowds from the time you are 18 until, all going, well 32.

So for 14 years of your life you live in the world of a professional athlete. This comes with the trappings such as the feeling of playing in front of thousands of roaring fans and, believe me, this is special. Ask any inter-county player, the thrill of running out on to the stadiums that were the setting for your boyhood dreams is one of the most exhilarating experiences you will ever have. As John Campbell, the American writer says: “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive”.

When you score a point or make a tackle in Croke Park or Thurles and there are 40,000 people roaring at you, you feel very ALIVE.

Griffin retired from hurling in 2009. Credit: INPHO/James Crombie

So what happens when the part of your life that lays in the realm of athlete ends and ‘real life’ beckons. That is what I am going to explore next. And I may just make you feel uncomfortable, and you may disagree with what I have to say. And that is fine too.  For what I am saying is this:

If coaches and managers engaged with the full athlete, rather than just the part that shows up at the training field or track, they would be doing the athlete a great service. For they would find the keys to unlocking greater performance in the short term and help the athlete develop a full person in the long run.

If athletes were able to see themselves as more than their sport, while still playing their sport, they would lay the foundations for a much more full life experience when the curtains went down, the lights were turned off and the crowd had gone home. In essence a wonderful new chapter of their lives would open up when they stopped playing. First I must make a public address admission.

Here it is. You spend your life driven to succeed at your sport. It is your everything. When your mother says “It is only a game” after a heavy defeat you think her insane. And when you win or your performances are good all is well in your world. You become known as a hurler, or ‘the footballer’ and people begin to recognise you in public. And you begin to enjoy this just a little. There is a novelty attached to it. Your identity starts to be who you are as an athlete and other parts of your identity take a backseat. Then you retire. The public recognises someone else and you either stay in the world you once inhabited – the world of the sport you played or you re-invent yourself, you explore more of who you are.

I’ve met both types. Those that never let go and still move in the world that they were once a star of. Perhaps they struggle to come to terms with the fact that their main adrenaline source is no longer available to them, so they fill it. They do the media circuit or they find a friend in booze, gambling or work and fill the void that has mysteriously opened in front of them. They still see themselves as ‘the hurler’ or  ’the footballer’ and their achievements as an athlete become the highest points of their lives, their peak life experiences to have occurred before the age of 35.

And I have met the other type. They retire from their chosen sport and decide that while those past experiences, the crowds, the high points, all of it were part of their past, these experiences do not define their future. They reinvent themselves, like when Dylan went electric. They are aware of the fact that the public’s perception may be that they are ‘the hurler’ or ‘the footballer’ and that is fine for the public. But for them they are acutely aware that their identity is much more than that and they decide that they will in the words of Helen Keller: “Treat life as a ‘daring adventure or nothing at al”.

This was brought home to me lately when I heard a report on the news that DJ Carey had had a health scare. Knowing DJ as a wonderful human being this saddened me. But equally interesting for me was that they referred to DJ Carey as the former hurler. This was when the light began to break through. If those of us who loved a sport so much that we practiced it enough to become good at it and in DJ’s case be masterly at it, what happens when you retire?

Where does the next 40-50 years of your life flow? Is your identity irrevocably tied to this period of your life, or can you re-invent yourself and become something else. Free of the confines that others place on you and with this approach you continuously evolve in to the full expression of whatever the mix of gene soup you were given is capable of.

If you had said this to me when I was 21 I would have probably shook my head and questioned walked away from you. I was the ultra-determined; nothing is going to stand in my way dreamer. I still am but now I strive for balance knowing that life is not a scoreboard but rather a journey. I work hard at living by Helen Keller’s advice.

Life does not end when you retire from playing sport at a high level. If you see it as new beginning where parts of your identity that lay dormant for the 15 or so years you were driving your body as hard as you could, can be explored, then you will find life throws up all sorts of daring adventures.

Yes when I retired from playing hurling with Clare in 2009 I floundered for a while to assert were the best repository for my energy and drive lay. Then a documentary about Jim Stynes was aired on RTE and my life changed and gradually my road less travelled appeared, follow if you will it said. And I got on board. It brought me to the Soar Foundation. SOAR delivers early intervention preventative programs within and outside the school system for young people aged 10-18 from all backgrounds, where within a safe and supportive environment they are given the opportunity to build emotional awareness, self-confidence, self-belief, peer respect and resiliency.

I will be following Clare on Saturday as they take on Limerick. While everyone else is following the ball I will be watching a young guy from my own home-place called Tony Kelly. I will be watching the runs he makes, hoping the other Clare players will find him. I will be marvelling at the wonderful stride he has where he efficiently covers ground like a gazelle.

I will be enjoying the thought that a few years back in one of his first club games I saw him score a goal that made me stop mid run and say “My God, he is good”.

Tony Griffin is an athlete, charity activist, speaker and author. He is a former All-Star hurler with Clare, who now does extensive charity work for organisations such as SOAR. In 2010, he released his authobiography ‘Screamin At The Sky’.

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Tony Griffin

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