Before he became one of the country’s leading if unheralded performance directors, David Malone was one of this country’s leading if unheralded athletes, winning gold at the 2000 Paralympics and multiple world swimming championship medals.
After his fourth Games in Beijing though, he had no more races to swim. What was he to do with no more race to swim? Who else was he with no more races to swim?
A friend noticed his mental anguish and put him the way of Daragh Sheridan, who had just linked up with the Institute of Sport to run a pilot programme helping athletes deal with retirement. One of Sheridan’s many suggestions was for Malone to hold what he termed a ‘career showcase’. A big part of his life was ending, so it needed to be marked, celebrated.
And so, about eight months after his last race, old coaches and team-mates and even competitors as well as family and friends were invited to a Stillorgan hotel. Malone found the days and hours beforehand nerve-wracking, “a bit like a 21st birthday party, wondering if anyone would show up”.
In the end over 200 people did. A 10-minute video of old footage and photos was shown, accompanied to a few tracks from his beloved Guns ‘n’ Roses. Speeches were made, music was played, dances were danced. Above all, people were thanked. People got the chance to say thanks to Malone and Malone got the chance to say thanks to them.
“It definitely helped,” Malone would say years later, shortly after his appointment as Paralympic Swimming performance director and before his current role as Paralympics Ireland performance director. “It basically was a sign off, the closure of one chapter and the start of another.”
Since Malone’s career showcase back in 2009, there has been a growing appreciation of the difficulty athletes have with retirement, with terms like ‘transitioning’ and ‘athletic identity’ more frequently popping up in conversations with former athletes and various experts. But besides raising some awareness of the issue, what actually is being done about it? Outside of the Institute and a couple of various players’ unions, what are sports bodies doing about it?
Talk to former inter-county GAA players and a lot of them will open up about the wrench it was, emotionally and mentally, after finishing up and and how they struggled without the big days and the buzz, the dressing room and the lads, and the status of being a county man.
When you’re playing, you feel part of a family. But when you stop playing, where’s the family then?
The manager? It might have been his idea you finished up, not yours; besides, he has enough on his plate with the lads who are in there now without worrying about some former player like you.
In an extremely rare case you might have a team sport psychologist who you’ll feel comfortable to contact and who in turn will feel a duty of care to you, even if they or you are no longer in the set-up. For the most part though, no such provider or obligation is available or expected.
And so the player is often left to suffer alone, in silence.
It’s why top programmes like Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs always have the door open for any former player who wants to stop by. Once a Spur, always a Spur.
It’s why Sheridan and the Institute out in Abbotstown are providing the programmes they are now for transitioning athletes. To help them prepare and cope for life after athletics. To show terms like ‘values’ and ‘person first, athlete second’ aren’t just for show but for real. Not least because current athletes pick up on it: Here, they take care of their own. Here, we take care of our own.
You would hope that some of the more enlightened county set-ups and county boards would start thinking more like that. That their obligation and duty of care to a player doesn’t just end when he hands back the jersey for the last time — or, as is often the case, you no longer hand it out to him. Although the GPA offers psychological support to former players, a team or county board should make their own service providers in that domain available as well.
And the thought often occurred to us, long before news of Colm Cooper’s upcoming and controversial testimonial, that more GAA players should be treated to a career showcase along the lines Malone had.
The odd set-up the odd year might do something informal; I remember one year a backroom member of the Waterford hurling team contacting us for some stats on some players to illustrate the finer achievements of their career at a night they were throwing for them. In 2014, the same county and its public threw a testimonial — in the purest sense of term — for Ken McGrath after his heart surgery.
There is a lovely passage at the end of Jackie Tyrrell’s book when just before a New Year’s Eve party, on the team’s holiday in San Diego, a handful of team-mates and their partners bring him into Conor Fogarty’s hotel room where they play a six-minute montage of his career on a projector, with Kodaline’s High Hopes as the soundtrack. Paul Murphy then speaks. “You were always very good to me but you always showed great leadership to all of us. And we just wanted to say thanks, Jackie.”
Tyrrell was extremely moved by that gesture but not everyone is as lucky as Tyrrell; to win so much, to be on a team holiday, to have teammates put something like that together, to have them say thanks. Most players aren’t that lucky. Many of them are discarded. And so they don’t get to have a proper farewell, they don’t get to receive or give thanks.
It’s why in American high school sports, they have senior night, they have end-of-season honours, to help outgoing athletes with the transitioning process.
You can see why the GAA is so uncomfortable about Cooper’s testimonial this Friday. For all the incremental erosions into the amateur ethos, this case study represents a quantum leap.
But if anything it should advocate a different type of testimonial, one more along the lines of Malone’s, which was about the emotional and not financial well-being of the player.
We’ve never spoken to them since they finished up their inter-county careers, but this column has often thought about Shane O’Neill and Pa Cronin who, after over a decade of service to Cork, were cut for the 2016 championship. Imagine the shock and hurt that must have caused.
But imagine if the county board the following winter or the one after it again ceremoniously honoured them and other recently-retired players who had given five years or more to the county. Allowed them to bring family and friends and team-mates. A proper chance for all parties to say goodbye and thanks.
Players should be treated better and feel better when their careers finish up.
Instead of crying that it’s over, rejoice that it happened at all.
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