The rocky road of being a professional rugby player
Tom May
February 28, 2014
A lot goes in to getting a player on the field © Getty Images

Professional sport ... it seems like everyone wants to do it. Surely there can't be anything better than getting paid to do what you love doing? Young kids see international sports stars on television and quickly idolize them. They become their heroes.

During my 16 seasons as a professional rugby player I have always been told how easy my life is. To a point, I agree. I am extremely fortunate to have been given an opportunity to play professional sport. But professional sport is not as straightforward as you may think. There are many things that exist in the lives of professional sports people that have to be considered.

The difference between professional and amateur sport is the sacrifice those taking part have to make. I love amateur sport. I think it is essential in bringing local communities together and allows people a release from the daily grind at work. Sport is their hobby and passion, it is exactly the way many professionals start out.

But the sacrifices amateur sports people make compared to professionals are minimal. This is not a small price to pay for doing something you love.

Life after professional sport scares many and I think too many players brush it under the carpet, as it is easier to ignore it. By then though it's too late

There are many sacrifices whether that is missing family weddings or birthdays, time with friends and family, opportunity in work and qualifications, breaks with friends and even not being able to eat and drink as and when we want to. There is also the physical side. The continual training on the field and in the gym takes its toll. Just look at some of the people who have played at the highest level for the longest time, physically they are in pieces.

Those competing in amateur sport will make some of these sacrifices but the scale is much smaller and largely the choice can be made to miss one game for an event or family day perhaps. Sacrifice has to be understood by both those within professional sport and those who follow it and the effect of it must be looked at seriously.

Injury is never easy to deal with in a career. A week, months or even years out can take its toll on the mental state of professional athletes. Sports people are programmed to be fit and ready to play and dealing with injury sees many strong characters wobble. The inability to compete for what you have spent years training to do puts huge mental strain on injured players.

Being injured is not an easy ride. Speak to anyone who has spent a large amount of time recovering from a long-term injury - it's painful, frustrating, boring, demoralizing and even annoying. Watching games continue without you is brutal. Rehab is something that takes time and physios can only make it as interesting as the body allows. Many players feel like an outsider during this time. You have no contribution to make to anything at the club and this is mentally hard to take.

All sports people and clubs have aspirational goals. These goals are used provide a pathway to success. They are the route individuals and teams should take, the best path to being victorious. Achieving these goals is one thing in itself. Hard work and effort goes in hour by hour on a daily basis towards achieving them but the problems come when we come up short. When life is focused on one specific thing, where everything is geared towards it, missing that goal can have a big effect on the mental state of individuals.

England's Tom May listens to instructions during training at Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot, Surrey, June 3, 2009
© Getty Images

The highs that we go through once a goal has been reached can quickly be taken away by the lows of missing set targets. Jobs and livelihoods are dependent on the achievement of targets and those watching sport should understand the consequences of under achievement. People lose contracts and sporting careers can be ended if things get bad. It is easy to forget that sport may be your hobby, your relaxation away from work but for others it is their livelihood where results have enhanced effects on daily life.

Professional contracts vary in length across all sports but within rugby many will be of two to three years. Player movement is huge each season with some going from one end of the country to another, one country to another part of the world maybe. Come January of the final year of your deal, life becomes a worry for many unless you are one of the few that seem to ignore the severity of the situation.

As rugby players we can now speak to other clubs and set about the task of securing new deals. There is no certainty or stability in life as a sports person. There are too many things lurking that can take it all away from you. This places strain on the players but also on the partners who are prone to worrying about the future too. Everything is to be put on hold; you don't know where you might be come July or even if this brilliant career will be something you are in a position to continue with. When I retire I won't miss January one bit. I will be able to plan on a longer term where I will live

Life after professional sport scares many and I think too many players brush it under the carpet, as it is easier to ignore it. By then though it's too late. There are those who think about the future and continue a life away from rugby so that when the dreaded day comes there is a pathway in place; but there are also others who do nothing.

I'm not one of the second group and I'm concerned about life after rugby; so how the others must feel is crazy. Post rugby careers are varied but too many don't think about it until it is too late. It is one of the most stressful things I associate with my career as a professional sportsman and not a day has gone by when I haven't thought about something to do with life after rugby. Life as a rugby player is a privilege but life after has to be addressed.

Life within professional rugby is great, don't get me wrong and this article is not supposed to be a complaint list. Far from it. We are looked after in a way that at times is crazy.

Everything is done to make our lives as easy as possible by friends, family and members of support staff; but this doesn't mean that it's all a walk in the park. There are so many things that go through your head during your professional rugby career dependent on what situation you are in but I'm sure that many out there that watch every weekend don't take into account the stressful and unsettling nature of some of the issues.

It's a brutal and cutthroat world in professional sport and the mental test that your career gives you is something that should be understood by all.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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