LAPS: How footballers cope with life after retirement

  • Jim Weeks

At some point in our lives, most of us will have dreamt of playing sport professionally.

But few will ever consider just how fragile a profession it is. Between injury, loss of form and the simple inevitability of ageing, a career can end in the blink of an eye. There is so little job security that a member of the Trump administration would find it unsettling.

While a very small group of athletes earn such vast sums that they won’t need to work once their playing career is over, the majority will need to find a new job.

Some remain within their sport, be it through coaching, management or media work, but that is not an option for everyone. By choice or by necessity, many will have to enter the mainstream. For individuals who have breathed sport since childhood, this can be a tumultuous experience.

Looking to ease this transition is Life After Professional Sport – better known as LAPS – a recruitment company founded by professional footballer Robbie Simpson and industry expert Rob Steed. LAPS positions itself as the agency of choice for sports professionals looking to shift into a new line of work.

“We have two roles,” Rob explains. “One is going to sportspeople and saying: ‘You ought to think about this.’ For example, we’re doing a project with the Premier League at the moment where we present to anyone under the age of 23, encouraging them to think ahead.

“Our other role is going to businesses and trying to tell them that sportspeople make great employees.”

You can see Rob’s logic: athletes have vast experience of dedicating themselves to a sport and excelling at it. If you can substitute that sport for any given profession, you will have unearthed a model employee.

“We’ve been astonished by the range of things that people go into,” Rob continues. “One of my favourite things about LAPS is that we do video interviews with people who have made the transition. We’ve done PE teachers and recruitment consultants, but we’ve also spoken to zookeepers, firefighters and policemen.”

While mucking out the elephant enclosure might appeal to some, the financial services sector is more popular among former athletes. I meet Rob at a LAPS event hosted by St. James’s Place, a wealth management company whose academy provides a route into the sector. Speaking on their behalf are former Hull City defender Ryan France, a graduate of the academy; and Connor Essam, who plays for Dover Athletic in the National League and is currently undertaking the programme.

Ryan is not the typical ex-footballer. Rejected by Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, he went to university and attained a maths degree while also playing semi-pro.

He signed with fourth-tier Hull City after graduating and remained with the Tigers as they rose all the way to the Premier League. After leaving the club in 2009 he joined Sheffield United, but injury prevented him from establishing himself with the Blades and he retired in 2011, aged 30.

Despite his qualifications, Ryan still wasn’t prepared for life after sport.

“It was really difficult,” he says of the period after retiring. “I’d not done enough financial planning and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be. I did a few sales roles, set up my own massage therapy company, but I couldn’t see myself doing any of them for the next 20 minutes, never mind the next 20 years.”

A conversation with a neighbour eventually led him to the St. James’ Place academy and he now works as a professional wealth manager. Ryan comes across as hugely enthusiastic about his new role and is keen to stress that athletes need to plan for the future before their career is over.

Connor, a 26-year-old defender, is doing exactly that.

“I went down the traditional footballer’s route,” he explains. “I left school at 16 having just done my GCSEs, did an apprenticeship with Gillingham F.C. from 16 to 18 and then I signed my first pro contract.

“I turned 25 last July. I’d been playing League 1, League 2, National League; I’d made a decent living out of the game but not reached the top. I made a decision to start planning for the future before I needed it.”

In this respect, Connor is a rarity: most footballers – and many athletes in general – won’t consider a life outside their sport until they are confronted with it. He and Ryan offer different perspectives, but both emphasise the need to plan for the next phase before it arrives.

That’s what the attendees at the LAPS event are looking to do. Among them is Jamie Stephens, a 24-year-old professional footballer who has spent the past three seasons at Barnet. A goalkeeper, he won the club’s player of the year award in 2016 but recently left the Bees following their relegation from the Football League.

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Jamie doesn’t have a degree – he was on the books of a Premier League side by the age of 16 – but he continued his education while his football career progressed.

“I went to Swindon Town at 15, signed at a scholarship, but I wanted to do sixth form. At 16 I was signed by Liverpool and I thought, ‘Wow, this is working out,’ but I still wanted to carry on with my education.

“LAPS are brilliant for putting on events like this and showing you the careers that exist,” he says. “You can see guys who were footballers and where they are now. They show you job opportunities and you meet like-minded people, so I’ve learned a lot and made some good contacts.”

The phrase ‘transferable skills’ comes up frequently during the event. For Jamie, it’s partly about self-assurance: if you have excelled in one field, you have the mental makeup to succeed in another.

“It’s incredibly hard to become a footballer,” he says. “You’ve reached the top of the game, become a professional, and I think you can take that into any job you go into and have a little bit of extra confidence.

“And you have shown commitment, you’re used to regime, you’re used to travel – if I can take those into a new job, great.”

The fact that Jamie is already thinking about the next phase of his career suggests that, like Connor, he is not a typical footballer. How do his teammates feel about his extra-curricular interests?

“I get a mixed reaction,” he says. “A lot of players still believe they are just a footballer. Some are very supportive, but others are still stuck in a ‘football or nothing’ mindset.”

In their efforts to change this, LAPS recently appointed Leon McKenzie as their head of partnerships. Leon played professional football for Crystal Palace and Norwich among others, then spent four years as a professional boxer. He is also a staunch advocate of improved mental health provisions, having battled depression during his career.

“Stability is everything,” he says. “Life can change any time and, no matter what job you’re in, things can go wrong. You can get made redundant or miss out on a contract, and it affects you psychologically. When you’re prepared, you’re in a more stable position to cope with it.”

McKenzie says that he first began to consider a life outside sport during the latter stages of his football career, when he suffered several injuries and “had a lot of time to think.”

“I relied on football so much that I ended up needing it badly,” he explains. “There was no room for anything else, no balance. You need balance all through your career, especially at the end.”

In his new role, McKenzie is drawing on his experience and trying to get athletes thinking about the future sooner rather than later.

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“I’m going out to football clubs, I’m attacking the boxing industry, trying to get people to prepare now. I can tell them this because I’ve experienced it all; I’ve been very high, and I’ve been very low.”

The athletes I spoke to all come from football – no surprise given that there are far more professionals in the game than in any other sport – but LAPS draws interest from a variety of backgrounds. Life after sport poses challenges whether you’re a League 2 footballer or a national squash champion.

The thread that runs through these discussions is timing. Many athletes only begin thinking about what to do next when they are confronted with it. Ryan is a success story, but he admits to having felt that his maths degree would be enough to secure a new career. It was only when he found himself out of football that the size of the task in front of him became clear.

Connor and Jamie have begun planning before it’s actually necessary. You can only admire them for this, but you get the feeling that they are in a minority. In football especially, more needs to be done to tell young players that their careers are short, that coaching may not be for them, and that there is a whole world of opportunity out there.

The athletes working with LAPS are learning that they can go beyond on sport and build a new career in an entirely different field. A few years from now they could be a financial planner, a firefighter – perhaps even a zookeeper.

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