The depression advantage: An interview story with Richard Thorpe
How a battle with mental health shaped a pro athletes life
I’m sitting here with Richard Thorpe. Thank you Richard for joining me for this conversation. Why don’t you briefly introduce yourself?
So, thank you for the invitation to speak with you. So, I’m Richard Thorpe. My background is in professional rugby. So, for 13 years, I was a Premiership Championship and international rugby player in the UK. I then transitioned out of pro sport in 2016 to set up my family’s private office. Since then, I’ve not only been running the family office but I’ve also built a coaching business where I work with professional athletes and next-generation high-net-worth families.
Brilliant. You have a very powerful personal story at the intersection of personal trauma, depression, and you work as a professional athlete, on top of that, and your success with the company. Can you run me through that specific story and experiences?
Yeah, of course. So, I joined a team called London Irish, a Premiership rugby team, when I was 18 years old. Went through the academy, made my debut for the first team. All my sort of dreams from when I was younger started to come through. I was starting every week, I was a professional rugby player, that identity was quite important to me at that time. I’d even had a feature done on me on Sky Sports. Everything on the outside seemed great. But, around the age of 23, I suddenly found myself struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Everything’s going well, I’m still playing. I’ve got a girlfriend, we’re living together. I got good friends around me, family is going well. But I was just struggling to get out of bed. I was pressing the snooze button one too many times. And, as the weeks passed by, I started to feel myself pulling away from people that are closest to me. I didn’t want to go and engage with my friends, with my family. I would leave at the last possible moment to go to rugby training, which is obviously what I did every day. And I would sit in my car until the last possible minute, and at that point, I would go in to attend the meeting, because I didn’t want to engage with anyone. I’ve… I felt myself beginning to feel feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, which just didn’t seem to align with reality and what was going on. I found the whole really quite confusing. And his went on for about 3 months.
Did anybody notice around you what was happening?
Not that I’m aware of. I didn’t tell anyone. I kept it completely to myself. And after about 3 months, it just lifted.
So, after it lifted, you just moved on and didn’t think about episode anymore until, as I understood, it happened again?
Exactly. So, I turned around after the experience, without really putting a label on it. It was just something that I had gone through. And, a year later, almost on the nose, the same thing happened: couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. I started to not want to eat the amounts that I would typically be eating. I mean, as a professional rugby player, we’ve got to be putting…
- four to five thousand calories into our body a day.
- You have to eat a lot, yeah.
Exactly, yeah, just in order to keep up with the expenditure. Yet, I really struggled to eat. Again, I didn’t want to engage with anyone. I would, at the end of the training day, leave as soon as I possibly could, often without even showering, just grab my bag, get in the car and go home, in order to just sit on the sofa, be away from everyone, lock myself away from the world (new subtitle) because that, inside, is what I felt I needed to do. I felt like I needed to incubate myself for this time. And, during that process, I opened up to my girlfriend who I was living with at the time. And I just turned around to her and said: I’m unhappy. She was like: What do you mean? And we sort of loosely spoke about it. I said: Look, I’m just not getting pleasure out of anything. Things that usually would make me really happy aren’t making me happy. I’d rather not do them. All I want to do is sit on the sofa and watch episode after episode of The Sopranos — fantastic TV series by the way if you haven’t seen it. But that is the truth, that is what I wanted to do at the time. And my girlfriend booked for me to book and see a sport psychologist, because we didn’t really know what was going on at the time. I’d heard terms such as depression and anxiety before, yet I hadn’t labeled myself as either of those.
Sport psychologist could help you make sense of your situation?
I guess that’s what I was hoping for, but I mean, as you know, a sport psychologist isn’t… their specialty isn’t in treating mental disorders.
It’s more for enhancing performance basically.
Exactly, yeah. Had I gone to see this person wanting to get more out of my performances on the rugby field, I’ve gone to see the right person.
Yeah. How did you eventually manage to make sense of what you were experiencing? And maybe, you can talk me through how you gained that insight and also how you could leverage that insight into actually addressing the issues you were facing?
Yeah. So, coming out of my second episode, I looked back over the last 2 years and thought: What was that all about? My primary symptom was I was just tired all the time. So, I’d… I sought help with Google, and I typed into Google “Why am I so tired all the time?” Simple as that. Up came depression, anxiety, mental health, all these things linked to depression and mental health. And that for me was the wakeup call.
Did you then, based on that insight, decide: It’s time for me to see an actual therapist, not a sport therapist?
Absolutely. So, what came out of my research… So, I started to delve a little bit deeper and realized that: Okay, I’m probably struggling with depression. There were 10 things clearly, 10 bullets points of the symptoms of struggling with depression, and I just went:
- Tick, tick, tick, tick.
- You passed the depression self-test basically…
- I passed
- With flying colors.
I passed with flying colors. So, I realized: Right, I’ve been suffering with depression. I’ve got no idea why because on the surface, I’m having a really successful career. I’m currently living my childhood dream of being a professional rugby player, I’m starting regularly, I’m having features on Sky Sports, and everything… I should be happy. Why is this happening? So, what came out of my research was medication and talking therapy are the two key things that can help you overcome depression. In looking at that, I went to seek help from a GP. I then went and found a psychotherapist. And that really was the turning point for me. From that point on — and I was in mid-twenties — became fascinated around human behavior, psychology, why we behave the way we behave, why we are the way we are, why are some people prone to becoming depressed, why are some people prone to suffering with mental health challenges.
And what did you find out for yourself, as a possible reason why you were undergoing these depressive episodes?
Well, I worked with the psychotherapist for two years. Over the course of that time, we started to explore things in my past. Over the course of that two-year period as well, I started to struggle with depression again. So, during that time, the person I was working had to help me through that. You can’t do much reflective work when you’re currently struggling with depression. You need some different help. As I came out of that and continued to work with the psychotherapist, we were able to unpick certain things in my past. And what we uncovered was, when I was 13, my sister was killed in a car crash. Obviously, I was always aware of that, I was always aware that that was very tough on me and my family and the people closest to our family. But I hadn’t quite appreciated the long-term impact that it had on me.
And also, I remember from your story — maybe you can share that as well — the way… the specific circumstances of how it happened and the news were brought to you. That could be possibly — one can only speculate — that could be possibly part of your long-term trauma than if it was handled another way.
Yes. So, I was 13 at the time, and my family were building a new business, and that was… that took up a lot of their time. My sister, however, was working for Virgin Airways, and we were at home alone together. And she left to drive around the M25 to Heathrow Airport to fly over to New York. That was around midday. Later that afternoon, around 4 o’clock, two police officers came around to our house, knocked on the door and asked whether they can come in. And it was just me, home alone.
13 years old.
13 years old, yeah. They asked me whether I would like a cup of tea, which was quite bizarre, being offered a cup of tea in your own house. But I said: Fine, yeah. And they went and made me a cup of tea, and they sat me down and they told me that my sister has just been killed in a car crash. That news… I mean, anyone who’s had a traumatic episode, similar or different, would know that you feel it… you don’t feel it in your fingers, you don’t feel it in your feet, you don’t feel it up in your head, you feel it in your gut, you feel it I your stomach. It is literally gut-wrenching. As they started to explain what had happened, I began to make up my mind that, because I’m hearing this first, I need to look after the rest of the family. And that’s just what flatted into my mind. And as I started to ask further questions… everything that you could imagine kind of went through my head. I spent a lot of time challenging the officers on whether they’d got the right person: Surely, things like this don’t happen to families like ours… challenging the officers, but because of the nature of what my family were doing — they’re building a business — they weren’t around, they were still at the office. And two hours went by before my family came home. By that time, the grief process, I’d kind of had a micro-experience of that, denial, anger and so on. But I had made up in my mind, at the age of 13, that it’s my responsibility to look after the family so that this news, so that this event doesn’t crush us. And, as my family came home, I was there to try and comfort them. But, again, I’m only thirteen. And that experience manifested itself over the next decade in my behavior, which led to my first experience of depression.
And how far did it manifest itself in your behavior? Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Yeah. So, looking after other people — at the expense of yourself, remember — so, I didn’t grieve for my sister until I was in my early twenties. The actual emotional process of bereavement, of grief, I didn’t actually go through that process fully until I was in my early twenties. I was preoccupied and focused on helping other people around me. That’s what’s referred to as a “people pleaser” or a “rescuer”. And it certainly isn’t isolated to me in experience, there are many experiences that people can go through that may manifest themselves in their behavior as being a people pleaser or a rescuer. But if that’s the behavior that you start to take on, and it’s not aligned really with you and who you are, it is only a function of time until you break down. And I broke down a decade later, at the age of 23.
It’s a very powerful story. Thank you, Richard. And how far do you think that this traumatizing experience at age 13 has shaped your career as a professional rugby player? And the reason I’m asking is because there’s a lot of evidence that traumatic experiences can drive people to enormous achievement and strength because it can be, in a way, a coping mechanism, a way of distracting yourself from having to deal with that pain or loss by focusing fully on a career.
Yeah. So, I mean, I look at the rest of my family. We subsequently went on to build a very successful company. Myself, I went on to have a very successful career as a professional rugby player. I considered myself a professional rugby player from about the age of 13, around the time of this event. I threw myself into it with every fiber of me. I made sacrifices such as not drinking alcohol — sometimes — eating well, training sessions, running around the block with weights around my ankles, doing press-ups and sit-ups every morning.
Not what the average 13-year-old would do.
Not what the average 13-, 14-, 15-year-old typically would do, but my heart was set, my mind was set on being a professional rugby player. And to say something very honest, I’m not a very good rugby player. I’m actually not, I’m not particularly skillful. I was just fitter and stronger that anyone else. I was prepared to do what other people won’t in order to get myself in the physical condition to be able to perform on the pitch. I would argue that the experience that I went through with the death of my sister contributed towards the attitude towards going the extra yard, putting in the extra sessions and so on.
Do you think your family, who went on whilst you were going through… your rugby career was building a very successful business, do you think they were experiencing a similar dynamics, so they were throwing all the weight into building this company as also possibly a way to cope with the loss of your sister?
I would find it very likely.
But it’s not the conversation you would have with them, or had with them?
Not directly, no. But it wouldn’t be too hard to stretch the imagination to think that we were successful because of the event that we went through together.
Very often, as I mentioned — you actually see that — is people who experience significant adversity, a trauma, a trauma of sorts, as a way to cope and self-medicate the loss and emptiness, to throw everything they’ve got behind a goal. So, you can only speculate that, in a way, amongst very successful individuals and families, there’s a high incidence of mental health issues, addiction, fueled by possibly trauma at some point, that actually has led them to become successful.
- So, that’s a possible correlation between…
an explanation between the correlation of success and mental health problems. I remember, when we talked about your story previously, that you also mentioned at the latest age, when you were experiencing yet another episode of depression, of feeling a low energy, no motivation, feeling sad, a way you used to cope is also through acting out on shopping, on watches, jewelries, cars, status symbols. Maybe… if possible, can you tell me what… at the time, you know, what went through your heads when you made those decisions and also what happened when you realized actually this is not who I am and this is not what I should be doing?
Yeah. So, I… Coming out of my first experience with psychotherapy, I started to study it myself. I’ve got a background now in psychology and psychotherapy. I consider myself quite a resilient person, not only from my experiences, but also from the information that I’ve gone out to seek and the studying and the education that I’ve done. Yet, as a professional sportsman, sadly, we’ve all got a shelf life. I guess some golfers can keep on playing until they’re a bit older, but particularly as professional rugby players, you will have a shelf life around your early to mid-thirties. It’s a very high-impact sport, it’s gonna take its toll on your body. I was one of the 30% that are able to choose to retire — the majority of professional athletes, this is, are forced to retire through either injury or not getting their contract renewed. So, I went straight into running a new family business, our family office. And what I had underestimated was the impact transitioning out of being a professional rugby player would have on my life. So, bearing in mind that I had considered myself a professional rugby player from the age of 13, I’ve got two decades worth of my identity being a pro athlete. And in the two years after retiring, during that process, I hadn’t fully dealt with and accepted and found a new identity in order to have responded to that successfully and effectively, and start to effectively self-medicate, unless it’s something like a new industry that you’d come across time and time again. Adversity, do we deal with it as we should do, as in deal with the emotions around it? That’s gonna take a long time and it’s gonna be painful. Or we’ve got a short-term solution, right here in front of you. Immediate gratification usually is manifested in alcohol and drugs; that wasn’t how I decided to self-medicate. It was with spending.
It’s possibly because you spent over a decade staying away from alcohol and drugs because there was no choice for you. So, maybe that was luck in your instance that it wasn’t the logical choice for you to act out on.
It could very well have been.
So, I see an interesting combination of journeys that you’ve made, where you have experienced, you know, the loss of your sister that later manifested itself in depressive symptoms and possibly has driven you to excel at sports. At the same time, you are a next-gen, second-generation of a family fortune, family business, running a family office. So, you also have access to a significant wealth or funds which, as you said, can… when you’re done experiencing adversity, can be an easy way to act out, to self-medicate those issues. And last but not least, also, if you didn’t have the trauma or loss of your sister, the transition from a professional sports career into the life thereafter, redefining your purpose, is also struggle you went through, and even though you had already made sense of what depression is, I suffer from that, it hit you yet again in another context.
So, my question to you will be, in that specific context, what would be your advice for any professional athlete around the theme of retirement, retirement planning and the mental health dimension?
Yeah, I mean, I probably like to tackle that question in 2 parts, because some athletes are gonna retire, they’re gonna start their new life, and then they’re gonna run into emotional or financial troubles, and now it needs a reactive answer. To answer reactively, my experience was that, I actually wasn’t clear on my purpose. Now that I wasn’t a professional rugby player anymore, who am I? What it is that I’m doing? But here is the thing, I thought I knew. My values were centered around materialism, certain amounts of money that I’m gonna earn from my businesses, houses that I’m gonna live in, etc. My values and my goals were materialistic. Going through that next episode of really struggling, not being able to get out of bed in the morning, pulling away from everyone, yet having been though this before, I was able to immediately go and seek the proper help, speak to the right person. And we started to talk around purpose, and what I discovered is that my values that I thought were important to me actually weren’t. The most important things to me are my friends and my family; it’s my health and well-being, of both myself and others, and particularly my friends and family, and then making a meaningful contribution. I want to leave a lasting impact on the planet in as small a way as possible. And I kind of looked at the two sets of values that I’ve been living at, and they just aren’t aligned. So, no wonder I ended up in the state that I did. And, as soon as I’d started to determine: okay, what is my purpose now? What are my values? And can I start living a life congruent with those values? Now, it was like the game’s changed, and that’s where I am now, that’s why I am now working with other professional athletes and other next-gens, to help them through it, because it’s aligned with my values. I’m able to spend good, quality, meaningful time with my friends and family; ma health, well-being are front of mind, and I’m able to help other people with theirs and I’m able to contribute by helping other people. And that for me was really determining purpose, realizing purpose, and what highlighted to me how important it is.
You mentioned a very important point, it is purpose. And… we all need a purpose in life, to get out of bed in the morning, something to look forward to, something to feel proud about, something to feel passionate about. We briefly touched upon the intersection of mental health and wealth, and I know we’ve talked about this before. What’s your view on being able to develop a purpose as a next-gen, second- or third-generation, having grown up or GROWING up in material wealth.. and ability in those circumstances to develop your own purpose and passion to, you know, develop healthily, emotionally?
So, it’s an interesting one because next-gens are actually quite diverse in their sort of requirements and experiences and so on. So, to speak relatively broadly and generally, first-gens — if we talk about generations — first-gens now come from a different generation to next-gens, typically. If you look at your classic first-gen, he was probably a baby-boomer; he wasn’t born into money; he’s gone out and built a company, or she’s gone out and built a company, and there is now considerable capital in the family as a result of it. But they’ve had to pull up their shirt’s sleeves and go to work. The next-gen typically has been into it, or at least is still being young when the money is dropped in. And current next-gens, some of them fall — if they’re sort of under or around the age of 30 to 35, the fall into the generation of being millenials, and I think a lot of people have heard about millenials, have heard of the term anyway. It basically means that you’re predisposed to being entitled. And the issue there is, there is a difference of values between the generations. The first generation was “shirt’s sleeves”, and they went out and they worked, they grafted, they’ve had adversity, they’ve had good times but they’ve also had tough times. And what second generations need to understand is that — well, they need to understand that firstly about their parents. They need to understand that what they’ve had — potentially, the bubble that they’ve had around them has prevented them from building the resilience to be able to deal with inevitable setbacks. Setbacks are gonna happen to everyone. I mean, I’m sorry, but people will face adversity in life. If you’re a first-gen, you can’t protect your children from adversity for the duration of their life, it’s just not gonna happen. But the problem in your earlier stages of life, by not experiencing adversity because you’re in this environment where everything is taken care of for you, you’ve got resource — remember, resource doesn’t build resourcefulness. Being resourceful is a learned skill, and often, it comes through adversity. So, the advice I would give to second generations now is to be mindful of that, just be aware of it as a first instance, that: Have you actually been sheltered most of your life? Do you have much adversity, experiences in your past which have forced you to grow? Like when you go to the gym, if you want to build muscle, you go in and you lift weights. When you lift weights, you break down the muscle; the muscle then rebuilds and it rebuilds stronger. Well, it’s the same with your emotional strength. Sometimes, adversity is what builds emotional resilience. Just being mindful of that, pushing yourself to the edge of your comfort zone, maybe extending your boundaries, not only it could lift your life into a more successful place, but don’t be afraid of any potential adversity that might be there, because actually, that could be an opportunity in and of itself.
What would be your advice to athletes that are currently still playing on top of their game with regards to retirement planning and the mental health side of it?
- Because you mentioned you struggled
What would be your advice to somebody who doesn’t have that on their radar yet?
Well, firstly, let me talk about the problem. 60% of professional footballers are bankrupt within 5 years of retiring, 60%. Flip over the pond to the United States: 80% of American footballers are bankrupt within 2 years. So, financially, there are some serious concerns if you’re a high-earning professional athlete. It almost seems, the more money you earn, the quicker you go bankrupt, and the more likely it is that you’re gonna go bankrupt.
And is that because you are used to a certain level of spending, but suddenly, at the end of your career, no money is coming in anymore? Or is it more than that?
I think a lot of it is the nature of a professional athlete that’s earning that sort of money. Let’s take professional footballers, it’s quite competitive. Who’s got the latest Lamborghini in the car park? If you’ve spent a decade, particularly in your late teens, early- and mid-twenties, those formative years, behaving like that, you’re carrying that behavior on into later life. So, when you retire and the money stops coming in, you still got the habit, you still got the predisposition to go out and be competitive with the boys and so on. So, yeah, to answer your question, I don’t think the spending stops. I think as well as I struggled with, spending can be a way of masking pain that’s coming in from elsewhere, maybe pain surrounding your own retirement…
And the losing of your… who you are, your purpose as an athlete.
Absolutely, yeah. But, not only financial — I mean, I think financial… there can be a bit of a knock-on effect. Gambling is prolific in professional sports, particularly in football, and that becomes worse when you’re masking some sort of issue, when you’re self-medicating. Gambling, in particular, mirrors — chemically in your brain — mirrors the highs and lows of a game on the weekend, something that now is no longer with because you’ve retired from the game. You have — you will have, as a professional athlete, maybe an addiction, but you are certainly used to euphoric highs, devastating lows from winning and losing games, from making the team and not making the team.
So, you say professional athletes can be… Or let me rephrase that, would you say a good, excellent professional athlete has a dimension of being addicted to what they’re doing, to their sport, to their game?
Absolutely. What’s released when you score a try in the Premiership Final, score a goal in the World Cup semi-final? What’s released in your brain is dopamine, that’s a very addictive, highly addictive neurochemical.
Yeah. As context, is somebody consuming cocaine. It’s the same thing, dopamine is flooding your brain.
So, you asked me is it additive being a professional sportsman? Ask a cocaine addict is dopamine addictive? There’s your answer. That can be mirrored not only with recreational drugs; gambling has the same impact.
So, you could argue that, when you’re retiring as a professional athlete, you are going through withdrawal symptoms because you’re not playing the game anymore, so you compensate that with gambling, possibly drugs, possibly…
That’s exactly it. And perhaps, professional athletes are weaning themselves off a career in professional sport through recreational drugs and gambling, because both of those are quite prevalent in retired professional athletes. So, to answer your original question, that’s the why, that’s the why: financial issues, bankruptcy, divorce rates — very high; your chances of developing depression are very high, more than a 50% chance in professional rugby that you’ll become depressed within 2 years of retiring. These are the reasons why a current professional athlete needs to be taking his transition seriously. Now, I can already hear a 23-year-old pro footballer saying: Why do I need to worry about my transition? I’ve got still a decade or two left in me. Hang on a minute. If I was still playing, I could get injured, standing up, walking over to the other side of the room, trip over, tear my cruciate ligament; I can’t play again. Injury can be around the corner to any current pro athlete. And what happens with injury, if it’s a career-ending injury, it’s now that just happened earlier. You’re no longer in your early-thirties with a decade’s worth of earnings behind you; you’re actually in your early-twenties potentially with a decade of aspiration behind you, and you haven’t achieved your goals. That there can be a serious issue to try and overcome. If you haven’t actually reached your peak yet, now something like a career-ending injury comes along and you can’t play the game anymore, well, not only is there loss of identity, there’s a whole host of other mental issues.
- There’s also a loss of dreams.
- Precisely, exactly that.
So, let’s just kind of say that current professional athletes need to take their transition seriously. They need to take it very seriously. You’re more likely to be bankrupt than not when you finish your career, you’re very likely gonna experience mental health issues and lifestyle issues such as divorce and so on. So, you asked a question: Well, what can pro athletes actually do about this? And the first thing, like with many things in terms of your mental well-being, is awareness. Be aware of what actually could potentially happen, and accept it. Don’t be like every other professional athlete that thinks: “Well, this is never gonna happen to me”. Because what’s the psychology of a successful professional athlete? They think themselves — here is reality, they think that they’re up here. That’s what makes a successful athlete: “I’m better than everyone else”, “it’s not gonna happen to me”. Maybe just bring the ego and push it to one side, and just deal with reality, real awareness and real acceptance of actually what you’re getting yourself into. So, if you want long-term financial stability, whatever you do, don’t become a professional footballer. That’s a terrible choice if you want long-term financial stability, statistically. Know that going in, because if you know it, you accept it, you believe it, you’re gonna start to make some good choices while you’re still playing. So, investing; invest well, don’t spend your money and pay yourself first, find good advisers around you — and I’m sorry, in professional football, they can be quite hard to find. I would advise professional athletes not to go with the adviser or the agent that is being spoken about in the changing rooms, because there’s some very charismatic individuals out there who manage to convince professional footballers that they should come and use their services and invest with them, and … I mean, you might not know, but there was an investment fiasco around UK film. A lot of footballers lost a lot of money; they were being advised to make these investments by their agents. So, just be very mindful of that. Make good investments with your money in your earning years, ’cause of course, let’s not forget, a typical professional high-earning athlete would be front-loading his earnings in his lifetime. Over the course of his life, his earnings are gonna go from up here; when he retires, they’re probably gonna come right down here, unless he’s one of the 2 to 3% that are able to keep it going, the David Beckhams for example. The majority, your income falls off a cliff. Know that. If you’re spending during your prime earning years as a professional sportsman, you are taking away from your future self.
So, that’s the financial side of it. And obviously, financial distress can also cause anxiety, depression, addiction through self-medication of those feelings. But what about the lack of purpose, or the loss of purpose and identity? How can a currently playing athlete prepare for the point in time where — which will come — where they transition out of their sports and the majority will be quite quickly forgotten by the public, no matter how much of the light they have been?
How can they prepare for that journey?
Very simply, I‘ve got a very good friend of mine who was a professional rugby player, a very successful professional rugby player. And whilst he was playing, he got one degree, then he got another, then he got another. He now has as many degrees as a thermometer; he’s a bright guy. He now works in a private equity fund. He was working unbelievably outside of the game; that is not normal, that he’s an exception to the norm. Studying can be very useful. So, number 1, get yourself educated, go and get yourself some qualifications; it doesn’t need to be a degree, it could be a diploma, it could be anything, but just build something outside of the game. I know, if you’re a professional athlete — I know, you’ve got plenty of free time… because that just comes with the territory. Go and get yourself qualified. Second thing, you don’t need to know the answers now, you don’t need to know what it is you’re gonna do when you retire… or when you transition out of the game. But why not start exploring it? Why not start exploring what you might like to do? I trained as a financial advisor whilst I was playing, I also traded at the stock market, I also trained as a psychotherapist, and I was also a property investor throughout the entire time. And I ended up becoming a property development lender.
And still you struggled with the loss of identity and the depression that came with that.
That comes as something separate. And I’d like to kind of make the point that it’s okay to struggle during your transition, it’s normal. Out of my friends, since I’ve retired, I’ve done some ruthless research into transition. I’ve spoken with a lot people — not only my friends — that have retired over the last decade, but across sports, meeting different athletes; a 100% of them have had some form of transition struggle. Not a single one — I’m sure there will be exceptions out there — but every single one has had some form of struggle. So, just know that going in; it’s not gonna be easy, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna get through it, you will. And you can make it as smooth a ride as possible by preparing and starting as early as you can, ’cause the earlier you can start getting educated, exploring work and work experience, researching and reading around mental health and trying to understand yourself from a psychological perspective can be very useful.
So, you elaborated on the fact that any professional athlete retiring from the game will struggle in one way or another. I reckon it’s a spectrum of… you know, how severe that struggle can be that will be influenced by how well prepared you are. And you mentioned a few things that you can do to prepare for that. Some people completely unprepared are more likely to just completely crash, suffer from addiction, drug abuse, alcohol, gambling, as you mentioned, divorce, as a follow-on of that acting out or in its own right, because if a professional athlete isn’t playing anymore, just sits at home the whole day, it can create relationship issues and all that. And then, on the other side of the spectrum, it’s normal that there is an adaptation process needed to your new identity or find your new identity. But the earlier you start with creating that identity and pursue interest outside of the game, the more likely you have a soft transition or a soft landing. I would see clubs managers, coaches, in professional sport having a responsibility not just for the athlete to perform in the game — you know, finding the right talent, training the talent, having them perform — but also in preparing them for to what comes towards the end of the game and the transition out. How do you see that responsibility?
Yeah, I mean the argument has been made before that clubs have a duty of care to look after their players, players that have devoted their lives to creating success for the club on the field. And when they’re no longer in the game, they should be looked after. The tough question is: Well, how should they do that? Should it be proactive or reactive? Should it be an alumni? If you’ve ever played for Manchester City before, we’re always gonna look after you. It is probably not the right way to do it? What is the right way to do it? To take an example from professional rugby, there are two teams that are currently leading the way for Premiership rugby in the United Kingdom; that’s Saracens and Exeter. Saracens, spearheaded by their owner, Nigel Wray, require every player to be doing something outside of the game, outside of training, building towards something that they can go into when they can no longer play the game. Exeter, close second behind Saracens. This is a really interesting thing. Saracens and Exeter were the two teams in the Premiership Final last year, and the two top teams in the UK. Now, the argument there would obviously be made: Well, they got the best players. They got very, very good players. My argument would be, if you’re working toward what you’re going to do after your career, there’s a certain amount of anxiety that can start to dissipate and start to lift. Anxiety has a tangible physical impact on our bodies. If we’re anxious about the future, fearful about what might come when we retire, that will manifest itself physically in our performances. And by working outside of the game, building towards your future, you could start to lessen that anxiety. It means that you can perform better in the present, it means you’re gonna perform better at the weekend. Saracens and Exeter, as clubs, I think, recognize that. And the sooner directors can recognize this and start to take transition seriously, and preparing and studying outside of training and games, because there are a lot of directors that want their players to go home and put their feet up and just off-load. That’s rest time. There are a lot of directors that want you to do that. If they can start to recognize that: Actually, I can see a tangible result in the bottom line. We’re more likely to win on Saturday if our players have been able to let go of some anxiety about the future because they’re studying outside of the game. That’s something that I’d like actually tp see a piece of research done on.
I see an interesting analogy here, it’s more and more companies realizing if they invest in reducing anxiety, addressing mental health issues, addiction, all sorts of mental inflictions within their work force. It’s a worthwhile investment, it’s worth paying those therapists, coaches, possibly psychiatrists because of the opportunity costs. So, it’s the same as you say, in these clubs, or general in sports. So, if you are anxious about the future, consciously or subconsciously, it takes away energy from you — it’s an opportunity cost, you don’t perform as well. So, from a club’s perspective, it makes sense to invest in either a career coach, a therapist possibly or at least facilitate access to those expertises for their players, even from a pure economic perspective. So, some corporate have recognized that. I know some especially tech companies, internet companies, they have teams of therapists coming in. And it makes sense from a balance sheet perspective as well, that cost is more than offset. So, that’s an interesting thought that… also professional sports, it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and not just ethically, but purely from a business perspective as well.
Completely. I think we’ll see a big shift as well if there is a tangible piece of research-based evidence put forward, if someone comes and conducts a piece of research into this, because at the moment, we’re seeing a lot of corporates starting to value it, starting to know that it has the impact. But they can’t actually see it in pound notes yet, because it’s hard to…
Yeah, there’s no direct causality that can be measured.
Exactly. So, in pro sports, if there was a piece of research done that would say: Look, there is a tangible piece of evidence. Statistically, your athletes are gonna perform 18% better if they’re studying outside of the game. We need that level. That will see massive uptake, I would have thought at that sort of level. But in the mean time, there are clubs that are doing it, across sports; there are players that are starting to recognize this and really start to work outside of the game. But we need to see it being far more the common practice, not the exception.
And how far do you see the taboo around mental health issues, depression, anxiety, addiction be a specific issue in professional sports? Because I’d reckon, in professional sports — in many of the disciplines anyways — you have to be strong, you have to show that, you know, you’re resilient, and often, it doesn’t go along with the concept or idea that this person can also be vulnerable and depressed and have issues. So, a tool to perform such research, you know, to actually be able to gain that information from people who’re probably more likely to not want to talk about that and the average population — it’s hard enough in the average population — and at the same time making them understand that A) It’s okay, because everybody struggles; and B) that they do accept help or practically, you know, seek help when they feel that they struggle, be it during their career or especially when retirement comes. So, in how far do you see that mental health is still a taboo in connection with professional sports? Is that a big problem? Is it changing? Do you have any recommendations for clubs or athletes how they can navigate that?
I think particularly in male-dominated team sports, there is still a stigma. We spoke about the nature of a professional sportsman earlier, the nature of a professional sportsman when it comes to putting on a mask, not showing your feelings, the macho-culture: “I’m fine. I’m gonna get on with it.” There is still a stigma, and it’s a hard one to know quite how to get around it. Because what makes a successful rugby team for example? Let’s use rugby as the example. What makes a successful rugby team is, big tough guys are gonna go out and fight and go to war. One of those guys is turning around to say: “I’m actually struggling. I’m a bit depressed at the moment.” And, really, the best thing for his is for his teammates to get around and say: “Don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay.” Now, those guys are gonna go out and win a game of rugby. It’s gonna…
There’s a lot of psychology in winning the game as well. It’s such a skill on the field, it’s a…
So, players that are struggling won’t want to share it with anyone else because they will fear that the coach will drop them. The coach will obviously — probably empathize, probably feel quite sorry for you or want to help as best as they can, but that’s not at the expense of the team. “Sorry, you’re gonna have to sit out, watch you get better”. Players don’t wanna even risk that. So, what do they do? They put the mask on; everything’s fine, they smile, exactly as I have done. You turn up, you get your job done, and you go home and you deal with it at home. What we are seeing now is players engaging with confidential counseling services. So, in rugby for example, there’s a hotline that you can call, and that’s across other team sports as well, across leagues and so on. And the stats that come out of that are quite surprising. But consider this, retired rugby players, you’ve got just over a 50% chance of becoming depressed within the first year. Of those that struggle with depression, only 20% seek help, and that’s now they’re not in the team environment anymore.
So, why do you think is that?
That would be learned behavior carrying over into the next phase of their life. So, what’s worked for them as a professional rugby player, they’re not gonna… in that first year or two after retiring, those habits and behaviors…
- It’s second nature, basically.
- It’s second nature.
So, you still have that mask on. You still portray this image of being a big man if you’re a man, a big woman if you’re in the women’s rugby league. And seeking help is a show of weakness.
That can make it very difficult for family, people around, friends, to actually pick up on that there is something wrong, if you’re still wearing this mask and “everything’s fine”,
- but actually, inside, something is building up to eventual disaster.
How can that — again, particularly in a career-ending transition — how can that be practically alleviated? Do you have any suggestions for families or professional athletes for instance, to be more aware or better prepared or… What can they do? Because 50% chance is a high chance; it will happen to every second family of a professional athlete that their loved one will be affected by this.
Yeah. I mean, the obvious thing to look out for is — if you’re a family member or a close friend of a retired professional athlete — is too look out for behavioral changes. So, are they sleeping more or less that what they normally were? Are they eating more or less that what they usually would? Are they pulling away? When you call them, do they not pick up? When you text them, do they not text back for a couple of days? Do they cancel appointments and meetings? Do they look and act as though they’re in a fog? One of the classic things that’s something that’s depressed will say is: “I just feel like I’m fogged up. I feel like I’m in a fog.” And maybe ask questions that might prompt them to turn around and say: “Yeah, I’m not feeling quite right.” “Are you feeling okay? You look as if you’re caught in a bit of a fog. Am I right?” And they might just turn around and say: “Yeah, I have been feeling a bit.” If they turn around and say something positive, well, that’s not necessarily an indication that they’re depressed, but it could just be your first red flag, and once you get a handful of them, now it’s the time to suggest that they go and start speaking to a professional. But you got to remember, someone who’s struggling emotionally, one of the best things they can do — well, there is a couple. Number 1 is exercise; one of the first things that stops when you finish playing professional sport is your amount of exercise that you do per week drastically falls, if not completely, because you just wanna leave it behind. Exercise releases certain endorphins; endorphins that we’ve already discussed about you might have an addiction to. Carry on exercising when you retire. It doesn’t need to be crazy intense; cardiovascular exercises are probably the best. Keep exercising.
To compensate that… it’s basically like a coming down after a high.
- It’s a come down from a long career of sports…
- I wouldn’t necessarily frame it as a come down.
You want to continue that throughout your life; there is no reason why you can’t still be running 5 K every morning when you’re in your eighties. There are people that do it, and that is gonna promote a long and healthy life.
But it would feel like a come down if you suddenly stopped,
- the exercising was so drastically reduced…
that you don’t have the amount of endorphins anymore your brain is used to actually just feel balanced.
- So, you feel a withdraw.
- Exactly, yeah.
So, exercise, engaging with friends and family, those closest to you. Just having conversation with a good friend can — a problem shared is a problem halved. It can really alleviate the acute symptoms; not necessarily it’s gonna deal with the whole thing, but it’s gonna make it easier, not harder. Thirdly would be to consider professional help; go and speak to a qualified coach, psychotherapist, maybe even a psychiatrist who can combine the two treatments for depression, being medication, talking therapy, and just put you on the road to recovery. Because that’s… let’s look at it this way. If you’re starting to struggle, are you plateauing at that sort of level of, say, a minus 3 on the happiness scale, or are you getting worse? Let’s make sure, if you do fall down, the only direction is, you’re just getting better. And over the course of time, it’s never a quick fix if you’ve managed to slip into something like depression. It’s not gonna be an overnight fix, but let’s make sure we’re heading in the right direction.
That’s very interesting. You both are professional athletes, now retired from your game. At the same time, you’re also a next-gen in… coming from a very successful family business, you’ve built your own successful business, and your family… with your family business had a so-called cash event, where the business was sold and then you built your family office around that. In how far do you see similarities between an entrepreneur — or a whole family — going through a cash event and a professional athlete retiring? I think you know where my question is leading at.
Yeah. And it’s a really good question, because a cash event for a first-gen, as that first-gen, matriarch or patriarch, continues with life, it’s likely that their concern will turn to legacy and passing on their wealth to future generations. Not always, but it’s likely. We’ve heard the phrase: “Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in 3 generations”, and it’s 91% of those that have had a major financial windfall, cash event in their life, will not see their capital passed on 2 generations, 91%. So, inheritance and the control and the passing down of wealth should be at the forefront of first-gens and also second-gens, because if they’re coming into the money, well, now, the process just repeats it; they’re gonna want to pass it on to their children and their grandchildren. Let’s compare that with a professional athlete, particularly a very high-earning professional athlete. They front-load their earnings in their lifetime, they typically will earn 90, 95, 99% of their lifetime earnings within the first, 30, 35, 40 years of their life.
So, you can compare that with cash events that are just building up over that time, and then at some age, where they retire, it can be similar to somebody selling their business; you suddenly have a change of role, of purpose…
- And a lot of money.
The game has changed, sorta used that phrase. But it has for both, a liquidation event because you’ve sold the company, a liquidation event — well, it’s not really a liquidation event, but the event of retiring from pro sport, you need to make some serious life changes if you’re gonna have sustainable wealth, multi-generational. And there are certain behaviors, there are certain things that you can do in order to stack the odds in your favor. You can never control completely other people, you can make good decisions yourself, and that’s kind of your start point.
Do you see a cash event also similar to a transition of a professional athlete into retirement from a perspective of purpose and personal struggle as identity?
Because entrepreneurs and… like self-made first-generation shirt sleeves entrepreneurs, in terms of resilience and drive and goal, you could see some similarities between them and somebody who built their professional career in sports.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t… you see it time and time again, the entrepreneur who sells a business; he’s now got more money than he could ever spend really in a lifetime, but he goes straight out and starts another business. That then is really successful; he sells that, straight out and starts another business.
And, as an athlete, you can’t really do that. You can’t…
As an athlete, you certainly can’t do it. But if you just stay with me, one of the reasons I would imagine that entrepreneur is doing it, is he loves the game, he loves building businesses; it’s what makes him happy. But we spoke about this some time ago now, it feels. Around… if there is something lurking emotionally in your life that’s still with you, and you haven’t let go of or dealt with or anything else, business can be a very good outlet. It’s been a very good outlet for me and my family, and it is time and time again for successful entrepreneurs. So, the guy that starts the next business, or the woman that starts the next business, and the next business and the next business, do they really know what their purpose is? Do they really have a tangible set of values that they live by, that are real to them?
- Are they happy?
- Or is it all about proving something to someone else,
how much money can I make from an ego perspective or from a challenging-myself perspective? Is that really what makes people happy? Is it really?
So, it can be also — for some people anyways — a coping mechanism for just the lack of purpose, or similarly to pass dramatic experiences.
Completely. And to draw the comparison then with the retiring professional sportsmen, is: Well, now that he’s retired, does he know his purpose? Does he know really what his values are and what direction he wants… and probably, he has the ability to choose what direction he now takes his life in, as does the entrepreneur who’s just sold out. They now have resource behind them. As we’ve already explored, resource doesn’t mean resourcefulness. They’re 2 different things, and to be resourceful would mean to go out and seriously uncover it actually is your purpose, what actually is important to you, what are your values. That’s your start point. Once you know what your values are, once you know what your purpose is, now everything else can build of that; you can build your goals and your actions on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis, that are all aligned and congruent with serving your values and serving your purpose. That right there is a fulfilled life. And the most fulfilled people on the planet, whether they know it or not, structure their life in that way. So, that’s what I would see as being the 2 similarities that are required if you’re an entrepreneur selling out a business or a professional athlete coming into his retirement.
In our conversation, the concept or the reality of “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in 3 generations” has come up, basically meaning the wealth and success that have been built by a first-generation, in over 91% of cases, doesn’t make it past the 2 succeeding generations. And there’s a lot of research trying to make sense of that happening. What seems to be a bit of a pattern is that mental health issues, addiction, acting out, family conflict play a much bigger part in that reality than families would like to disclose or that demographic would like to disclose. As you are in… you’re a second-generation in your family business and now family office. What are your thoughts — and you must think about that reality of “shirt sleeves in 3 generations”. What are your thoughts around what will you do with your kids, or your brother with his kids, who will be the third generation, who are the ones at risk of…? And it’s not all about money, there’s a lot of, you know, else… that could be happening in that third generation. Do you have any ideas for yourself, any advice to second generations who are in those situations? What can you do to build a resilience with your next generation, with the third generation, and to prevent that happening to your family?
I think most families, and certainly the ones that I’ve worked with in a coaching capacity, focus on financial capital, and that’s where the priorities lie: how do we preserve capital, pass it on in the most efficient way possible, make sure that it keeps growing, recognize that inflation is gonna keep chipping away so we got to be earning ex and so on. Really important. But the weighting of value in financial capital comes at the expense of weighting in other areas, being — and this would be what I feel is probably… we need to see a lot more value attributed in families is emotional capital. So, if you’re first-gen, recognizing that: okay, you don’t want your children to have to go through the hardship that you went through, you want to give them the nice things in life, you want them to be able to have access to fantastic education, health, enjoyment. What’s the cost? That would be the question I’d always ask. If you’re gonna give your children anything, what’s the cost from an emotional capital perspective? Because if you give your children everything — particularly from a young age, and the younger it is, the more impactful it’s gonna be throughout the rest of their life — there will be a cost, probably around entitlement, probably around a lack of value for the things they have in their life, a lack of value for the financial capital that you’re trying to pass on. So, a shift of focus — financial capital is still really important — but just a shift of focus now to emotional capital. What can I pass on to the next generation now, my children… so if I look at myself? This is gonna sound interesting, I suppose. I wouldn’t fear my children going through adversity, not in the slightest, because I know from direct experience and what I’ve devoted my life to that that would build emotional resilience. They’re gonna be a stronger, tougher person, as long as they react to it in the appropriate way, which I’ll be there to help guide them through. In terms of what I pass on to them, will it still be there for them to pass on to their children? That comes to me; it’s centered around entitlement. Can we raise our children so that they don’t feel entitled, so that they feel they’ve earned what they have in their life? That doesn’t mean saying: “Well, you don’t have access to any of the family capital.” It’s giving them some purpose so that they feel engaged with the process, so that they have some goals and targets and can have the wins along the way and the failures and the adversity and so on… in order that they don’t end up receiving the capital when I’m no longer around… and they don’t fully value it, and they don’t have the emotional capital to pass on to their children. So, a long answer to your question, but it would be to consider emotional capital being just important as financial capital when planning the inheritance and transfer of wealth.
Do you see disproportional focus on financial capital by these families as possibly one of the drivers why very wealthy families tend to have more issues of addiction, of mental health disorders within their family?
Completely. Because if your focus is all around capital, it’s all around money, that seems to gear you and your family up for emotional struggle. It comes again at a cost, and it’s quite hard if you don’t stay conscious of looking after each other’s emotional well-being, educating yourself around it, because you are more likely to have issues with mental health if you’re a n ultra high-net-worth individual versus being a normal individual.
And issues around mental health when you are an ultra high-net-worth individual make it more likely for you or your next generation to actually lose that wealth that created the problems in the first place.
But you’re also more prone this way to lose them, without the awareness around that. Actually, there is a point I sometimes like to make when I speak to family office principals or families. Even if you look at mental health from a pure non-emotional perspective, so without considering the actual suffering that’s, you know, going, even just from a pure business and capital preservation viewpoint, considering mental health risks in the family and with key people trying to prevent that and identify issued early on before acting out can actually destroy a family like it’s in the family fortune, I see actually as a paramount element of a risk-management strategy of a family office.
Absolutely. I mean, we’re seeing it in the corporate world already, aren’t we? Valuing, having a team of emotional counselors, coaches on hand to help members of a company through adversity, and it’s exactly the same in a family. If you genuinely valued emotional well-being amongst your family as a precursor to a successful transference of wealth — that’s ultimately what we’re talking about here — then why wouldn’t you, if you’re the first-gen or the matriarch or patriarch start to implement that into your family and into your family office?
So, we could make the case that, even if the focus is fully on financial capital and capital preservation, the proper attention to emotional capital can still serve that other purpose — not that I’m saying that should be the objective, but even if that’s just a viewpoint of preserving wealth past the third generation, taking emotional capital seriously will also achieve that financial goal.
I mean, look, if you’re taking emotional capital seriously, you’re gonna need to bring in external help. Yes, you can work with each other, help each other, support each other. If these are your family members, it’s gonna be very hard to get any really meaningful emotional work done. This has to be put in the hands of a professional, it has to come from a professional, a professional coach that can help you with your values and your purpose and so on, a professional psychotherapist, psychiatrist to help with underlying emotional issues, trauma, adversity and so on. That is gonna leave your family with a resilience to be able to cope with transition, with the transference of wealth in the years to come.
Brilliant. Richard, this has been a very insightful, interesting and moving conversation. Thank you very much for your time and being so open about your own journey and your passion to pass this on and help others who are going through this or to help others prevent the struggles that can be associated with such a journey. Thank you very much.
Well, thank you.
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About Richard Thorpe (2014 — Interview from Rugby Canada)
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