Case study: Transitioning out of both the army and professional sport.

Did you know that ‘Tommy Atkins’ was a type of Mango? Neither did I until recently. For all my life, Mr Atkins has only ever been the epitome of the lion-hearted and cyclically fashionable British soldier. How the internet search engines have changed our lives.

I was connected to Tom through a senior traumatologist who, over the years, has introduced me to some of the servicemen and women I have helped to plan and manage their career changes. Although I have never worked with Tom professionally, he is ideally placed to provide us with valuable knowledge as he has experience of transitioning both out of the military and out of professional sport, two areas I believe to have some similarities.

Tom is now 46, a proud, well built, powerful looking, confident, focused man, neat in appearance with his dark suit and dark short hair whose tips, having glided across the threshold of quadragenarian greyness, add an air of sophistication. His presence, soft but deep North Essex voice and controlled mannerisms command my attention … far more than his social media profile ever will: ‘Ex-soldier, ex-footballer, I have a lot of ex’s”. As with some professional soccer players I find myself wondering if ex’s should really read ‘excess’ and that he would be, well frankly, rather self-centred, but I find Tom far too engaging to judge him that quickly. All too soon, I found myself reaching deep down to the bottom of the well to recover the pebble of potential, so glibly tossed into the deep, spreading ripples of emotion and past achievements over the surface of his life. I wondered what reflection he saw when he looked down and whether I, and others, saw something different. This former soldier, former sportsman, had he indeed ever looked?

I wanted to investigate the links between military and professional sport transition. I knew that I
wanted to speak to individuals I did not know as well as those I had worked with professionally. As
with anyone I meet for the first time I asked Tom, “What do you do?” He replied, “I am a director of a training company, part of that is contracted into a school to teach, so it’s sort of training and educational”.

Encouraged by me, he spoke more about himself. Born in 1969, he too took his ‘first small
step for man’, into a family where sport, goals and achievement prevailed. His parents were both
athletes but his mother was an alcoholic and his father, “a weak man”, who by the time Tom
was in his early teens, had left home following an affair. I wasn’t being simply nosey, but I have
reason to believe that in order to know where we are going in life, we need to know where we have
come from. So, I asked him, “Who are you Tom?” From his, “Bloody Hell, that’s a question”,
I felt that for Tom too, this was the first time he had stopped ploughing forward and was allowing
himself a glimpse over his own shoulder into the past.

He was a natural and he loved it. Stumbling along the green highway, the control in his cold pink legs
and his focus on the goal was advanced for his mere five years of age. He ran his little heart out and
still remembers to this day the feeling of elation as he scored his first goal. “I wanted more of it and it was a big moment”.

But what really shaped his childhood, he told me, on reflection, were two things. His mother’s
alcoholism, the shouting, the abuse, his parent’s break up and the Falkland’s War. He knew he had a talent, he knew he had a passion; he knew too that to step it up to a profession he had to be spotted. He also recognised, perhaps for the first time that he had choices. Whilst he knew his body had the skill to enable him to play high level soccer, his heart was calling him to do something else. In 1982, Britain was overwhelmed by the activities in the South Atlantic.

Those of us old enough to remember the grave, deliberate tone of the newsreader, the burnt-out shells of once invincible ships, Welshmen splashing ashore with horrific burns, leaving 32 others dead in one
attack. The emotions stirred up over 74 days of bloodshed viewed, perhaps the first time in every
sitting room, led Tom straight to the recruiting office. Not even the joy of Brazil knocking
Argentina out of the World Cup was enough to stop Tom pursuing his next goal, to become a
soldier. I thank God for choices” he told me.

For at the same time he was hearing the call of ‘the thin red line’, he was diagnosed as suffering from
what the doctor told him was ‘growing pains’, what we now call Osgood Schlatter disease. Not
enough to prevent him sailing through basic training, but definitely enough to put his soccer career
on hold. It is normal in life to pursue activities that we are naturally good at but I wanted to explore
if there were other reasons why Tom was attracted to sport. Experience of helping people to ‘sort
out’ their careers has led me to look for themes. In order to understand someone’s prevailing
motivation we surely need to reach out beyond the face value and see what lies behind. A love of
gardening could lead someone to find a career as a gardener but surely if we are not able to fully
appreciate what it is about gardening that is important to an individual then the danger exists that
the wrong reasoning will lead to the wrong employment. I myself love gardening, but for me, having
developed a deeper understanding of what exactly it is about gardening that excites me, I know that I
derive more pleasure in the self-sufficiency and the economic benefit of growing my own produce
than from a need for perhaps social integration, physical fatigue, creation of a new species or garden design.
The same could be said for people who list ‘cooking’ as one of their hobbies and interests on their
CV. Could there be something about creating something, socialising and giving pleasure to others? Could
there be an artistic element or need for a healthy lifestyle for example? I needed to expose this long held theory to someone I had not worked alongside throughout their development; I needed to understand for Tom, why sport? He told me more.

“Besides the fact that I was naturally good at it? Yea, I guess it had something to do with both Mum and Dad being footballers too. I grew up in a sport fuelled environment and was encouraged from day one to be a good sportsman myself. I was playing football as soon as I could walk, there was lots of football around us, we watched tournaments and so on so, on a superficial level, it was something I was drawn to”.

I pushed a little harder, not through any desire to satisfy my own sense of importance, but because I wanted to peel back those layers to see if anything else could be discovered. Tom continued, “If you want to go a bit deeper, from early on, due to relationship with mum, anything that could put me in a good light was something I would pursue”. I felt as if we were beginning to get to know the real Tom; there was a strong need in his life for praise and approval. And is that so special? you might be asking, doesn’t everyone need praise, doesn’t everyone need approval? It’s special because it allows us to begin to gain clarity on the authentic. It is special, too, for it allows us to see that career development should include insight into values, context, habits and environments. And doesn’t everyone want praise? No, not everyone does. Some people have an aversion to it and this is important in helping us to move away from the more traditional careers advisory approach of ‘tell’ to one of ‘discuss’.

We looked at the perceived similarities between professional sport and the military and now we wanted to see whether such generic perceptions transcended into Tom’s sphere of experience. Tom had detailed the required discipline, concentration, attention to detail, tactics and interestingly identified the perpetual highs and lows as being similar to professional sport. We tentatively crept forward into the darkness and, as our senses grew ever more perceptive, we were allowed a realisation that was getting closer once again to the very essence of this man.

“For me, and I discovered it myself, recognition was important. The army was a massive thing for me giving me recognition and respect that I had never had as a child. Sport was an extension of this and although I was a bit Marmite – people either loved or hated me, within both areas of my life I found recognition for my achievements at last”.

Having completed two operational tours and after six years’ service, including playing soccer for both the army and combined services as well as a non-league team in his spare time, he was ‘spotted’ by a professional club who paid for his release from the military. He was eager to tell me that some of his senior non-commissioned officers fought hard to keep him, (recognition again?), and how the perfect scenario would have been to have completed another tour as he loved life in the field, the soldiering. “I just thrived in the field, I loved the doing not the training”, (another valuable insight into his character). Tom told me how proud he was of his military medals and then, as so often happens when you think you’ve got it, you find out more. “I am not someone who seeks recognition, I didn’t do it for this, but I am very proud I did it” . . . “My house isn’t filled with military photographs, but twice a year I pin my medals on my suit and am extremely proud when I wear those symbols of what I was willing to do”. Is this quite different to sports medals? Tom hinted at the ‘what might have happened’. “What I was willing to do” is indicative of the sacrifice of his future which differs from sports medals that are perhaps more a symbol of past achievement.

From day one in the military you represent your country. You belong to a family whose lineage stretches back well over 350 years and that family epitomises familiarity. This sense of belonging, the safety net provided by stability and security, feeds young people to believe in their invincibility allowing for actions that border on the reckless. In sport, however, Tom was taunted. Despite being such a wonderful thing to be a part of, there were many more reasons to feel insecure in sport. Changes of managers, injuries, sponsorship deals, new owners etc. all affected Tom.

“I had a decent football career but I wish I knew then what I know now about my requirements in life, to be relaxed and perform at my best, but I was part of some decent teams, won some wonderful titles. I look back on football with pride but often tinged with what could have been.”

“And the army?” I asked.

“It’s not the same in the army. There, I believe I did what I was capable of doing. I qualified to become a Physical Training Instructor. I performed well in two combat areas. The only question that I ever ask myself is, if I hadn’t left for the soccer, how far would I have gone in the army?”

As Tom handed his kit back into the stores and swapped one uniform for another, his regiment went on another operational tour. One of the soldiers was killed by a sniper and Tom remembers vividly the melancholy, peering through the window of his memory on to a life that seemed so distant now. That part of his life was in the past, gone, and Tom wanted no reminders of it. It was time to move on.

“At an emotional level, cutting off made me kind of cold”, he said. “In all aspects of my life this transition had a big impact on me”.

During his time with the military, his wife had twice been unfaithful and somehow, cocooned in the bubble of certainty that cushions a service person’s life, her infidelity was manageable. As he made the leap into ‘Life Part Two’, he did so on his own, leaving everything behind.

“I never had her support ever. Our marriage was going downhill so I wasn’t in an environment any more where I felt supported. We had young children but I was in a kind of a whirl, trying to make the best of the soccer even though home life was deteriorating. I did struggle with lack of security. I was badly injured in my first season, was out of my contract without a club, with a family to support, far away from home.” We must remember that, in Tom’s day, rarely did individuals have managers and, in the middle of his first season, the club manager changed and this happened again at his next club. The insecurities from his marriage were now creeping into his career so when a call came through from his old club, although lower league, he jumped at the chance offered to play and live back in his home town and also to coach.

We can start to connect Tom’s transitions now to how the journey unfolds for the majority of people. If you think of people you know and you ask, ‘how did you get into your career?’ the answer will often be, ‘I just sort of fell into it’. Encouraged by the club to develop his training skills to a more professional level, Tom enrolled on several courses gaining some qualifications. As his training business gained momentum he had less time to train, less time to play and recognising this situation, his manager (“a great guy”) suggested that Tom leave his contract early. Contract duly ended, he embarked upon a career within the corporate training world and, more rapidly than perhaps he would like to admit, what he was good at and what he enjoyed started to evolve into something he was good at but failed to find the same levels of energy within. The telephone rang at just the right time and an offer, somewhat out of the blue, to coach a lower league club was jumped at! He was back doing something he loved, something that energized him but something at the same time that he knew was time limited. I wondered if he was putting off the inevitable retirement simply because he didn’t know what it was he wanted to do.

The Symplegades of destiny were thunderous. The fear of instability clashed with old injuries and the knowledge that he had to keep looking forward. Continued denial that life on and in the field had taken its toll on his body was pointless. The training company was similar to his last soccer coaching job in that he was there to help young people where, overcoming new challenges, working with difficult children was very rewarding. Was recognition once again coming to join us? At the same time, he fought against the endless bureaucracy and, being quite an outspoken person, he began to feel very unhappy. It was at this time that Tom sought professional help to try and understand himself better. He had allowed himself to look back, and those ripples traversing through his life all stemmed from a childhood self-preservation. “My problems started as a kid. Life was … well, life was very unsafe, so I had to build up survival mechanisms, and one of them was lying … to get out of a beating. I have carried this on, not in an everyday way, just when I feel threatened, doing this in all aspects of my life, not letting anyone get to know me”. He went on a number of counselling workshops aimed at getting to understand the core issues, to understand behavioural patterns. “To try to understand where this self-destruction comes from. It was never drugs, it was never alcohol. My biggest vice was craving attention from females. I never went all the way though. Perhaps it’s the challenge thing we’ve discussed, I still get distracted by challenges, the bike rides, raising money for charity. I’m well respected you see, it comes from being very open”.

I enjoyed my chat with Tom enormously. He continues with the training company and, as I write this, he is off somewhere earning the donations for this year’s chosen charity the hard way. Slogging it on a bicycle in the pouring rain. The wheels may continue to go around but it’s still Tom sitting on top. Whatever he has been through, from a violent childhood, an aggressive adolescence, a roller-coaster of a sporting career to the harsh life developing his training business he has achieved much, he has developed, but his essence remains the same. I asked him what misconceptions he felt people might have of his two lives, a soldier and a professional sportsman.

He dealt with the similarities first and identified, for him, within both arenas, sustaining his comfort, perhaps familiarity, the highs and lows, both of emotion as well as performance. He dislikes the modern thinking that everyone who has ever served is a ‘hero’ playing to a tune that ultimately leaves service personnel performing to the public understanding of what a service person really is. “Let’s not forget, many join the army ‘cos they can’t do anything else. We also did our bit you know, the 1980’s and 90’s were no picnic for many a soldier in Ireland, Bosnia etc.”. Although the ‘troubles’, ‘conflict’, ‘war’, call it what you will went on for longer we mustn’t forget that over 1,000 British soldiers were killed in Northern Ireland, over 6,000 were injured. The people in today’s armed forces are no different to those in Tom’s day, you get good, bad, tall short, male, female, fit, unfit, slim and fat and everything in between. He felt the fitness requirements were different in sport and the military, something I have heard from other professional athletes who have served in the armed forces. In sport, you tend to have short bursts of intense physical activity whereas in the military you often find yourself enduring high levels of exertion over an extended period of time, staying awake being the hardest challenge! Tom was keen however to stress from his own experiences, what I call a fear of ‘labelling’. All too often someone’s capabilities and indeed personality are judged by their job or their organization long before the individual is given any chance of being just that … an individual. Tom was keen to stress that it isn’t about the ‘military man’ it’s about the man in the military. It’s elements of soldiering and experiences that make the person not the army per say. “Attention to detail, concentration, tactics, there all there in both”, he said, “but for me, the most important thing the army gave me, and subsequently sport, was recognition and respect that I never had as a child. Sport was a bit different though, perhaps it’s the invincibility thing, perhaps it’s the sense of belonging that never leaves you after time in the army, whatever it was, in sport, recognition could be negative. I wasn’t loved by all”, he said, the twinkle in his eye sparkling once again.

Tom’s career transitions, we have to appreciate, differed to many people in that he always had two feet on the floor before he took another step. Concurrent activities, the army and soccer, professional sport and training, together with the element of ‘selection’ allowed Tom to step relatively seamlessly, certainly physically, into his next role. Having other interests helped him hugely, “they opened doors. Like I said, I was working as a coach, did my teacher training etc. I was working for a youth service in sport, with difficult teenagers, which all tumbled into place with the training company. Doing something else alongside soccer certainly allowed me to develop into something else”.

I left Tom at the top of the stairs overlooking the square from where he could go left, right or straight through the park. I thought, as we shook hands, back to his comment about choices. In his life he had them, and he grabbed them, but what about someone for whom the decision has been made. My next appointment wasn’t too many days hence and I was wishing the days would slip by quickly. I flicked through the pages of my pocket diary to the date where written on a fast-moving train in an illegible pencilled scrawl I could make out ‘Joe’ 2pm. A man who had equally risen to the zenith of his physical ability, but one whose career had ended abruptly.

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