As a player Leon Lloyd hung up his boots with a wonderful record that any player would be proud of: two Heineken Cup trophies, five England caps and a two-try heroic performance in Leicester’s European final of 2001. Yet retirement came unexpectedly and tore the world he knew apart.
As a crucial cog in arguably one of the greatest club teams of the modern game, Lloyd still treasures his time at Leicester Tigers. When asked about what made the Welford Road side so special, he is unequivocal: “The history behind the badge and the history of the people who have gone before you. I know when I turned up there I had the likes of Rory Underwood, Dean Richards and those older guys who had been there before me who set the standards. I felt it was my job then to carry on that baton. I know people have used the saying ‘to leave the shirt in a better position than when you picked it up’. We didn’t use that at Leicester but we certainly had a very peer-led environment where it’s led by the players and not by the management.”
At the time of Leicester’s imperious control of both the English and European games, they led the way in making the players responsible for their own actions on the pitch. “Dean Richards knew that we needed a structure, but the rest of it was down to us to deliver. We had a lot of senior players there and we could change gameplans. He would implement the overall strategy but then we had full power to do what we felt was right on the pitch at that time.”
As well as that ability to define themselves as a team, Lloyd highlights the issue with players defining themselves through a team. “It’s something called ‘athletic identity’ where being involved at Leicester we were so focussed on our job and our next job in the Saturday-to-Saturday life, so when that gets taken away and you’re no longer playing, what fills that gap?
“No one thinks about that; you’re so immersed in your day job then all of a sudden you don’t have that Saturday focus. You’re struggling to find a purpose.”
With the dawn of professionalism the lifestyle of any rugby player was fundamentally altered. What was once simply a sporting passion has become for many the be-all-and-end-all.
“Within two weeks of me retiring selfishly I thought the team would struggle without me when I wasn’t there. The reality is they don’t. Someone else is wearing my jersey and the team didn’t really have a blip, they just carried on the business. I was just a small part of a big machine and there was me feeling sorry for myself.
“I’d given my body and however many years of my life to that purpose and then all of a sudden it’s gone and someone else can carry that on without you. That’s the scary part of it, that you don’t realise when you’re no longer needed it’s just a business. The club needs to move on, the team carries on and you can’t dwell on who is not there.”
Now that Lloyd has been through the challenges of retirement himself, it has radically changed the way he perceives his career and the people that he once worked and played with.
“I feel guilty that the players that over the years the amount of players that retired and I just shook their hand and went, “Yep, good luck with the next stage of your life,” and then I refocused myself on the game at the weekend and didn’t really give too many thoughts to those guys; what they might be doing or what they might be going through. It was only when I’d gone through that myself that I realised how selfish that was – that they were going through that huge transition themselves. They probably needed an arm around them. I am very aware of that now.”
After Lloyd retired, he knew he had to share his traumatic experiences with others to make clear the issues such a huge shift in a player’s life can have on their mental health and well-being. He did so through his book, ‘Life After Sport – From Boot Room To Board Room’. But it was only the start of a new journey for the former Leicester back.
“I was banging my own drum about career transition, especially with the book that I wrote and then I met the guys at Switch The Play. I realised what they were doing was far more wider-reaching than what I was doing by myself. They’ve done a lot of research and been involved in transition and all elements of duty of care across all different sports.
There are a lot of people out there saying they’ve got the best interests of athletes at heart, but when you get below the surface there are different things they are trying to sell, whereas with Switch The Play being a social enterprise it’s so transparent – there’s no selling to the players, it’s more about helping them throughout the process. The timing was great and it was a natural fit for what I was trying to do and what I feel passionate about.”
Lloyd went on to become a director of Switch The Play and has an important message for all professional players out there: “Do not wait until you’ve retired before you think about what you’re going to do for the next stage. As soon as you are lucky enough to sign as a professional – or even before then – you should be thinking about what you’re going to be doing next.
“I don’t mean to distract you from being the best you can be, that’s what the focus is, because it’s the best job in the world, but it’s inevitable: at some point your career is going to end and you may not be in control of that, so find out what you want to do and what you don’t want to do whilst you’re playing. Therefore when that final day does come – even though nothing will fully prepare you for when you have to retire from the sport – you can make the drop far less severe by putting something in place.”
Once a leading light in the English rugby scene, Lloyd is now leading the way in changing perceptions about professional rugby. He has a purpose once again.
You can find out more about Switch The Play here.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena