Career Breaks in Sport: Is It Time for Change?

As consumers of sport, we all want to see as much of it in the newspapers, at sporting stadia around the world, and on our television screens, but has such a demand led to a neglect of player welfare? Bubble Sport contributor, Will Guy, gives his take on such a question.

Nadal vs Federer. A rejuvenated rivalry. Current World No.1 and No.2. They’ve won the last four Grand Slams between them.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have both taken breaks from their careers in recent years, and have both come back better for it.

But, how? They’re old. They should be past their prime – or so we’ve heard.

Surely there’s something we can learn from them? A crucial common denominator between the two that’s made them more priceless than ever?

Modern sport is tough. You could say it is too tough. The bone-grinding, TV-imposed mega-seasons that we all enjoy watching are leading to growing injury lists in almost every sport.

Our favourite athletes are superstars in their own right – but they’re not superhuman. Their bodies can’t cope with the incessant demands we tacitly place on them as consumers.

This is a reality, and it won’t be changing any time soon. The entertainment industry has swallowed professional sport whole. And the financial benefits for governing bodies, clubs, unions and players are undeniable. We cannot get rid of them and we should not either.

What must change, though, is the way athletes are looked after and the way they look after themselves. ‘Player welfare’ is a phrase often batted about, but it is about more than that. It is about their wellbeing and development, as athletes and as people.

I propose a cultural shift. A simple strategy that will prolong careers, prevent injuries and even take athletes to the next level in their sport.

Cue Nadal and Federer.

Both men have been struck down with recurrent injuries over the last five years. After winning Wimbledon in 2012, back injuries ruined Federer’s 2013 season before three stuttering years were cut short by knee surgery in 2016. Nadal, the younger of the two, lasted longer, winning the French Open in 2014 – what turned out be his last Grand slam final until 2017. Wrist injuries considerably hampered his form before he was forced to let the joint recover for the majority of the 2016 season.

Now, you could look at their difficult periods, as many did at the time, and dismiss them as the inevitable outcome of ageing athletes experiencing the downturn in form that characterises the twilight years of pretty much all sportsmen and women. It is the never-ending conveyor belt of athletes’ careers.

But now, look at them! We know that simply was not the case.

Paradoxically, it seems that those injuries have directly benefitted these two players in the long-run. Have they, though?

No. We have to look at what an injury means in top-level sport to understand why these men are back to their best.

Injuries are often the only way athletes get to give their bodies and minds a break. After turning professional in 1998, Federer was continuously ranked in the world top ten from October 2002 until November 2016, including 237 consecutive weeks at No.1. Nadal won fourteen Grand Slam titles in ten seasons (2005-2014), also winning three Davis Cups for Spain (his first of four was in 2004) and an Olympic gold medal during that period.

Staying at the top means you just do not stop. Breaks are not taken. Injuries happen.

So, when we see it this way – injuries as time out from sport – we can start to understand why Roger and Rafa have come back better, perhaps better than ever.

These guys took the logical decision to rest, to recuperate, to breathe. They have taken stock, adapted their routines and now they are injury-free and playing right through their sell-by dates. More than that, they are playing like they have never played before.

Tennis is not the only sport to have benefitted from athletes taking career breaks. We are seeing the same trend appearing across the sporting world.

Jessica Ennis-Hill, 2012 Olympic heptathlon champion, took time out to have a baby during the 2014 season, after an ankle injury ruined her 2013. She returned for the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Moscow, where, fully fit and mentally well, she won gold with 6,669 pts – a total she had not come close to reaching since the London Games.

Here is a different slant. Alex Corbisiero, Lions Test try-scorer in 2013, chose to take a year out from rugby in 2016 after injuries plagued his time at Northampton Saints. Finally taking the time to think, he decided to ditch rugby and enter broadcasting. He has begun a new life as host of ‘The Scrum Down’, his own successful radio show, lauded for its alternative and real approach to rugby analysis. He also works for the NBC as chief rugby correspondent. He has breathed new life and a fresh perspective into the industry. Rugby is better off for it.

Former England, Lions, and Northampton Saints forward, Alex Corbisiero left rugby for broadcasting, having suffered with prolonged spells out injured.

But these athletes are the exceptions, not the rule. If someone is stressed and overworked in any ‘regular’ office or working environment, there’s an accepted response from colleagues who will tell them to take some time off. In fact, it is encouraged as a practice.

Why should sport be any different?

Too often athletes’ careers are forcibly cut short by injury before they are allowed to stop. If breaks, short- and long-term, can improve performance and generate new opportunities, why must athletes wait until they get injured to take time out? Why not do it right now? It will likely be the best decision of their career.

Let us acknowledge that professional sport is tough and that even world-class athletes need a break sometimes. Let us get to the stage whereby athletes take breaks before they get injured and before they drive themselves into misery and frustration.

In short, let us create a sporting culture in which wellbeing is the very highest priority. Not only will athletes be better off for it, but sport will be, too.

That is something I am sure we would all love to see.

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