From the moment you get selected for a national team, your life for the immediate future is mapped out in front of you. When you train, what you eat, where you travel, when you sleep. As an elite athlete you become one managed entity and, depending upon the length of your international career, this could be the case for five, 10 or 15 years. So, what on earth do you do when you finish your playing career?
It is a question a lot of athletes ask themselves and it can be a cause of much concern and worry, particularly as athletes reach the twilight of their playing careers. For many hockey players, they will have put work, studies, even family life on hold and this can have serious consequences.
Take, for example, the world of work. An athlete who has devoted 10 years of his or her life to hockey, will inevitably be behind his or her contemporaries when it comes to the workplace. From being in a position where they are at the very top of their profession as elite sports people, elite athletes will suddenly find themselves starting near the bottom again. That can be a difficult process and a tough reality, and it is something that many, many players struggle to deal with.
We spoke to two top hockey players who retired from the international scene after years of service to their national squads to find out how they coped with suddenly not living micro-managed lives.
Macarena Rodriguez was a key member of the Argentina team that won gold at the 2010 Rosario World Cup and silver at the 2012 London Olympics. She also won three Champions Trophy gold medals with Las Leonas, captaining the side to victory in 2014. Shortly afterwards she was deselected from the squad.
“It was not my decision to retire,” says Macarena. “The coaching team wanted to make some changes and age was against me. But while I played for Las Leonas, I lived my dream. Looking back now I can say that I achieved everything I wanted to and I can now accept that I am done with that stage of my life.”
Following her deselection from the national team, Macarena finished her degree in Information Systems and gave birth to her son Tobias. She now works for Cleversolutions, a software development company and trains the youth team at River Hockey, where she still plays club hockey.
While this all sounds like a planned exit from the sport and a successful transition into everyday life, Macarena admits she found it far from easy.
“It was a very tough few months because for so many years of my life the only thing I did was to play hockey and I did it professionally. Leaving that closely-knit environment was very hard. I thought I was coping but when I next saw the girls playing my eyes filled with tears for the memories and moments lived with the shirt.
“But it's like everything, it has a beginning and an end and, thank God, I was able to learn to live without hockey being my job and my life.”
For the first few months after retirement, Macarena filled her days with things that took her mind away from the hockey pitch. She took up hobbies such as knitting and painting and worked on web pages, designing and creating websites. But, as she says, “Nothing can replace the adrenaline of international competition.”
While Macarena knows she will never replicate the thrill of lining up for Las Leonas, she is also pragmatic in her advice to others in a similar situation: “My advice is to always be yourself and don’t allow yourself to think you are involved in something that is irreplaceable, because nobody is indispensable. You have to go on searching and pursuing new dreams without taking your feet off the ground.”
In answer to the question of what she misses most, Macarena laughingly replies that the thing she doesn’t miss is the physical training, although, she says, Tobias is determined to keep his mother very busy!
Rob Short is another long-serving international player who found that his services were no longer required when a new coach took over the national team. The Canadian international represented his nation at two Olympic Games (2000 and 2008), two World Cups (1998 and 2010) and brought home two gold medals from the Pan American Games (1999 and 2007).
“The new coach came in and wanted to move to a younger group and a couple of the older, more established players were not part of his plans,” says Rob. “At first it was a tough message to swallow but quickly it forced me to move onto my career in coaching which was an exciting transition.”
Rob’s international coaching career began immediately after his retirement from the national team. In 2013 he took charge of the U21 Canadian Women who were seeking qualification for the Junior World Cup.
But while Rob was happy to coach the junior women’s team, when it came to any involvement with the men’s national team, it was a different matter. With heartbreaking honesty, he says: “Watching Canada for me was impossible. So many of the boys were my friends, so I wanted to be supportive but, in the end, it was just too tough to watch the team that I had been part of for almost 20 years.”
It took Rob until the 2016 Rio Olympics before he felt he could watch the team play without being part of it.
Coaching was the obvious step for someone of Rob’s knowledge and ability but, as he says, there is a world of difference between being on the field, playing in the moment and watching from the sidelines.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I absolutely love coaching but it is the second-best job in the world compared to actually playing as a professional athlete. I can’t describe how appreciative I am of that time playing abroad in Holland (Rob spent a number of years playing in the Dutch domestic league) and for Canada for 20 years.”
Rob has not stopped playing hockey. He turns out for the West Van Millionaires, who play in the premier division in Vancouver, Canada, and he also plays in top class tournaments such as the California Cup and the prestigious Surrey tournaments. This gives him the chance to pit his skills against a lot of the players who are on the current national roster.
“If I am honest, the feeling of wanting to play for Canada will never leave. But I am now really enjoying training the men’s team in combination with my passion of working in my Academy with young female athletes who are looking to play university and college hockey and/or play for Canada. I can still remember the excitement of being at that stage of my career and I love seeing the enthusiasm of those young players.”
Both players and national hockey associations are beginning to put a lot more thought into how athletes can successfully transition away from a playing career and Rob has his own advice. “There was a lot of downtime while I was playing for the national team and for my club side in Holland. I used that time to start a business. I would say to guys now, use that downtime to finish your studies or give some thought to your future. As a father, a coach and a businessman, I would love some of that downtime now.”
It has taken a while but Rob is now in a place where he is happy and in love with life. He and wife Rachel have a son called Brek, and are living a fulfilled, if hectic, life. “It has been amazing since moving on from retirement as I love my job, and I love the life I have created here in North Vancouver. There is this new next level of enjoyment and meaning to what life is about.
“Of course, I would be lying if I said I don't want to join in the drills and play but I am thoroughly enjoying being there to help motivate and prepare the team for what we hope will be some successful results in the near future.”