How I overcame the heartbreak of retirement

Former England captain Catherine Spencer struggled through tears of bitterness and jealousy after she called time on her international career. It has taken nearly six years to get her head around being an ex-England player, but now she has accepted the decision she made. Here she recounts her story and offers advice to sportswomen in a similar position

It was while sitting alone in my living room on a chilly December evening in 2014 watching the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Show that I hit rock bottom. England, my England, had just been named Team of the Year for winning the Rugby World Cup. I watched my former team-mates pick up the trophy and wanted to be happy for them. Instead I switched off the telly as tears rolled down my cheek.

It was the same story the day earlier in the year when the girls won the tournament in Paris. I was working for Sky as a pundit. I remember clearly the end of the game: we went to adverts and I sobbed my heart out in the studio during the break.

And that wasn’t the first time. I went to Esher in 2012 and watched England beat Ireland to win the Six Nations Championship. I stood there at the back of the stand with tears streaming down my face. They weren’t tears of joy, either.

I couldn’t understand my emotions. As a player, volunteer and employee of the RFU, I had been fighting since I was about eight to raise the profile of women’s rugby. Yet on every occasion when that had happened, I was the unhappiest former England captain in the world.

And that was the crux of it: I was a former England captain. Twice, in 2006 and 2010, I was part of England teams who finished runners-up in successive World Cups; always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

I retired following the 2010 disappointment. I was fighting with my desire to win the World Cup in four years’ time. But I had this strong feeling that I wanted to make my own decision. I didn’t want to be injured or dropped. I wanted to retire at the top of my game.

It took a while after I announced my retirement from international duty in 2011 to get my head around it. My weekly structure disappeared. Alongside that, there was a strange sense that people would forget me and the team would carry on being good without me. That was really difficult to process.

In fact, it took about six years before I reached the end of what I call my ‘change curve’, when I finally accepted the decision I had made.

There were a lot of ‘what ifs’ and other questions echoing around my head. What if I hadn’t retired? Would I have been the one lifting the trophy instead of Katy Mclean? That was very difficult to take. It felt like my 2006 and 2010 runners-up medals were worthless.

I always wondered if I made the right decision. There was every possibility that I could have been in that 2014 squad. I was still playing domestically at the highest level. I reckon I could have still cut it internationally if I had wanted to.

After reaching the bottom of that ‘change curve’, I knew I needed to take action. As the saying goes: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” I had to make a change.

I was constantly ‘Catherine Spencer, Rugby Player’ or ‘Catherine Spencer, Former England Captain’. I was proud of what I had achieved, but it was difficult to live with every day. I had a nagging feeling I could make more of an impact.

After a chat with my line manager at the RFU – where I was a development officer – I handed in my notice and set up my own business ‘Inspiring Women’, a platform that encourages more female speakers and role models to share their stories to a wider world.

That’s when my life changed. I made a decision and went for it. If I had thought about it for too long I would have stayed in my secure job. I gave that all up quite rapidly. Now I have rediscovered my passion in a new career. Or careers plural.

As well as continuing my media work, I’m writing a book on my life entitled ‘Mud, Maul, Mascara’, for which I’m currently crowdfunding.

I’m looking forward to working my way up a career away from rugby. With that positivity and focus, it’s helping me not to look back and experience those feelings of bitterness and jealousy.

And my advice to others in the same boat I was? Speak to people who’ve been through it. It’s gaining that reassurance that others have been through a similar change curve and there’s not anything wrong with you.

Spend time thinking about what skills you picked up during your playing career and how they can help you in the future. Companies are starting to understand the benefits of employing sportspeople. We have skills, confidence and different experiences, plus a pretty good work ethic.

I got near the top of the mountain. I nearly won not one but two World Cups. I was one of the best number eights in the world. When that stopped I thought I had to go to the bottom of the mountain. I didn’t realise I could hop over to a different mountain.

Oh, and as for always being the bridesmaid, well, in December I’m getting married!

Switch the Play is a social enterprise set-up to help people transition successfully out of their sports performance careers. Fronted by two former athletes who have committed their energy, experiences and passion to give-back to others, the team at Switch the Play bring together academics, practitioners, athletes and partners to help address the challenges identified by people who exit their sport – whether that decision has been forced, self-determined or dictated by others. Story telling is an essential part of our approach model and SwitchedOn is the athlete to athlete membership network which helps athletes showcase their transferable skills to prospective employers in new Sectors.


This article is by Catherine Spencer.  Cath’s latest articles.

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