Ollie Phillips is no stranger to physical challenges having captained England Sevens, spent a year at sea sailing around the world, cycling across America and trekking to the North Pole to play a game of rugby.
Despite these achievements, Ollie’s biggest challenge would be mentally coming to terms with his retirement from professional rugby at the age of 30-years-old.
“When I was told my rugby career was over, I was in disbelief, I was stubborn because I didn’t want to accept it.”
Once voted ‘Best Rugby Sevens Player in the World’, Ollie’s career was cut short in 2013 due to a severe calf injury which, still to this day, is unexplained. Now involved with the RPA’s #LiftTheWeight campaign, Ollie opens up about his ongoing battle post-rugby.
“One of the most frustrating things about my injury was that nobody could actually put a finger on what was wrong with me, and they still can’t to this day. In the past when I’ve broken a leg or torn a muscle, the medical team would tell me what I needed to do to recover and provide me with a timeline, unfortunately this was the first time that nobody knew what was wrong with me. It felt like everybody was out of ideas and had given up on me.
“I had a five year plan to go to the Sevens World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and then hopefully to the Rio Olympics but it all came to an abrupt halt. My whole life changed within the space of four hours from having this clear strategy and goals to having my new contract torn up and all my hopes and aspirations wiped.”
Within five weeks of being advised to retire, Ollie was jumping head first into a new experience.
“A friend of mine introduced me to the Clipper around the World Race, a 40,000 nautical mile race around the world on a 70-foot ocean racing yacht. At the time I thought what a great opportunity to spend a year on a boat, challenge myself and then return to rugby afterwards when my leg had fully recovered.”
Unfortunately for Ollie his leg wouldn’t recover.
“In hindsight, the trip just delayed my emotions of coming to terms with retirement and the fact my rugby career was over.”
Ollie embarked on another extreme challenge in 2015 as he and 11 others made the 100 mile trek across sea ice to the 1996 Magnetic North Pole, playing a full 7-a-side match in conditions which have never been experienced in any rugby match before, setting a new Guinness World Record in the process.
“When I came home, I was fortunate that other opportunities were presented to me but at the same time I used these to push my feelings about retirement to the back of my mind in hope they’d disappear.”
Upon returning from the North Pole in 2015, Ollie began his new role at PwC , and the process of acclimatising to a 40-hour working week began.
“I came home to letters from PwC with details of 8am starts and such which was a bit of a culture shock but for the first four or five months I was full of energy and embraced my new lifestyle. At the beginning of 2016 I suddenly realised that actually, everything I associated myself with, my identity, everything that empowered me, had gone.
“I missed the structure, the identity of being a professional rugby player and it dawned on me that I’m never going to play again.
Feelings of anxiety and frustration began to take hold of Ollie’s life: “I really struggled to adapt and for a couple of months I was at my lowest, depressed and at times suicidal. I was lost and I just didn’t really know who I was anymore. I’d prided myself on being a rugby player and I didn’t have any of that anymore.”
Used to the roar of the crowds and endless praise from fans and media, when all that had disappeared Ollie noticed a change in his behaviour.
“Nobody was there to tell me how well I was doing, the infectious feeling of running out on to a rugby pitch with thousands of people cheering had gone and I noticed myself seeking approval and attention in everything I did.
“In my job I would take on endless tasks so people would take notice and applaud me but I was no good at any of it because I wasn’t experienced enough so I would get frustrated and self-conscious. In the end I would just move on to something else and hope that worked out.
Ollie’s struggles weren’t just limited to the workplace though: “I guess my newfound self-destructive streak impacted life away from work too, I was unable to commit to anyone and it affected relationships and people who I cared deeply for. I was always a super nice person but I was hurting people and was becoming someone I didn’t want to be.
“Friends wouldn’t always be able to understand why I was depressed, they’d say things like ‘Why are you depressed? You earn good money, you have a great job, you’ve travelled the world’, it’s not their fault they didn’t understand because for a long time I didn’t understand either.”
Ollie believes that the key to a healthy mental state after rugby begins during your playing days.
“I know lots of players who haven’t struggled to adapt to a new life post-rugby, I guess they weren’t as enamoured with the day-to-day life of a professional rugby player. I just loved being paid to train and play the game I had adored since I was four-years-old.”
“If I was to advise young or current players now, I’d tell them to try and develop passions and interests outside of rugby so when the time does come either through injury or age to retire from the sport, you have something to fall back on and absorb your attention whereas I didn’t have that.
“On a day away from training I would simply hang out with friends and go for a coffee but now I think I should have been preparing, whilst it may seem boring at the time, for a life after rugby.”
Life at work has improved for Ollie and he is grateful that the company he works for has taken a stance on mental health. “PwC is a trailblazer on tackling mental health issues. Their ‘Green Light to Talk’ campaign, highlights the importance of talking about mental health freely and without fear of judgement.”
As mentioned previously, Ollie now supports the RPA’s #LiftTheWeight campaign which helps current and former players deal with the mental rigours of performance anxiety, injury and the transition away from the game.
“Once I realised I needed help, I was fortunate enough to have a couple of friends and players I could talk to. Eventually other players would reach out to me and ask for advice but I wasn’t sure what to say so I approached the RPA for advice and with the help of some really good people there the #LiftTheWeight campaign was born.
“Mental health continues to be a taboo subject and carries a stigma but I think not just in rugby but in the outside world too, people are talking about it more and more which can only be a good thing.”
For more information on the RPA’s #LiftTheWeight campaign visit https://therpa.co.uk/lifttheweight/