April 6, 2014

When sportsmen stop caring enough

The body and mind may be fit enough but athletes often retire when overcome by a profound weariness. Cases in point: Ponting and Swann

Ricky Ponting's retirement came in stages, until he played out with Surrey © Getty Images

A few weeks after retiring last year, Ricky Ponting said that he had done so because, although he felt his body and his mind were fit enough, he had lost his competitive spirit: he'd just stopped caring enough to play to the top of his abilities. Given how often sportspeople talk about passion and pride in playing for their country/state/county/club, it was an unusual admission and, it struck me as one that spoke profoundly about how modern professionals play the game.

I'm writing this, I should say, on the morning of my last-ever hockey match: in around seven hours my 14 years playing for the Barnes Beavers will be over, the trees around the astro in Reigate - scene of my last goal for the club ten years ago - will bow their heads, I'll peel off the pink-and-navy No. 8 shirt for the last time, and we'll return to our clubhouse by the Thames for the mother of all piss-ups. Retirement and the associated thoughts of mortality have been on my mind all season.

Drawing direct comparisons between professional cricket and extremely amateur hockey, of course, would be foolish, but when I read that interview, I realised what it was that had made me decide this would be my last season. It's true that a chronic hip injury is becoming increasingly troublesome, and there have been some games when I just couldn't bend to my left side - which cost us two goals against Addiscombe - but I could probably put up with it another year. And it's true that, despite my best efforts, my fitness is nothing like what it was but, again, with rolling subs I could probably have got away with it a little longer.

What had gone was that I just didn't care enough anymore. Now in part, of course, that's related to pain and fitness. The cost now to play games at full pelt is that much greater. But actually what I shy from is the mental effort. I can't force myself to sprint 30 yards in the final minute to close down an opposing winger or to get in the end of a counter-attack - in part because my body rebels, but mainly because my mind can't accept taking on the pain it would cause. I hesitate in going to block shots and crosses in case I get hit; that never used to be a problem. And worst of all is being a goal up with quarter of an hour to go: I used to relish the thought of holding out; now I feel a profound weariness, a desire for it all to be over one way or the other. I know those things cost the team and I don't want to put any captain (particularly not one I effectively appointed during the chaotic power vacuum of 2011 when a cabal of senior players had to seize control of a listing ship) in the position of having to drop me.

Ponting, I'm guessing, found he could no longer bring himself to put himself through the sustained pain of training, the agony of concentrating through a long innings, the long, wearying hours in the field. He knew something within him that had once relished those challenges was now resisting, and so he withdrew. Unlike many others at the top of the game - Nasser Hussain, Andrew Strauss, Graeme Swann - Ponting didn't go abruptly, first quitting the Test captaincy, then international ODI cricket, then Test cricket, before playing out a final year with Tasmania and Surrey.

The abrupt break has become increasingly common, as it seems to have across all sports - presumably as the rewards of playing have increased. Players no longer have to slog through a few more county seasons just to make enough money to put food on the table: if they feel they're finished, they can just finish, rather than plodding on, putting in the same effort they always did and getting less and less in return until they come, perhaps, to resent the game that made them great.

There's something quite humane about that. To take an example from football, although Peter Beardsley always gave the impression that he kept going because he loved playing, there was something terribly sad about seeing him trotting out for Hartlepool at the age of 38. If there'd been any sense he wasn't just doing it for fun, it would have been tragic - and everybody in football journalism knows of players, particularly those who reached their peak before the boom in wages in the '90s, who kept dragging their creaking bodies through games until well past their sell-by date to pay off debts or because they simply couldn't work out any other way of making money. Cricket journalists, I'm sure, can say the same. In that sense, modern sporting salaries have paradoxically brought the elite back towards the amateur: playing for them is not primarily about getting by financially.

I thought of that when Swann retired after three Tests of the winter Ashes tour. There were many who condemned him, who saw what he was doing as abandoning his team when they needed him most. Maybe he was: there's a very fine line between giving up because you don't fancy it when things get a bit tricky and making a realistic assessment that, because of injury and physical, mental and emotional fatigue, you have no more to give. But I tended to be sympathetic. What selector could have dropped him? And if they had, what headlines would that have made, and what pressure been placed on his replacement? Without knowing exactly what conversations went on - and you suspect we'll keep hearing about conversations from that most toxic of tours for years - it's hard to make definitive judgements, but if a player is willing to become that thing that almost all people in the public eye insist they're not - a quitter - there's probably good reason.

When it's your time, it's your time, and it's probably best just to accept that.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here