'I can remember the exact moment my soul was first crushed by a rugby coach'
Former rugby player Sam Smith, an ex-England age-grade representative and Gallagher Premiership veteran has recently shared a profound experience from his youth that transformed his outlook on the game.
As a teenager, Smith was rocked by a brutal conversation with a group of coaches that inadvertently wounded his self-confidence and had lasting effects on his sense of self-worth.
Now 32 and seven years retired from the game, Smith took to Linkedin to share how what might have been intended as a pep talk had a lasting negative effect on his self-worth and contributed to an emotional timebomb that detonated when he retired.
“I can remember the exact moment my soul was first crushed by a rugby coach,” Smith recounted on a recent Linkedin post. “I was 16, sat in the Bath University cafeteria.
“I’d been on a week-long Junior National Academy selection camp, after a decent England U16s season. The coaches sat me down and said: “Look Sam you’re nice kid, but nice means nothing in rugby. If you want to make it you better toughen up.”
“It wasn’t my skillset or abilities that were lacking – areas that I could improve. I was lacking. I wasn’t tough enough.”
Although the unintended impact left him disheartened, it ultimately served as a catalyst for his career trajectory. The inadvertent words spurred Smith to prove his worth and he would go on to represent England U18s and later Harlequins and Worcester Warriors in the Premiership.
“I remember walking away feeling so much shame. Am I not the kind of person who can make it in rugby? What’s wrong with me?
“At that point rugby stopped being a game I got to play and became a job I had to get better at. This pain, as it does for many, fuelled me.”
While his drive to succeed proved successful, with Smith representing Harlequins 78 times, it came at a cost.
“It meant I was willing to sacrifice my sense of self and become someone I wasn’t, in order to succeed. 17 years later I can write this and say I’ve healed – I’ve remembered who I am, but it’s not been an easy journey.
“Through my work with pro athletes, I know that these stories aren’t rare.
“No wonder we attach our self-worth to our performance and no wonder losing hurts so bad. Because we aren’t just losing a game, it’s more proof that we aren’t a good enough human.
“We’re broken and we need fixing.”
His rugby journey concluded prematurely in April 2016, when a devastating 15 cm quad tear put an end to his professional playing days at the young age of just 26. Poor advice and a loophole in his insurance policy meant he missed out on a £100,000 compensation claim and ended up effectively starting from scratch and re-mortgaging his house.
“Fast forward to retirement and all of a sudden the only thing holding your identity together, the one thing that made you feel worthy is taken from you.
“And what are you left with? Absolutely nothing.
“I’d spent 13+ years being “Sam the rugby player. It was all I had, all I’d worked for, and all I cared about. My deepest fear came to life — I lost my identity.
“Because if I wasn’t Sam, the rugby player, then who was I? Two years later, I was still miserable.”
Smith turned his handed to business, opening up a chain of coffee shops and a coffee roaster which he recently sold, but he conceded that his drive to succeed in the coffee industry was built off his ‘fear’ of losing his identity after leaving rugby and internally he was struggling.
“I opened a coffee shop, which over time evolved into 3 shops and a coffee roasters – turning over £2.5 million a year, with a team of 50+ across 3 cities.
“The funny thing is that I thought I was starting this business because I loved coffee (which I still do), but with hindsight, the decision was driven by fear.
“The fear of being forgotten. All of my self-worth and identity were wrapped up in being Sam the rugby player.
“Underneath all the bravado, I was really just a scared little boy that didn’t believe anyone would be interested in me if I wasn’t a pro athlete.
“Subconsciously, I made a decision that entrepreneurs are often held aloft in society, so I decided to save my identity by becoming that kind of person.
“Safe to say what unfolded was messy at best, a total car crash at worst.”
A workaholic Smith turned to alcohol, drugs as things began to spiral.
“It even got to the point where I rented out my house and ran away to live on a canal boat.
“I tried everything I could to escape from myself. But, eventually, I had to turn towards myself and I learnt to love myself again.
“I was reeling from finishing rugby and didn’t have the ability to ask for help… I was trying to keep myself as busy and numb as possible — by working crazy hours, drinking a lot, and taking drugs.”
A chance encounter with a regular at one of his coffee proved to be the spur he needed.
“One day, Huw, my Coffee Shop regular, asked me, “Are you okay?” — and he meant it. Huw was a Coach and offered to help. I tried to brush him off, but after some time, we started working together.
“This was back in 2018. It took 2 years to get from rock bottom back to a good place.”
Among other interests, Smith now specialises in assisting elite athletes in rediscovering their identity after the conclusion of their sporting careers. Drawing upon his own experiences, Smith now empowers others to navigate the complex transition that impacted him so negatively.
“Don’t wait, like I did, until after your sporting career to rediscover who you are.
“Start reconnecting and remembering now.
“Because once you learn to love yourself – not for what you do, but for who you are. All of a sudden anything becomes possible.”
If you need help following a career in sport, you can contact Sam at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sam-smith-coaching/ He currently offers a free two-hour coaching session, so feel free to DM him on Linkedin.
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