After The Roar: Brian O’Driscoll explores men’s mental health in retirement

The Irish rugby legend opens up in a deeply personal documentary about life after elite sport, which premieres on BT Sport on Friday 23 September.

By Tim Williams Published: 21 September 2022 - 9.46am

Brian O’Driscoll couldn’t bring himself to take off his Ireland jersey after his final game.

A record-breaking international career had ended, but he wanted to savour the long farewell.

“I know that when I take it off, it will be for the last time,” he said.

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Ireland’s brightest star signed off by winning the 2014 Six Nations in Paris at the same ground he announced himself to the world with a sensational hat-trick 14 years earlier.

The retiring centre ended his provincial career months later - again with silverware. It was the last time he experienced the veneration, competition and emotion that only elite-level sport provides.

The legendary player captained Ireland as well as the British and Irish Lions but, by his own admission, was faced with one of his greatest challenges after playing.

Years on from his curtain call, he explores the mental toll of retirement on male athletes in After The Roar, another seminal offering from BT Sport Films.

The masterfully-crafted documentary is about what happens when the sporting bubble bursts and the crowd stops cheering, exploring themes of identity, unfulfillment and addiction.

It is absorbing, overwhelmingly sad and feels deeply intimate - but its legacy will be its work to destigmatise talking therapy for men.

Suicide remains the largest killer of men under 50 in the UK and Ireland and there is a stigma deterring them from seeking help. Studies suggest that over half of professional athletes have concerns about mental health, but men are far less likely to speak up.

This documentary opens with O’Driscoll speaking to footballer-turned-psychotherapist and author Richie Sadlier about his transition from playing sensation to retired athlete.

With remarkable candour, he speaks about searching for satisfaction after sport and how his relentless pursuit of greatness in his playing days means he struggles to accept mediocrity in everyday life.

“From the outside, my retirement may have looked easy, but the truth is I had my own battles,” he says. “I don’t think I’m alone and I’m very keen to better understand the impact retirement has on former athletes - and sportsmen in particular.”

His first port of call is legendary jump jockey AP McCoy, who won it all in a decorated career that saw him crowned Champion Jockey a record 20 consecutive times.

McCoy shocked the racing world with his decision to step away from the sport after riding his 200th winner in 2015. Time has allowed for introspection, but his retirement decision still weighs heavy.

“I miss routine, I miss discipline, I miss structure, I miss winning, and in a strange kind of way, I miss torture and I miss pain,” he says with a gnawing sense of longing.

“A sportsperson is the only person who does die twice. It’s like a different life, it’s like someone has taken away everything.”

The transition from professional sport is a daunting prospect, with many ex-sportsmen experiencing a loss of identity after retiring and a struggle to find a new purpose.

Tennis legend Serena Williams couldn’t even bring herself to say the word after her magical swansong at the US Open, settling for “evolution” when asked what’s next.

Some have the luxury of planning for life after sport, but injury stripped boxing prodigy Anthony Ogogo of his career in the blink of an eye.

“I hope this film is a source of support to sports people at all levels”
- Brian O’Driscoll

Winner of a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics, the golden boy of British boxing was forced to hang up the gloves after a freak eye injury led to more medical complications.

So desperate to realise his dream of becoming world champion, he sold his car and re-mortgaged his house to fund nine eye surgeries in three years.

“I couldn’t give it up,” he says. “I couldn't give the love up. I couldn’t not go after it anymore. I was suicidal for a while. It was that bad. Had it not been for my wife then, would I be here today? I don't know.”

Ogogo officially retired in March 2019 without the money, titles or legacy he was destined for. His second career as a wrestler has given him a new lease of life, but his story is a reminder of the sanctity of life and the transience of sporting adulation.

The documentary flits between O’Driscoll’s therapy session with former Millwall forward Sadlier and his meetings with sportsmen with their own unique perspective on retirement.

He visits his former coach Michael Cheika and England cricketer Jonny Bairstow, as well as England manager Gareth Southgate who turned retirement into an even greater success.

After enduring some harrowing moments as a player, Southgate laid the ghost of his semi-final penalty miss against Germany in 1996 to rest at the 2018 World Cup, before leading his country to their first major final in 55 years last summer.

He reveals he struggled to find a purpose and was searching for routine after losing his job as Middlesbrough manager aged 39.

The incumbent of one of the most scrutinised jobs in sport says players need more help to prepare for life after football in a revealing insight.

“This discussion of what’s next – too many people want to put it off,” he says.

“I don’t buy that all those hours we spend in hotels and on coaches, we couldn’t be studying something or reading something, learning new skills.

“I think it’s a positive to have something else to think about. I think players would perform better. I think collectively the players’ union, the League Managers’ Association, the FA and especially the clubs, we should work together.

“I’ve talked with a lot of people recently and those organisations – we’ve still got work to do in that area.”

O’Driscoll gave so much to so many on the rugby field, but his bravery in broadcasting his vulnerabilities in this essential documentary could be his most important contribution yet.

“I hope this film is a source of support and help to sports people at all levels, especially around the mental and physical health challenges posed by retirement from sport,” he said.

“It is certainly a documentary that is very personal to me.”

Executive Producer of BT Sport Films Sally Brown added: “After the Roar offers a fascinating and thought-provoking insight into what happens when the final curtain call approaches and former elite athletes face up to less limelight and new mental and physical health challenges.

“Our approach in using Richie [Sadlier] in the role of Brian’s psychotherapist, and revisiting their sessions throughout the film, meant that we could drive home the huge importance for men in particular to feel able to talk openly and honestly about their mental health.”

Watch After The Roar on BT Sport 1 at 10pm on Friday 23 September or catch up afterwards on btsport.com or the BT Sport app.