Bryan Sheehan

Bryan Sheehan – Final siren

Bryan Sheehan with Corin Rowe

Making the decision to retire is perhaps the hardest decision an elite athlete will ever have to make. In this edited interview, Bryan Sheehan shares his thoughts on the decision to retire after a 363 game career, including 37 finals and six grand finals.

Bryan, you umpired your last game of AFL football on Sunday (Richmond v Hawthorn, MCG). What were your emotions as you walked out onto the ground?

Strangely enough, I was pretty cool and calm about the game on Sunday. Probably Mandy was more stressed than I was. I think I was probably like that because I wasn’t sure it was the end as nothing had been said in terms of what was going to happen after this weekend and finals. So I didn’t really know if this was it. Maybe if I had known that it was definitely my last game, my emotions may have been different. I didn’t really approach it like it was my last game, so that is why I was probably so calm. But I certainly took in the atmosphere on the day and you tend to reflect on your career and the big games you were involved in. I also tend to be a pretty calm person anyway and don’t get too worked up about games.

Umpiring is such a big part of your life and in many ways is part of your identity. How do you think you will cope with the transition?

Certainly, I’m not going to be stressed on Monday’s that’s for sure! (laughs) I think it will be nice not going home on Fridays and having to catch a cab or a flight interstate or worry about a game coming up on Saturday or Sunday. I think it will be nice just getting the weekends back. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a strange feeling. I feel happy that it’s all over and that I’m going to move into another phase of my life and it probably won’t be until footy begins to approach next year and the alarm bells start to ring and say, “hey, Bryan, you’re not going to be there anymore.” That is when it will start to hit home. And I guess if I’m walking around at home feeling bored, that is when I’ll start thinking about footy again.

Was the decision to retire a spontaneous decision or one which took time to make?

I think what happens is – and this was the case in my circumstance – sometimes it’s expected of you. In the last two or three years I started thinking about retirement because I thought it was expected that I would retire. Look, at the end of the day we all have our use by date and at some point in our career we have to retire, whether it is now or in 5 years time or ten years time. But certainly in the last couple of years, I felt there was an expectation that Bryan will just go and retire.

I’m not saying that I was forced out in any way, but maybe it was just my feeling that you’ve had your 18 years, you’ve had your time, you’ve had a great career, it’s time to move on. The other side of that is obviously the physical side. The last 3 or 4 years have been difficult having to work hard to get to a certain level of fitness and then maintaining it and the last couple of years have been extremely disappointing.

Of all the moments in my career last year was the most disappointing in terms of injury. I’d made the finals panel and because of an injury was unable to umpire and low and behold, the same thing happens this year. My body is just saying, “Bryan, you just can’t maintain this level any more”, and when you set such a high level of performance – even though you’re young in the mind – it’s time to give it away.

Given that, do you think that pride plays a part in making the decision to retire?

I’ve said quite openly to a number of people that I didn’t want to be a liability to the group and if you can’t perform and meet your expectations, which in my case are pretty high, then you start to question your own ability as to whether or not you are adding value to the group. That’s when your pride kicks in and says, “Look, Bryan, you just can’t keep going on like this”, and your career falls away and people tend to remember what you did in the last couple of years and not the great things you did in your career.

Often we see elite athletes struggle with retirement because they haven’t managed to balance the other spheres in their life. Are you confident that you’ve got the balance right?

I think so. I’ve got a pretty successful job at work and my family is living comfortably. As with anybody who has 80 or 90 thousand dollars taken out of their annual earnings, you have to change your lifestyle to suit, but we won’t struggle. We’ve set ourselves up and so the decision is right at this time in terms of finances. I think you learn to live with what you’ve got and live within your means and to cope with it. The fact that in the last 12 months I’ve known I was going to retire means that you can put things in place so that when the time comes it is not so much of a shock and you don’t have to make radical changes to your lifestyle. Even sitting down with the kids and talking to them about the fact we’re not going to have ‘x’ amount of money anymore and we may have to cut back in certain areas. They get used to that thinking as well, rather than – bang! All of sudden you can’t have this and you can’t have that.

And while there may be financial consequences associated with retirement, are there positive spin-offs as well, such as being able to spend more time with your family?

I remember Bill Deller saying once that his son Gavin had turned 15 and he felt he had missed out on most of his childhood. I was very conscious when my kids were young to spend as much time with them as possible, whether that was watching Matt play football or Jessica play netball, or even at school. I know that I could have spent more time with them, but I couldn’t. It’s a case now of trying to repay them by giving them quality time. They’re the sought of kids who want you to be around and to be proud of what they’re doing. I’m looking forward to that and getting closer to the family again.

Umpiring has given you a lot of fulfillment over the last 20 years. Where do you think that fulfillment will come from now?

That’s a good question because I was actually thinking the other day about what I can do with my life now and what goals I need to re-establish for myself. They could be sporting goals or something else, but I’m sure they’ll be something that I want to attain, whether it is sport, or business or family. I’m sure I’ll be the sort of person that will set something and than work hard to attain it. That’s just the way I’ve been throughout my career, whether it was umpiring or athletics or business. I like the challenges that life throws at you and so with that perspective I’ll go looking for challenges. What that will be I have no idea, but you never know what’s around the corner.

Greg Chappell was lucky enough to make 182 in his final test appearance while many other athletes finish their careers struggling, dropped or injured. Given that you very nearly finished your career with an injury, how important was it that you went out a running umpire?

Yes, absolutely. You have to have some closure to your career and I guess reflecting on an earlier question, I wasn’t sure that it was my final game. Now that I know that last Sunday was the final game, it’s somewhat disappointing, but I’m happy that I could run the game out and walk off the ground. There are many great things that happened on the day. The recognition from Danny Frawley and Schwabby before and after the game and even the trainers out on the ground when they were giving me water. They were all very complimentary. I had a sense that most people were very respectful and that feeling of respect has given me closure

And I was able to go out on a high, albeit not the ultimate one getting a final or grand final, but that wasn’t necessarily uppermost in my mind. It was important that I finished a running umpire and got through the game.

You’ve had the benefit of being able to retire more or less on your own terms. Many umpires don’t get that luxury because often the decision is made for them. How do you think you would have coped in those circumstances?

It would be very, very difficult and it is hard to answer that. It’s easy for me to sit back given that I could retire when I wanted to rather than being forced out. It is a very hard pill to swallow, but I guess that as umpires you are brought up having to look at that man in the mirror and realise perhaps I’m not as good as I think I am. It could be just a case that the list has to be turned over to give others an opportunity, but you would think that the person has had a reasonable opportunity. Over the years, most guys have taken it pretty well and I think after they retire they realise that there are a lot of other things in life other than umpiring. Sometimes we place too much emphasis on it, but there are other things in your life and there comes a time when you have to move on, give it away and move onto another phase of your life.

You’ve mentioned before that you have used a variety of resources to plan for your retirement. What are some of the tools that you have used?

I’ve spoken to other umpires. I’ve spoken to other people who have retired from sport to understand how they approached it and what their feelings were. I’ve spoken to PC, Mitch and Dolly and while they’ve all offered different reasons and opinions, talking to them made you feel less isolated knowing that others had gone through the same thing and coped. You’ve got to be happy and contented that it’s the right time for you, because ultimately you’ll be the most affected by it. I guess you should talk to friends, relatives, close family and associates. I’ve also read books to gauge different ways of approaching retirement, but no one has the right answers or a golden rule to follow. You just have to go with your gut feeling and after all, that is what umpiring is all about.

And finally, Bryan, what about your plans for the future? I get the feeling that you don’t want to be lost to the game, so have you given much thought about your long-term plans?

I’ve certainly been thinking about it. I guess I’m sitting back and waiting for things to develop. I think you also need to get out there and sell yourself a little bit as well and let those in the know that you’re interested in coaching or administration. At this point in time it is difficult because I feel I need a break from the game after 20 years of umpiring. What will happen when a situation comes up, I guess I’ll just assess it at the time. I certainly haven’t been offered anything at this stage or whether or not opportunities are even available. I’ll be involved at some point, in some way down the track.