Special guest: Sam Malcolmson
Today we have a guest post from former All White Sam Malcolmson. Sam Malcolmson was one of my early sporting heroes. He was part of the legendary 1982 squad, the first team from NZ to make the FIFA World Cup finals. I have lasting memories of rising early to watch Sam Malcolmson and his teammates on our black and white TV. They inspired me to start playing football myself the following season. Since retiring from football, Sam Malcolmson has had a career in coaching, media and the sportswear industry, which has taken him all over the world. Sam Malcolmson trained as a Sports Chaplain in 2015.
Sam Malcolmson has some great insights into the difficulties top sportspeople can face, and the important role a Sports Chaplain can play.
The value of sport in our changing world
When I played for the All Whites, 1976-1982, it was a different world in many ways. We had two television channels to choose from, and you could watch sport for free, although it would have been in black and white unless you had a flash new TV. Some big businesses had computers, but they filled an entire room. To communicate with friends and family in Scotland, where I was born, I could write letters (with pen and paper), or make a phone call (by landline only). International phone calls were very expensive so you saved those for special occasions.
Forty years on, the universe seems to be overrun and controlled by ‘devices’. The basic skill of being able to use speech as a way of communicating is a fast dying art. The speed of today’s world means we have to stop and smell the roses before we have an ‘Almighty Burnout’. One of the greatest sanctuaries is to be in the company of others, and one of the great platforms for that is team sport.
In most team sports, the love of the game and the desire to win are the driving forces. However, being in the company of others and forming an unwritten brotherhood within that team or sport is the sand in the cement that keeps us playing for that particular team.
The personal cost of sporting success
Our World Cup run was an incredible experience, but it probably cost me my marriage and the opportunity to see my children grow up in their teenage years. We had two huge qualifying rounds with trips to Asia and the Middle East. When we qualified we had warm up games all over New Zealand. In those days we were not professionals and had to depend on ‘friendly bosses’ to keep our jobs for us. When not playing you were back at work, and unfortunately our wives and families came last in the pecking order. I know this put a huge strain on my wife with our 10 year old son, 12 year old daughter, as well as her own life to look after.
One wonderful piece of compensation was that when we qualified for the finals in Spain, NZ Football paid the airfares for my wife and children to go to the UK and enjoy the World Cup with my family in Scotland. After Spain I went there to spend time with my wife and children as well as my Scottish family. On the way back to NZ we went via Los Angeles and took the kids to Disneyland, which was a great escape for us all.
A hole that nothing could fill
When I arrived back in NZ I was over 35 years old and decided to retire from the All Whites. I thought would be easy, but to be truthful it haunted me for ages, especially when the national team was selected and my name was missing. In the first few years I concentrated on my business but I could not settle down in my private life. There was such a hole that nothing could fill after Spain. This resulted in my personal life going into a free fall, and in the end my wife and I divorced, and I moved to Melbourne.
This was a hugely painful time in my life as I had no one to confide in. A couple of my close friends in the team were experiencing the same conflicts. I am sure an understanding Sports Chaplain who maybe could have accompanied the team on our qualifying campaign would have been a huge help by being a trustworthy confidant in those troubled times.
Looking back, I am sure a chaplain would have been a huge help for me.
Why sport needs chaplains
1. Because everybody hurts sometimes
In most teams the players and coaches come from wide and varied backgrounds in their work and personal lives. I have found that everyone has a story to tell, and one certainty is that there will always be someone going through pain and anguish.
Ideally that person can find a strong shoulder and an open mind to support them from within the team. Often this will come from an unexpected source. It has never failed to amaze me the amount of encouragement and support I have seen and received myself, from people I would never have thought capable of being so filled with love and grace.
However I have no doubt that an independent voice that has the trust of the team would serve the players better. It’s in these situations that the wisdom and prayers of a Sports Chaplain would be invaluable.
2. Because self-discipline is hard
To reach the top in any sport requires incredible self-discipline. At 70 years old, I still follow the disciplines that were instilled in me at an early age and that brought me success in football. However somehow these disciplines also can provide the fuel for lack of self-control. You can feel a strong need to break the chains of what at times seems like a prison.
A chaplain provides a non-threatening, non-judgemental listening ear. Players can share struggles and frustrations without fear of losing their place in the team. Sports Chaplains can offer advice and accountability, and refer players to other help if needed.
3. Because great temptation comes with success
The privileges that success brings come with temptations, such as drugs and illicit sex. Many successful people in sport, and other walks of life, fall victim. No need to name names right? Anything that offers an escape from the monotony of the sameness required to succeed, can seem too good to refuse. History will show that these moments of recklessness offer a fleeting period of fulfilment, followed by a lifetime of regret.
Without doubt the shoulder or words of a trustworthy mature Sports Chaplain could prevent many of these indiscretions taking place. To me a Sports Chaplain is needed more than ever today due to the vast sums of money and the ease with which drugs and other temptations are available.
4. Because injury can lead to despair
An injury can be absolutely devastating. Players who discipline themselves, sacrifice and work hard for years can see it all taken away in a moment. This can bring about a deep depression, which is difficult to understand by those not involved in high-level sport.
A Sports Chaplain can offer comfort, compassion and practical support to injured players and their families. Fans, coaches and teammates may move on, but a chaplain’s care can continue even when a player is not part of the team, whether through injury, illness, non-selection or suspension.
5. Because retirement leaves a hole
Many sportspeople, like me, struggle after retirement. For a top sportsperson, so much of their identity and so many of their relationships are wrapped up in sport. When that ends it can be difficult to even know who you are.
Sports Chaplains can help with this transition, before and after retirement.
Room for a chaplain?
In today’s international and representative teams there seems to be an overload of physiotherapists, doctors, analysts, masseurs, nutritionists and whatever, to look after the players’ physical wellbeing. You would think there would be room for a Sports Chaplain to look after the players mental and spiritual well-being??? I wonder who will be the first international mens team to do so????