Sport

Why sports stars like David Pocock break stride at the peak of their powers

Of all of the factors that may prompt a sports star to take a break mid-stride, Mick Fanning remains the man to beat. Almost being eaten by a shark while going about your daily business would do that to your average elite athlete.

Granted, it wasn't just his famous run-in with a great white at South Africa's Jeffreys Bay that has prompted the Gold Coast surfing champion to indulge in a 'personal year' away from the trials and tribulations of the tour.

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Fanning has had to deal with the death of his older brother Peter, as well the breakdown of his marriage. And then there was the shark, which shook Fanning to the core as he fended it off while waiting for a wave.

"This year, I'm going to take some time off and have a bit of a personal year," Fanning, 34, said. "Just to regroup and re-stoke the fire."

Fanning won't be the first to step away from their sport to try and add some kindling to the competitive bonfire and others will follow in his wake. The reasons are as diverse as the individuals, yet the common thread of being able to 'come up for air' often connects the causes.

"One of the things we tend to forget when we're not in the sport is that sometimes they've been in this career for eight, 10, 12, even 15 years. For everyday people, they typically take a career change after three to five years. That's one thing to really keep in mind," says sports psychologist Georgia Ridler, who works with the Australian swimming team.

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"Sometimes you just need to be able to change it up. That's one perspective."

Pressing pause on what most sports fans would consider a dream career – a highly paid football star, a globetrotting surfer – has become commonplace in the modern era, although not restricted to Australian soil by any stretch.

Across the Tasman, All Blacks greats Dan Carter and Richie McCaw both hopped off the treadmill in an effort to prolong their careers. The aim was to replenish the spirit as well as the body and given the way they returned, the move could only be considered a wild success.

Perhaps the most famous mid-career break of them all was that of Michael Jordan, the basketball legend that 'retired' from the sport in 1993 to indulge a childhood dream to try and make it as a Major League baseballer.

He would return three years later as good as ever, adding another three NBA titles to the three he had already won with his Chicago Bulls, cementing his legacy as the greatest player of all time.

Closer to home, Sydney Swans star Lance Franklin stepped away from the AFL last season to deal with mental illness. It was a move that was widely applauded and one that highlighted the extreme pressure under which elite athletes must operate.

Some choose to break while on top of the world. David Pocock, the brilliant Wallaby flanker, was incomparable last year as he helped Australia to the final of the Rugby World Cup.

His brilliant season has seen multimillion-dollar offers tumble in for his services, which is why he has raised eyebrows by suggesting he may instead spend the year studying at Oxford or Cambridge.

So valuable is Pocock that his current employer, the Brumbies, would accommodate that request just to have him back on their books. Ridler says that's a stance to be commended, while the fact Pocock has a clear vision outside of rugby is a pillar of his success.

"From a performance perspective, there's great benefit in performance when an athlete is certain of their life after sport," Ridler said.

"Those people, who may not be the cream of the crop but may have a degree on the go, I find they are the people that can really focus on performance because they aren't anxious about what happens if it doesn't work out.

"An athlete that can go out and know that if ths performance isn't their best, their life doesn't crumble. That's critical. Hats off to sports who are starting to engage athletes and their organisations in those conversations. With time, that will see performances increase."

Ridler has been a key part of the rehabilitation of Australian backstroker Emily Seebohm, who struggled in the spotlight in London but has bounced back strongly to become a world champion and a leading gold medal hope in Rio.

The Brisbane-based psychologist believes it's imperative to ensure athletes are given enough downtime, a constant gripe among rugby league players who have fought for added annual leave and a shorter season to lessen the load.

"If you went back, even 10 years in sport, athletes would have a solid on-season but also a solid off-season. Sports are now stretching their on-season, or increasing their pre-season, to take over most of the year. It's often almost a full-year sport. People need downtime."

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