#1 - Sam Smith
Ex Harlequins & Worcester Warriors Rugby Player
Sam Smith is Founder and CEO of Wayland’s Yard coffee shops and Odd Kin Coffee Roasters. He is also a life coach, helping other professional athletes to make sense of the tricky transition from sport into the real world. Before starting his business he played rugby for Harlequins and Worcester Warriors. Whilst at Quins he was a part of the team that won the Amlin Challenge Cup, Aviva Premiership and LV Cup. Sam was forced to retire at the age of 26, due to recurrent quad tears, which led him into starting Wayland’s Yard.
Harlequins: 78 appearances, 28 tries | Worcester Warriors: 13 appearances, 11 tries
If you hadn’t been an athlete, what would you have gone into after school or university? And why?
I applied to do politics and economics at a couple of universities before I was given my first contract. Who knows where I would have ended up after that, probably in the city for a few years before realising that it wasn’t for me! I ended up doing that same degree part-time whilst I was playing, but have never really applied it to much.
What experience or memory do you most cherish from your days of being a professional athlete?
I was lucky to be a part of an awesome team whilst at Quins, so I have a lot of positive memories around the trophies that we won, but I think the thing I cherished the most about rugby was the bond we all had with each other. It isn’t something that you can easily find after you finish playing – that moment in the changing room before you run out for a big game is electric. I really miss that.
What’s one thing you’re interested in or care about that most people don’t know?
I’m starting to make my coaching practice more known and this is a really big thing for me in my life right now. I really struggled with having to retire early and had some pretty dark moments post rugby. Thankfully I have amazingly supportive people in my life and was able to come out the other side, but now I am a man on a mission to help other players going through their own challenges. It’s really hard to finish playing, but you don’t need to do it alone.
The prevalence of mental health problems in elite sport is incredibly high. Why do you think that is and how can we reduce it?
I think the pressure put on players is huge. The pressure to perform, the pressure to be someone they aren’t in order to fit in, the pressure to play through injuries and the ‘all in’ mentality that leaves little space for them to think about anything else outside of sport.
When it all comes to the end, whether you’ve prepared yourself or not, nothing can truly prepare you for how you are going to feel. It’s like having kids or starting a business – it doesn’t matter how many books you read or advice you take you can’t fully prepare.
For me, the best way to help sportspeople is try and develop their own sense of self – their ability to be content with who they are as a person, not just viewing themselves as ‘the rugby player’ or ‘cricket player’ etc. When our identities are wrapped up in what we do and not who we are it can only lead to poor mental health because we don’t value or love ourselves and when that thing we identify is stripped away we are left bare and without the ability to cope.
Careers are full of ups and downs. What caused you pain and how did you deal with it?
I had a real issue (and always did as kid) of being a people pleaser, so for me getting dropped was an absolute nightmare. I felt like I was worthless because I’d let people down. I used to feel so sick driving in on a Tuesday morning if I’d played at the weekend and would just be on edge until the team was announced. Waiting for that tap on the shoulder to find out you’d been dropped was the worst feeling.
Can you tell us about your experience of retiring and transitioning into the ‘real world’?
I bounced straight into building a business and didn’t even allow myself time to breath. Whilst at this time this saved me from dealing with how I was feeling, long term it was not a good thing. I had already started renovating our first shop 3 months before I officially retired, but I wish I’d had some time to stop and reflect and deal with my emotions and loss. I think when you retire you really do need to go through a process of grief as you’ve lost a part of yourself that you will never go back.
Two years after I retired everything came crashing down. Fortunately I met a coach, called Huw and working with him saved me. I will forever be grateful to him and the kindness he showed me and whilst the last 4 years have still been full of their own ups and downs at least now I know who I am and what I want to bring to the world.
Do you have a favourite quote or saying? Why does it resonate with you?
Any parting thoughts or words of wisdom for those youngsters that might be about to embark on a pro career, those in the middle of one, or those that might be coming towards the end?
Get to know yourself, the real you with no masks on. Be that person, not who others think you should be.