Going for gold after the game is over

When Kieren Perkins walks into a boardroom to meet new ­clients as the head of NAB's private wealth business in Queensland, he knows his former life as an elite sportsman will inevitably influence the new relationship.

The dual Olympic gold medallist (pictured below at the 1994 Commonwealth Games) is well aware that the attributes which made him one of the greatest long-distance swimmers in history – persistence, discipline and resilience – have helped him forge a successful career as a banking executive.

You have to put your pride in your back pocket. It takes a big person to do that. You’ve got to eat humble pie.

Mark Stockwell

But in some ways, his sporting past can also be a hindrance and shape people's perceptions of the former sports star, not to mention the way he relates to clients.

"I'm fortunate my sports career was memorable for that gave me my door-opening moment to start a business career," Perkins says. "The irony is that once the door is open, you've got to work twice as hard to convince people you've got any corporate value.

"I can assure you most business people assume you're not going to be very good. I still go into meetings and people still ask me whether I'm still swimming [Perkins retired 14 years ago]. It takes a lot of energy and effort to shift people's perceptions."

Life after sport

The world of former sports stars is littered with those who have floundered once they have retired, or those who still appear lost in coming to terms with life after reaching the pinnacle of sporting success. Fellow Olympic swimming legends Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett come to mind.

Hackett, a former Westpac executive who experienced a very public marriage breakdown and a stint in a rehabilitation clinic for addiction to painkillers, has returned to his old swim squad on the Gold Coast in recent months, seeking solace in the long black line on the bottom of the pool.

Thorpe, who has dabbled in media jobs and made an aborted comeback, is still trying to find his feet outside of his comfort zone of competitive swimming.

Perkins admits it took years for him to adjust to life outside the pool. In fact, the transition to his post-sporting career is something he is still coming to terms with and ultimately may never be resolved.

"It's bloody hard, it's awful, it's challenging – it really knocks around your self-confidence and sense of self and capacity to back up each day. Anyone who says it's easy is bullshitting."

Sleepless nights

Former Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones (above) may have had a stellar nine-year international rugby career – capped off by winning the 1991 World Cup – but he still recalls having sleepless nights when he moved to Paris to begin a job as an investment banker for Societe Generale after he retired from rugby in 1993.

Farr-Jones, who is now a director of Taurus Funds Management, was lucky in some respects. He played in the amateur era of rugby where players were mentored by big city law or accountancy firms and prepared for life after sport. He studied law and worked in a mid-tier firm during his playing career, but decided to take the jump into finance after he hung up the rugby boots.

Unlike the professional rugby players of today who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – and in some cases millions of dollars courtesy of lucrative sponsorship deals – those from the amateur era often balanced day jobs.

Farr-Jones says the fact he held down a day job before afternoon rugby training helped prepare him for life after the lofty heights as one of the greatest rugby players of his generation.

"People say to me 'what did you do after rugby' and I'll say 'exactly what I did when I was playing rugby. On Monday I got up and put a suit on and went to the office'," he explains.

"I used to wake up at 2am, looking at the cracks in the ceiling and saying, 'what have I done?' I suspect that is not too dissimilar to a sports person post their career thinking, 'what on earth am I going to do now?'"

Staying close to sport

A successful athlete may only have a 10-year sporting career if they have been injury-free and, depending on the sport, retire just before or just after turning 30. There is still another 40 years to keep busy.

Often, players stay close to the sports that made them famous, either in coaching roles, sports administration or the media. Examples are stars such as former surfer Layne Beachley (above), now on the International Surfing Association, and retired netballer Liz Ellis – now a sports commentator and broadcaster who also runs netball clinics.

Former rugby league stars such as Laurie Daley and Mal Meninga have gone on to coach their respective states, NSW and Queensland, while others such as Newcastle greats Andrew and Matthew Johns balance media commitments and lucrative coaching consultancies.

Rugby union, the game beloved of private school boys and with close links to the financial services sector, has produced its fair share of former players who have made the successful transition to the business world.

Former All Blacks captain David Kirk, who led the New Zealand team to win the inaugural World Cup in 1987, left rugby at 26 to take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.

He went on to run Fairfax Media, the publisher of Executive Style, and now holds a number of board positions including managing partner of Bailador Investment Management.

Former Wallaby hard man Damien Frawley now runs the $70 billion funds, property and infrastructure giant, Queensland Investment Corporation.

Frawley, a self-confessed "uni drop-out", says the mentoring offered by the broader rugby union family gave him the leg-up he needed into the business world, where he has had to prove himself ever since.

"In those days rugby was very different – it was an amateur era back then," he says. "Did it ensure my entry into financial services? I don't know. It helped, there's no doubt about it. That guy [the recruiter] wouldn't have come to Ballymore [the home of Queensland rugby] and said, 'we want you to come to Sydney and play rugby and work for Citibank'.

"If I wasn't playing rugby, he wouldn't have said that. That's the way it worked out."

A line in the sand

Olympic swimming legend Mark Stockwell (above) admits it took him about six or seven years to find his feet after he retired from the sport in 1986.

"To excel and be the best in the world, it takes a religious fervour – passion, belief and discipline. Everything you do, every breath you take, has a purpose and that purpose is your performance and doing the best you can do," Stockwell explains.

"The normal world isn't like that. It takes a few years to unwind that thinking and those pathways. But you only find out that in hindsight, you're not aware of it at the time."

He recalls a heartfelt conversation in his late 20s with his father that caused him to "draw a line in the sand" on his sporting achievements and refocus his passions into the business world.

In Stockwell's case, this was property development.

"My father had given me time, about four or five years [to adjust to life after sport]. One day when I was 28 years old and married, he asked me to go for a walk. He picked his time perfectly," Stockwell recalls.

"He said, 'there's plenty more things in life than gold medals'. He then tapped me on my leg and said, 'they're a bit better in the hip pocket' and we started talking about business."

Stockwell says most athletes incorrectly assume they will be able to simply transfer their results from the sports field to the business world, but it's not the case. In many ways, you are starting from the bottom again and you have to prepare yourself mentally for the next challenges.

"You have to put your pride in your back pocket. You go from being touted around the world as a hero. It takes a big person to do that. You've got to eat humble pie."

Killer instincts

Stockwell and others admit the high profile from being a sports star in a country such as Australia does open doors.

There's a plethora of sports stars who live off their sporting fame and are literally "door openers" – or client relationship managers – for big companies, including banks and property companies. Their job is to schmooze clients and no doubt regale them with tales of their sporting glories.

Some former football players not involved in coaching or media, used to aspire to run a country pub and live off the legend of their playing days.

But there are only a select few elite sports people who manage to adapt their killer instincts in the pool or sporting field and make themselves a success in the boardroom.

Current chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, John Grant (above) – who is also managing director of ASX-listed IT company Data#3 – is one of the former league players who has risen to the top of the business world.

(He is planning to step down from his role with Data#3 at the end of 2015.)

Both Stockwell and Perkins say the same attributes that made them great in sport have helped them succeed in business, although sometimes it's necessary to temper the raw aggression.

"I moved my passion from one thing to another," Stockwell says. "And I was ready to do that. As I was the best swimmer in the world, I wanted to be the best property developer in the world.

"But to be the best sports person in the world, you've got to be quite selfish and introspective ... that kind of behaviour is not accepted in the real world. You can be an arsehole in swimming and get up and win a gold medal because you're the fastest.

"In business, that's unlikely to happen."

A real eye-opener

Perkins says moving from the sports world – where you have a coach, nutritionist and physiotherapist in your corner all focused on your success – to the not-so-harmonious business world can be a real eye-opener.

"This is where a lot of athletes come unstuck. The natural support network is diminished," he says. "You move into the business world, it's very easy to get sucked into the world where people are negative about what is going on, or you stay positive and then get constantly disappointed when office politics gets in the way."

Perkins, showing the same self-confidence that took him to the top of the swimming world, says if he had been an average swimmer, he would have simply turned his mind to something else. "I would argue that those personality traits that made me a disciplined athlete, yes, I could have directed them to anything I want to do and ultimately been successful," he says.

"Not to diminish anyone's abilities, but if I turned around tomorrow and said I wanted to be an engineer, if I was willing to put in as much time and effort into being an engineer as I was as an athlete, I absolutely could be an exceptional engineer. And everyone can, you just have to commit."

Pictures by Louise Kennerley, Glenn Hunt and Craig Golding

This story originally appeared on AFR.com