To understand the journey of former NRL player James Aubusson, one could look to former American Poet Robert Frost and an excerpt from his famous 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken”:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;...
…..Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference”
By 2010, James Aubusson had been 18th man in 2 grand finals. He had chalked up 58 first grade games. He had both the Cowboys and the Titans offering him contracts. So why did James decide to retire from the NRL at age 25?
Step 1: Look at the big picture
James gazes at the two paths. The path on the right is titled “the NRL life”. The grass is green. Flowers are blooming. The sun is shining. The pay is decent. He could live this charmed life for the next 5 to 7 years.
But then what?
You see, the average lifespan of an NRL player is 40 games. Probably only 5-10% of players will be able to use footy to set themselves up for the rest of their lives.
“I didn’t want to retire as a 30 year old, start in another industry and be on the bottom of the barrel”. James explains. No qualifications. No skills. No experience; having to spend another 5 years building up to a decent level. “To me, it made sense to start that process earlier while also captain-coaching in the Canberra league; earning extra money and still being able to play”.
Step 2: Being OK with not having those highs
Everyone knows that guy who peaked in high school. The big kid that played junior reps who now sits in the pub telling his mates he ‘could have been a star’. Many ex-NRL players struggle with the transition from playing in front of 80,000 people to working 9 to 5 in an office.
“But you need to be OK with not having those highs again” Aubusson advises. Former Sydney Rooster Luke Phillips also had that ‘look on the bright side’ approach, claiming after his first NRL game “I wouldn’t have cared if I didn’t play another game. I achieved my goal of reaching the NRL”.
Step 3: Reverse engineer your life
There are many reasons why sport is highly regarded as a social construct; one belief being the life lessons it teaches. For James, the parallels between the 2 can be drawn through setting a goal and working slowly towards it. “I had to think to myself ‘where do I want to be by age 35 and what do I need to do now to get there?’”. If that meant giving up 5 years of more money through NRL in the pursuit of setting up his next career, making more money and a better lifestyle for 30 years, then so be it.
Step 4: Model your life off a mentor
Speak to many of the most successful businessmen and women in the world and nearly all of them will acknowledge their business mentor for their achievements. Sport stars will also credit their coaches or senior players for guiding them through their careers. Why don’t we adopt a mentor - a person who has blazed the trail we are about to walk through - for life as well? This is one step James speaks highly of. “Moving to Goulburn, I was fortunate to land a job working as a car salesman at my father in law’s successful car dealership”.
Rather than come in brash fresh from the NRL, Aubusson had the maturity to learn off the senior workers; again with the hope of reverse engineering him towards his goal at 35. “When we decided to move back home to Ballina and buy a fitness business, we chose to buy into a franchised gym” explaining how the gym is big on community and inclusion. “If we could let them (the fitness mentors/ franchisors) who had a successful business model look after that part, that allows us to play to our strengths with fitness and people skills”.
Step 5: ‘Don’t need to know all the answers; just start the process”
If that quote from Aubusson sounds familiar, you aren’t mistaken. Jason Stevens and Clint Gutherson both said something similar while on The Be Ready Project podcast as well. With so many options available at our fingertips these days, sometimes people can get complacent; thinking they can easily do what they want tomorrow, next year or whenever.
“Start the process…. learn as you go” Aubusson advocates. “In fact - since retiring I really found exercise as a great tool” explaining the benefits it can provide to have some structure and normality as well as the physical and mental health benefits linked to activity. This is something I am sure all of us are more aware of after the COVID Isolation period.
A cynical person may say that James potentially missed out on years playing in the NRL and all the associated benefits that comes with it. That could be true. Who really knows. The important thing is Aubusson was confident in his decision, had a plan and stuck to his guns.
For James Aubusson took the road less travelled by.
And that has made all the difference.