James ‘Jimmy’ Holbeck is a former Wallaby centre who was capped 7 times between 1997 and 2001. James also notched 36 Brumbies caps, having represented the team in their inaugural Super Rugby season in 1996. Since his retirement from rugby in 2003, he has become an accomplished speaker, writer, mentor and coach. ROB FLUDE chatted to him about how his rugby career has helped shape the person he is today.
During your playing days, what career interests did you have outside of rugby?
Like most young, sporting blokes, I thought that physiotherapy was a glamorous area to get into. But at some stage, a more experienced physio said to me that 80% of the work was not going to be with young sports people. So I started doing an undergrad degree in Science with the hope of transferring later on into physiotherapy. I certainly had enough injuries to become qualified as one! Our physio at the Brumbies, Gavin Malouf, was keen for me to do some work with him, and in that time I spent a lot of time seeking an answer to my recurrent hamstring and calf strains.
What was the best thing about being a professional rugby player?
Each week you get a challenge, and you know how you’ve gone after 80 minutes. You’re also working together with friends and travelling around the world with people you care about. The secondary benefits were playing in front of big crowds in some great stadiums. And all of this is something you’re getting paid to do; you don’t realise at the time what a privilege it is, especially when the press is beating down on you about selection, and you can forget just how good life actually is.
Was that perhaps because in that era, rugby players didn’t fully know what it meant to be a professional athlete?
That’s definitely true. We learnt along the way the requirements for being a professional. NSW embraced it fairly early and there were some who didn’t enjoy that! But it was a big step up from training two nights a week to 5 full days a week, and then travelling and not having work outside of that. It was difficult for some people because it went from something you just loved to do to something where it just became your life.
Did you get any career advice while you were playing?
I was studying when the game went professional and I gave that up as I thought, well, rugby is my life now. And then about two years in I had a season-ending shoulder injury, and so RUPA organised a career advisor for me and he went through my interests. He said I would suit being a psychologist, but I still wanted to do physiotherapy. So I studied human biology, then took a year away from the studies to make a decision, and then I started undergraduate psychology.
What was the trigger for retiring from rugby?
In 1997, I had been sin-binned in a Test in South Africa, I then got dropped and sent home from a tour in Argentina, and then had a shoulder reconstruction in 1998, didn’t play until 2001 again, and then pretty much every game until 2003 I came off injured with calf and hamstring strains, plus had a knee operation. If you’re only really running on one leg, you’re not playing to your full ability. As I was running onto the field I knew I was going to get injured, so you’re actually embarrassed and you feel like you’re letting the team down. So it was actually a real relief when I was asked by the Brumbies to retire.
Did you have any favourite coaches?
I always enjoyed playing for Randwick in Sydney, as the coach John Maxwell believed in me as a player. I actually also enjoyed playing under Eddie Jones! He’s an intense character, but he seems to have relaxed in the last few years. I had him as a young guy in club rugby in Sydney. I liked him and I had a sense that he liked me.
What has rugby given you that has helped you to be where you are today?
Teamwork, capacity and connectedness. I liked to know how each part was working together for the team, and how everyone was being used to their full capacity and whether they enjoyed being part of that contribution. That crosses over all fields of how you empower people.
What similar challenges do athletes have these days?
Identity. For all your life you’ve been defined as an elite sportsperson and aspired to that lifestyle. Sometimes it’s fulfilling, and sometimes not. Then you come out on the other side and then you no longer have that to stand on. People say you’re an “ex-footballer”; it’s who you used to be. The boys at the rugby club used to say, “Here comes Once Was”. That’s the harsh reality. You’re no longer that and you feel like you’re a nothing, essentially. When you’re playing, people are interested in who you are, but when you stop, unless you have a high public profile, you’re just another person.
It’s very humbling and it’s an incredibly valuable experience to go through. When I talk to school kids, I say underneath it all, what character do you stand with? Viktor Frankl said it perfectly when he said that people can take anything from you, but the last personal freedom that they can’t take from you is your attitude. The All Blacks are trying to create players who are good people regardless of their environment or results, and that their sport doesn’t define them.
Are you still involved in rugby?
I write for rugby.com.au and have a year-long contract. I’m really loving it and I enjoy reading all the other authors’ perspectives. My story is not about being the very best player and a lot of people believe that unless you’re the best, you don’t deserve to have a voice. Having only been at the top for a brief time, I have to explain the challenges and unfulfilled dreams I had and how I survived those, where a lot of people might see that as a disaster at the end of their lives. So I bring in my psychology, lecturing experience and my observations into my writing. In the end, the articles aren’t meant to be all-knowing; they’re meant to be the starting point of conversation.
Did you read the newspaper when you were playing?
I did, and I certainly enjoyed the good articles, but when the bad ones start, you’re not quite as interested! I remember walking into a news agency in Sydney in late 1997 and seeing in a magazine I was named Goose of the Year for that sin-binning! I mean, I genuinely made a mistake, but it wasn’t from bad intent. But I use that as a learning point when I teach kids, as I realised that I needed to take responsibility for my mistakes. I didn’t handle it well at the time, but it has taught me a lot about myself. For players, it’s a reality of the game that when you step into that environment, people think they can judge your performance and your character. So you need to know the basis of your character and know whether their judgement is missing the mark or whether that resonates with you. If you don’t know what you’re standing for, then it’s going to resonate with some parts in you that are unanswered.
You can find out more about James on his website – www.jamesholbeck.com