When Leon Lloyd threw out his right arm to clutch at an arrowing pass from Austin Healey, he knew it was Leicester’s last chance.
It was the final minute of the Heineken Cup final, rugby union’s Champions League. Three points down to Stade Francais in Paris, Lloyd managed to grasp hold of the ball and finish in the corner. It was a famous try that crowned the legendary Tigers team led by Martin Johnson as European champions for the first time.
“When I was a kid in inner-city Coventry, I dreamed of scoring the winning goal for Coventry City in the FA Cup final. This was that moment: I couldn’t have written it any better,” he tells BusinessCloud over cappuccinos at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“That put us on the map. We’d lost in the final in 1996-97, when we were favourites.” That Leicester side won four league titles back-to-back and went on to defend the Heineken Cup the following year.
Now 41, father-of-three Lloyd is studying an MBA through MMU’s apprenticeship scheme and is a prolific motivational speaker. However the transition from rugby star to business guru has been anything but smooth for the Switch the Play CEO – which is precisely the point.
Lloyd enjoyed a successful 12-year playing career but was 13 years of age when he first picked up a rugby ball. Within three years he was representing England Schoolboys at Twickenham and found himself signing a professional contract for Leicester in 1996 – the year that rugby union left behind its amateur days. His first housemate was none other than England’s future World Cup-winning captain Johnson and he counts former Tigers team-mates including ‘Jonno’, Healey and Neil Back among his closest friends.
“A lot of other players my age would be out doing student things and enjoying life, but I was doing the things the older guys were doing. I grew old before my time: it put me in a great spot because I learnt so much being with those senior international players,” says Lloyd.
“One day they invited me along to a track session with their elite training group. We were about to leave and I was eating this tinned curry. I was out of the blocks fast to start with… then they changed to make the legs longer distance – and after a few more I threw up at the side of the track! They wanted to teach me a lesson about nutrition.
“Those guys saw things differently and, although they hadn’t been professional until that point, they saw the sacrifices you have to make to play for your country.”
Lloyd went on to represent England at all levels, including five senior caps in which he scored two tries. After 11 years at Leicester he joined Gloucester but, despite a promising start to the season, found his career cut short by a knee injury.
After 266 club appearances and 460 points, it all came to an abrupt end. “When you leave the game, you think this big thing will happen,” he says. “But there was a story about me retiring on Teletext – and that was it. It was quite difficult to take, sat there aged 30 with two knackered knees and a knackered shoulder.
“For a year I literally stayed at home, drank a bit and felt sorry for myself. It was horrendous. Rugby is such a structured life: from the age of 16 I knew where I was going to be and what I was going to be wearing, eating and doing at least six weeks in advance. There’s no real scope to step outside those parameters.
“Elite sport is not dissimilar to the military: with Switch the Play, we’ve seen crossover there. You become institutionalised.”
The surprising thing about Lloyd’s story is that he had gone to great lengths to prepare for life outside rugby including financial plans and ambassadorial work for The Prince’s Trust. “I was always networking. My team-mates always thought I would be the one that transitioned seamlessly,” he explains. “I struggled to come out and say ‘actually lads, I’m not actually doing that well’.
“I wasn’t aware of the concept of ‘athletic identity’. I wasn’t Leon the husband, the dad, who was a trustee for charity, worked for the Prince’s Trust, all those things. In my mind, I was Leon the rugby player. I couldn’t separate myself from my job. When my career ended, I really struggled with trying to find a purpose and fulfilment.”
Another former team-mate and England legend would help pull Lloyd out of his slump. “Lewis Moody (pictured above with Lloyd) told me about this job that was going at his old school Oakham. Thankfully I got it and that helped me start the process of integrating into the real world.”
As foundation director he led the school’s fundraising activities and began to understand that he had picked up skills which were transferable to the business world, a message that he delivers to athletes today through Switch the Play. He served on the board of athlete agencies Key Sports Management and Legion Sports Management, and published book ‘Life After Sport: From boot room to boardroom’ in 2015 after realising that many other former athletes were facing similar challenges.
“The longest thing I’d written before that was probably a text or a tweet! There were 5,000 copies in my garage and I thought ‘if no one buys it, no one will ever know – I’ll just burn them’. It was read by athletes but luckily, thanks to word-of-mouth, got real traction in the business world. People were coming to me to ask if I would speak to their sales or senior management teams about resilience, success and leadership – all of those things you take for granted in elite sport.”
Lloyd was invited to join the board of Switch the Play, a social enterprise founded in 2014 which focuses on helping athletes fulfil their potential through and beyond sport. “They were academics and wanted someone who had been through the athlete’s journey and could storytell from a position of experience,” he says. “Switch the Play was founded on the forgotten majority in sport, not the remembered few.
“For every Paul Gascoigne or Clarke Carlisle you read about in the newspaper who’s struggling, there are thousands of people who are suffering in silence. The people who drop out of football’s academy system don’t try and make it at another academy: because of all the hype that’s been built up into them from the age of 13, they don’t want to admit to anyone else that they haven’t made it, so they just pack in.
“We’ve recently done a pilot with a Premier League team. We went into Arsenal and held a series of sessions around transition and personal branding. We’ve gone into every Super League (rugby league) club and delivered a financial wellbeing session with our partners St James’s Place. We also hold masterclasses in media skills and networking.
“Athletes have unique transferable skills, but don’t know it. Our job is showing them why they are an attractive proposition to be recruited and the things they should be working on while they’re still competing. We’re not life after sport – we’re life outside of sport.”
Lloyd became CEO of the organisation, which counts multiple gold medal-winning gymnast Beth Tweddle (pictured above) among its directors, 18 months ago. “We use a ‘pracademic’ approach: we tap into the practitioner’s experiences – players and coaches – but it’s underpinned by academic rigour and research. We can show that it happened across all different sports, ages and stages.”
Switch the Play has partnered with tech platform Wakelet to help athletes put together a ‘digital CV’ and access resources. One player who benefited from this was Paul Reid, who captained Barnsley FC to promotion from League One in 2006. I was in the crowd at the Millennium Stadium that day but confess that I haven’t given Reid a second thought since he was released by the club in 2008.
“He woke up in his mid-30s and realised his final contract wasn’t going to be renewed. A successful 20-year football career, squashed down, is just a paragraph on a CV,” says Lloyd. “He approached us and we set him up with our ‘Switched On’ platform on Wakelet. Now he is showcasing who he is as a person other than ‘I played 400 football matches’.
“We put him on a pathway with a business mentor and he signed up for a Masters in sporting directorship. Now he’s head of academy at Sunderland and absolutely flying.”
Lloyd describes using Wakelet as a “game-changer”. “If you’re good at interviewing and want a career in media, it helps you capture it. If, as part of your contract as an athlete, you have to do coaching and community work, we help you capture that to show your future employer.
“Showcasing who they are when they’re not competing is really powerful.”
Exactly! They, and the information collected within them, were the key to progressing once we left school. Showing who we are and our skills and passions outside of the classroom.
— Leon Lloyd (@LeonLloyd13) May 12, 2019