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Donnie Macfadyen

"Being a professional athlete wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was."

- Written by Switch the Play Foundation

Why are we telling this story?

Each year, Switch the Play Foundation supports hundreds of athletes with their transition journey to life beyond sport. At the start of the year, Donnie Macfadyen reached out to Switch the Play Foundation for support, almost 14 years after retiring. Here is his story.


  • Name: Donnie Macfadyen
  • Sport: Rugby Union
  • Position: Flanker
  • Club: Glasgow Warriors
  • Previous Clubs: London Scottish, Scotland

Donnie is a former Scotland International rugby union player. In his career as a Flanker, he made over 100 appearances for Glasgow Warriors from 1999 to 2008 as well as earning several international caps. His career highlight was the Australia tour in 2004, representing Scotland. He was just 19 years old when he became a professional rugby player and he retired aged 28.

It was a series of bad injuries, followed by emotional and psychological burnout that eventually forced him to make the difficult decision to retire from the sport he loved.

I injured my knee 3 or 4 weeks before the start of the 6 Nations in 2005. There’s no good time to get an injury but this was unfortunate timing. What seemed like an innocuous twist in training turned out to be something far more serious and I ended up being out for 15 months.

Donnie responded to this injury by doing what he could to stay fit during that time, trying to gain some positives out of a negative situation. He was doing 10-12 gym sessions a week and improving his strength. However, on the negative side, Donnie reflects that society didn’t really understand mental health back then. “We had some great sports psychologists in the team but the focus was always on performance – there wasn’t any structure for checking if I was OK. Looking back I wasn’t OK. I was in the gym a lot, but I was also out drinking a lot. On reflection, that was my coping strategy for feeling a bit lost, and adrift from the team.”

After this injury Donnie got back to playing, for about a season, and he was starting to re-establish himself in the team when he injured his other knee. This was also bad timing as it was about a month before the World Cup.

“There’s a misconception that I retired because I couldn’t physically play any more but that’s not actually the truth. I retired physically capable of playing but I was psychologically and emotionally burnt out from the experience of back to back injuries. This coincided with a couple of big life events. My father had recently passed away, but I had also just become a father myself so I was in a really mixed up place emotionally when I made the decision to retire.  I have a very vivid memory of being sat in the changing room and the coach at Glasgow trying to gee me up for the game. He said ‘we need the old Donnie back’ and I sat there and thought to myself ‘I don’t know where he is’. That’s where I was at in my headspace.”

The thing that finally led Donnie to making the decision that to quit was that just before going out on the pitch to play he was fearing injury.

I was having catastrophic thoughts like ‘what if I get paralysed?’. I’d never had those fears before so that was when I knew, this is not OK. You can’t be thinking that at International level.

Donnie shared that back then, there was no structure in place for post career planning. “I had some ideas of what I wanted to do next but there was no preparation for the huge life change I was about to go through.  I actually expected everything was going to be fine as opposed to acknowledging that this was a huge thing I was about to go through. I wasn’t remotely prepared that this was going to be hard.”

Donnie believes that the people who seem to struggle on retirement from sport are the ones who’s identities are completely wrapped up in what they do.

What I went through after retirement was a huge identity crisis because being a professional athlete wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was. I was so mission focussed on rugby that I had no idea who I was without it. It was an incredibly difficult thing to go through. I was really lost for a really long time.

Following retirement, Donnie initially went into a career as a personal trainer in a gym but it didn’t feel right for him and he decided he wanted to make a change but didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do next. A pattern repeating itself. It was at this point that he got in touch with Switch the Play Foundation.

I was lost. I didn’t know who would help me or who would care as I’d retired 14 years ago. I thought I’d missed my window – but as soon as I got in touch with Switch the Play Foundation I felt supported.

He had a Discovery Call with Switch the Play and offloaded what had been bubbling away for many years. “There was real power in speaking with somebody, with a shared experience, who understood the journey I’d been through, but also a realisation that I’m not alone in going through this – it’s not a weakness, it’s a really common thing. I had felt really alone for a really long time but all of sudden I felt that I had a team who were really invested in supporting me, backing me up – and that was huge. From the outset, Switch the Play had a massive positive impact on me.”

Donnie went on to explain that as well as a feeling of belonging, he valued the structured approach Switch the Play had to doing something about it. “I got set up with a fantastic mentor and went through a really interesting journey with him. I had an idea of the skills I had but I needed to find a career that made a really good use of those skills.”

Donnie went on to meet with other members of the Switch the Play team and through a combination of meetings, discussions and introductions he landed on the career that he is now pursuing in Close Protection, providing physical personal security as a bodyguard for people who need protection or might be at risk of harm. It’s something he knew he would be good at, and knew he had the right skills and attributes for and Switch the Play set about opening the doors and making the introductions to get him on track.

I’m in a much better place now. I feel like I’ve got purpose again. I’ve found something that feels like a really good fit for my own unique skillset – and that is 100% down to Switch the Play.

Thanks to our partnership with UMBRA International on a sport-to-security career pathway, Donnie has now qualified as a Close Protection Operative and is just waiting for his licence and then he will go through the process of finding that job. He isn’t expecting to walk straight into something but he has the foundations in place and the networks thanks to the people he’s met through Switch the Play. Donnie is feeling very excited about the future.

When asked what advice he would give to other athletes who have retired, Donnie said

Reach out and ask for help. There are fantastic resources available now, through organisations like Switch the Play. My journey out of rugby was quite messy but I’ve definitely grown as a result. It was a difficult and challenging experience but it didn’t need to be 14 years long.

For athletes still playing or approaching retirement, Donnie advises spending a bit of time investing in getting to know yourself better. Figure out what your values are, figure out what your priorities are and get clarity on those things. “Start thinking about this at the earliest opportunity. It is going to be hard leaving sport, but you can put a structure in place to be supported. It’s a bit of a fallacy that you have to be 100% focussed on your sport if it’s your job. Actually having an idea of who you are outside of ‘the athlete’ is actually going to help you be a better athlete. If you have nothing else and something happens, like injury, it can feel like life or death. Having a sense of who you are outside sport will give you a bit of perspective on the mountains and valleys that are involved in professional sport.”

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