- Written by Catherine Rees
Mark Roberts, 37, is a former professional footballer and made over 650 competitive club appearances - playing for teams such as Crewe Alexandra, Stevenage, and Fleetwood Town. At Fleetwood Town, Mark achieved his lifelong dream of walking the Wembley steps as a winning captain. But it was at Stevenage where he had his most successful time on the pitch – leading them from the bottom half of the National League to the verge of the Championship.
Prior to the pandemic, Mark was playing semi-professional football at Warrington Town F.C. He is also an Associate at Switch The Play and a Personal Development Mentor at the League Football Education (LFE). He has recently set up his own business called LeadGrowPro. Here he shares how learning new skills off the pitch can give you the competitive edge on the pitch and prepare you for the future.
“I have an A level in Art and a love of the outdoors, so despite being the youngest on the course by 30 years, I enrolled into night school to study a HND in garden design. On the surface the course had nothing to do with football. But in reality it had everything to do with it.
“It showed me that I was more than just a football player. It helped me see that there is more to life than just being on the field. It also gave me a competitive edge as I recovered and returned to the club feeling refreshed, recharged and confident that I’d taken control of my life. From that point on, I always did something alongside my football career.
“When I was captain at Stevenage, I led the team to successive promotions whilst completing a sports journalism degree with the support of the Professional Footballers’ Association. The days were notoriously long under that regime but even when I’d put in eight hours of hard graft at training I would come home and discover a new energy in my studies.
“Studying journalism helped me in so many ways that I wasn’t expecting. I believe it made me a better captain by improving my communication skills and helped me to build a stronger rapport with my teammates. It taught me interview skills and how to be social media savvy so I’d write my own programme notes and I feel that created a special connection with the fans that not all players were able to have.
“I also produced my highest level of performance whilst I was studying. I had always wanted to go to university – I saw a degree like any other medal or trophy that I wanted to win.
“But despite all this, I've been in that situation at the end of your career where you fall out with your phone because it doesn’t ring. It affects you externally and internally. And the worst bit? You don’t feel like you have options. That’s definitely where my studies have helped.
“Everyone has a very individual journey through sport. Something I initially struggled with at the end of my career was measuring my success against the old me. The sports success, the contracts, the wins. Through time and finding other passions, I now understand how to measure my success on how happy I am. Success and happiness can be very different things – but I’ve learned that you can have both after sport too.
“I found my passion in a new career of helping other sports people, and since making my transition out of professional sport I’ve tried to align myself with organisations whose vision matches mine.
"Switch the Play gives me the ideal platform to reach more athletes whilst developing my own skill-set and I’m excited for what the future will bring.”
In addition to starting a new career and chapter of his life, Mark also credits Switch the Play for helping him catch ‘the running bug’.
“I recently took part in Switch the Play’s Switch and Step challenge – which involved running every day of April 2021 to raise funds for the charity. It’s helped me discover a whole new love for running which I didn’t think was possible. I did a lot of running in my career, but back then it was a means to an end to prepare my body for the football season.
“I’m now training for the London Landmarks Half Marathon and I’ve found it’s a great way to stay connected with former teammates, socialise, meet new people and make new friends. For most athletes, it’s important to feel a part of something that’s bigger than yourself – and this is something that these challenges provide. Running in a team gives you a bit of that back that you miss from being in the dressing rooms – the banter and the camaraderie. I’d never run over 10k before taking on these challenges but I’ve recently run a half marathon in under 90 minutes which of course is a timeframe that will always hold a special place in my soul. I resist the urge to compare my times with other people because I feel the most important thing is to enjoy the process and compete with the challenges I set for myself.”
You can support Mark's London Landmarks Half Marathon fundraising efforts here.