Finding Purpose Beyond Football

By Harrison Dunk

“Studying part-time equipped me with a great sense of fulfilment and regenerated purpose into my life. I was no longer solely reliant on football to provide this for me.”

At 29 years old I have currently played in approximately 400 professional games over an 11 year period. However, my career has been far from conventional.

From the tender age of 9 years old I was allured by the bright lights of academy football, until at 15 years old I was released by Fulham FC. My reputation as the exceptional young football player, playing for a then Premier League team was no more. I was no longer acknowledged and respected for my footballing ability and status that I had grown accustomed to. In truth, my identity was lost – an emotion that all players within football will experience at some point in their lives.

In retrospect, it was not only my body, but also my mind that was incapable of keeping up with the rigorous demands that presented itself with academy football. I was no longer enjoying football as I had done so previously and so I was happy to spend the next 3 years acquiring my GCSE’s and A-levels. During this time, I rediscovered my love for the game whilst playing a high standard of school and county football. Following school, I chose to defer my place at the University of Bath for a year to pursue my dream, and gave football one final shot. Following a successful trial, I signed for Bromley FC and subsequently Cambridge United FC where I have now played for the past 9 seasons.

Throughout this period, I have also spent 7 of those years studying in tandem with my playing career. An injury in the early stages of my career acted as the catalyst for this decision. I was left feeling worthless and without direction as the weeks passed performing the same monotonous rehabilitation programme set by the physio. The injury left me feeling unfulfilled and so I started to explore a productive means of using my vast free time. I had an undeniable passion and fascination for sport and the methods by which performance can be enhanced both physiologically and psychologically. As a consequence, the Open University Degree in Sport and Fitness suited me perfectly. Studying part-time equipped me with a great sense of fulfilment and regenerated purpose into my life. I was no longer solely reliant on football to provide this for me.

Later in my career, I began to appreciate that there was more to life than simply sport. After finishing the Open University Degree, I began to read more frequently and opened my mind to the ample opportunities that can exist outside of sport. I discovered law and after thoroughly researching and speaking to various specialists in the profession, I began my journey to become a lawyer by studying with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX). I enjoyed the flexibility that the Open University course had provided and so I sought to replicate that freedom. It was essential that I found a course that I was comfortable with and that allowed me to study at my own pace without feeling any overwhelming pressures that could impact my focus on football.

I find law refreshing and an insight into the real world from which I felt that I had been isolated and distanced from due to my time in football. However, it is also something that can be interlinked with my obvious love for football and sport which I find highly appealing. I believe that studying provides a pleasant distraction from the pressurised environment that can wholly consume and overwhelm the majority of players. This is a view shared by many players who all agree that rather than interfering with their performance, it has in fact led to an improvement.

Aside from that, I feel like it also leaves me no longer defined in such a shallow sense. It has provided an added dimension to my identity; I am no longer judged solely by my ability to kick a ball.

I chose to study alongside my playing career; however, this path will not suit everybody. It is important that players take the time to discover and identify the skills and interests that they have a passion for. This process will enable and promote self-development that is crucial in not only preparing for a life after football, but also in establishing an identity and improving their quality of life.

That is my journey up until this point. I am currently still playing and aspire to keep doing so until I feel that the time is right. I also still have a number of years left until my studies are complete, however I am excited for the future and look forward to embracing the challenges that lie ahead.

Every players journey throughout life will be different – the important thing is not to let football define you as a person.