TORONTO — On Tuesday afternoon, after another intense training session, Toronto Wolfpack forward Ashton Sims takes a moment to relax in his downtown apartment with his wife Nicole and their four kids, a son and three daughters who are 10, nine, six and three respectively. The process of unwinding from a workout is second nature to Sims. He turned 34 in February and is in his 17th season of professional rugby. “Exactly half of my life,” Sims says, letting the words hang for just an extra moment, allowing himself a pause to briefly reflect.
This week would be just like any other week, except it is not. As the Wolfpack prepare to face off against Featherstone Rovers on Saturday at Lamport Stadium for a chance to advance to the Super League with a victory, Sims is also staring at the end of his rugby career. This season has been a tough challenge for the body. Any rugby player would tell you that’s no different from any other season, but injuries have started to catch up to Sims. “Little tears in my calf,” Sims says. “In my hamstring. In my quad. My body is telling me it’s time to finish up and head in a new direction.”
This summer, with the season winding down, Sims huddled with his wife and went through the pros and cons of continuing his career. They both agreed it was time to retire. Rugby players are wired a bit differently than many of us. You have to be, with a sport that takes such a physical and mental toll on the body. You would think after spending half of your life taking a beating on a week-to-week basis, Sims would be relieved that it is all over. Instead, there’s a lot he will miss. There’s a lot that he finds hard to let go.
What he will miss specifically is the camaraderie with his teammates. The bond of working towards a common goal. He’s also going to miss the confrontations, of challenging himself against his teammates in training and against the best in the world in competition. To understand what Sims is letting go requires understanding a rugby player’s routine.
Over 17 years, Sims has developed a strict routine when it comes to getting into what he calls rugby mode. One rule is no beers during the week leading up to a match. While he’s seen some great players drink throughout the week without having any impact on their performance, it’s not something he’s ever wanted to find out himself.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Sims says. “On Saturday and Sunday, I love to have a beer, or two, or 20. But when Monday morning rolls around, I’m locked in and focused on training.”
Laying down this structure was a challenge for Sims early on in his career. The physical part wasn’t difficult. But that is only half the battle. There were mental hurdles to overcome. “When I started I was really superstitious,” Sims says. “I saw guys who if they don’t put their left sock before their right sock on, all of a sudden they think they would play bad. I had to make myself get out of that.”
So in 2008, after Sims joined the Brisbane Broncos club in Australia, he spoke at length with the team psychologist, who encouraged him to start letting go of unnecessary routines. One of the main things he had to get rid of was the habit of always needing to have spaghetti bolognese before a game.
“If it wasn’t served at the hotel, I wouldn’t eat the team meal,” Sims says. “I would go back upstairs [to my room], ring around and try to order takeout. When I look back at it now, I’m like, what an absolute goose I was.”
Today, Sims won’t even eat before a training session, preferring to wake up and fast before having a chicken salad sandwich (or two) with a side of fruit. “Sometimes I’ll be a little naughty and have a pack of chips too,” Sims says. He also enjoys beef jerky and rarely turns down a protein shake. It’s all part of his continuous pursuit of finding any physical edge he can gain over his opponents on the field.
“You could give me a tub full of sugar and if you say it’s going to make me lift heavier or make my joints feel better, I’ll do it,” Sims says.
A typical week of training looks like this. Sims will have training sessions with the Wolfpack on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday is a recovery day. Thursday is another training session where the game plan starts being finalized by the coaching staff. And then, there’s a captain’s run on Friday, where the team will go through specific strategies. “Once Saturday comes around and the game starts, it’s just muscle memory,” Sims says.
A specific training session, like the one Sims just came back from on this particular Tuesday, starts with a series of medical measures. In total they last about four minutes. Each player is measured on how far they can sit and reach and how tight they can squeeze with their hands as part of a series of physical tests. After that, it’s 40 minutes in the weight room, sometimes more if Sims wants to get in some extra lifts. Then, players squeeze in either some physio or get a massage before they attend a video meeting.
After all of that, they finally take the field. “We’re just sharpening our tools, so to speak,” Sims says. “We’re just getting each other ready, getting that feel of high pressure action.”
Over his career, Sims has found that putting all of his energy into his weekly physical training has helped to improve his mental preparation as well. “A lot of the mental prep comes from the physical prep,” Sims says. “It’s what have I done from Monday to gameday. Have I done everything I possibly could? We all have our doubts as players. At the end of the day, as athletes, we have to put in a lot of hard work to get to where we are.”
Aside from the scheduled training sessions, Sims also enjoys biking. He recently bought himself a second hand mountain bike, his preferred mode of transportation to and from his apartment to Lamport Stadium. He’s also found a way to merge this activity with his family, too. When Sims has downtime, the entire family will go biking, often on the Lakeshore, sometimes to other parts of the city. Nicole owns a bike as do their two eldest kids. Sims has a trailer he straps onto the back wheel of his bike that allows his two younger daughters to sit in and tag along for the ride.
Walks around the city is another way for Sims to take his mind off the game and relax during the week. The entire family will take different routes as an excuse to explore the city. “We’ve never been city people,” Sims says. “But Toronto has changed our mind. It’s so easy to get around, it’s so easy to explore, the people are so nice. We just want to give our kids a new experience of new cultures.”
Sims grew up on the coast in New South Wales, about two hours south of Sydney. “It’s cricket in the summer, rugby in the winter and surfing all year around,” Sims says. “I love being in the water.” Outside of his regimented training routine, he is always swimming on off days.
Put it all together, and it’s a carefully crafted weekly routine that’s allowed Sims to carve out a 17-year career playing rugby. A self-proclaimed goals-oriented person, Sims seems content with what he has accomplished. One particular highlight: captaining the Fiji national rugby team in 2014. A win on Sunday would be another, and a perfect capper to a long and fulfilling career in the sport.
Like all retired athletes, the future after playing feels uncertain. Sims is weighing a job offer with the Wolfpack which would keep him in Toronto, or he is considering moving back to England, where his family once lived. Regardless of where he ends up, Sims says his weekly routine will continue. Working out, swimming and many other parts of his physical training will remain, because he genuinely enjoys them. Re-entering the real world might present a new set of challenges.
“It might shock me when I go into the real world and get a job,” Sims says. “If I see people slacking off, I’m thinking in my past job, I would walk up to them, tap them on the shoulder, tell them to get their finger out of their ass and get on with their job. I guess you have to be careful with people in the real world.”
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