Mental health issues within sport have been getting a lot of column inches recently, and rightfully so. It is a significant issue in all professional sports none more so than rugby, perfectly summarised in Nick De Luca's recent article on the BBC website.
I agree entirely with my ex teammate when he speaks about the lack of investment around mental wellbeing, from both a performance and holistic standpoint. Ultimately, more still needs to be done to help the current and future generations of professional rugby players.
I’m not looking to rehash the opinions of other athletes who’ve spoken up on the topic. This post is simply my own personal view on the issues rugby players face.
As a current player with hopefully a good few years left in the game, I may see issues in a different context to those who’ve struggled post-retirement. Instead I’m seeing current and pre-retirement issues unfolding infront of me, both through my own eyes and the eyes of colleagues who are still in the ‘cauldron’ that is professional rugby.
There are two major issues that I think the rugby community must address first and foremost. Firstly, the stigma around speaking up about your struggles, and secondly, planning your career transition out of the sport.
The stereotype of rugby players as resilient characters who push through the pain barrier, who overcome serious injuries, who put their body on the line every week, is pretty accurate. Nevertheless, resilience has many forms, and sometimes the toughest players, are the most emotionally sensitive.
The ‘Tears of a Clown’ syndrome is a good parallel. We’re trained from a young age to show no weakness physically and mentally, and this often contradicts our off field personalities. We’re not machines, and behind the hardened exterior, there is sometimes a very vulnerable athlete. I know of players who’ve confessed to sitting in their car at the training ground crying their eyes out, wiped their tears away, and put their ‘suit of armour’ on for a full days training.
The Rugby Players Association (RPA) do a fantastic job helping some of these players, providing a free confidential counselling service through Cognacity. However this requires us to speak up in the first place, and the first step is often the hardest.
I do know of colleagues who have been quite open in the changing room about their struggles, but will not discuss their problems with external parties. There is a fear that opening up to coaches, trainers, even team psychologists, can have a detrimental impact on your career.
You may be able to take a few mental health days, but that may come at the cost of your contract not being renewed, justified under a number of guises. There is no way of disproving this, and when you have only six months to run on your contract, you're not going to risk putting your hand up to say, "I'm struggling".
As a professional player you’re so immersed in individual and team performance, facing an acid test each weekend, it is hard to step back and see the bigger picture.
We are incredibly privileged to get paid to play the sport we love, it is a fantastic job to have. This makes it hard to imagine doing anything else, especially when you’ve joined an academy straight from school and know nothing else.
A lot of players adopt a ‘head in the sand’ approach to their life after rugby, and this stores up problems when you near the end. Often the best performing players are those who’ve taken a long run up, as it alleviates some of the pressure, and allows you to enjoy the game you grew up loving, knowing that you are prepared for the inevitable.
I don’t want to scaremonger or be too negative, but these are real issues. We are not earning football money, and this means that we’ve got to be very proactive in finding our second career.
This is more than a financial issue. Rugby is for the vast majority of us our passion, it is our identity. Finding a second career which you are equally passionate about, that gives you purpose and identity, is a real challenge.
There needs to be a duty of care around this transition. It is easy to ignore the issue or simply pay lip service, but I believe a clear off field plan will lead to happier players, and better on-field performance. You can enjoy your rugby with less stress and anxiety, and get back to why you played the sport in the first place.
The 33-year-old believes British clubs and coaches often lack the knowledge to address mental wellbeing, and that players are frequently reluctant to open up. De Luca knows of recent internationals "who are really struggling just now", arguing that emotional health should be approached with the same rigor as gym work, physical fitness and tactical analysis.