Anxiety, depression, angst: Jonny Wilkinson opens up

The 2003 Rugby World Cup hero says that worry made him a ‘dim, weak, being’

Jonny Wilkinson of England kicks the winning drop-goal against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonny Wilkinson of England kicks the winning drop-goal against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. Photograph: Getty Images


It is October 1999, and a 20-year-old Jonny Wilkinson is sitting on the edge of a bed in Clive Woodward’s hotel room in Paris. Woodward has just told Wilkinson that he is dropping him to the bench for England’s World Cup quarter-final against South Africa at the Stade de France that weekend. Woodward has chosen instead to play Paul Grayson, who is eight years older and has a dozen more caps. “I remember it so well,” Wilkinson says now. “I looked at Clive and I said: ‘Mate, I think it is a great idea, I think he is a brilliant player and the team will go brilliantly with him. I’m young. My time will come.’”

Wilkinson wonders what happened to that 20-year-old, and what he would have thought of the player he grew into. “I look back now, and I can’t believe the maturity I had then, how free I was, compared to the player I became, so wrapped up in my own self-importance and reputation.”

It is October 2011, and a 32-year-old Jonny Wilkinson is playing in his fourth World Cup, under Martin Johnson in New Zealand. “I was a shell of the player I’d been when I was 20 years old. I’d had 12 years to work and grow and build and in all that time all I’d managed to do was take the bright shining light of my potential and turn it into this dim, weak, being.”

Wilkinson has always suffered with anxiety, “but when I was younger it was 50-50, half of me was loving the game, half was worrying about what would happen if it went wrong. And as I got older that ratio became 70-30, then 85-15, and it left so little space for joy.”

There are lessons here. Wilkinson was the prototypical superstar of professional rugby in this country, and his experiences foreshadow the mental health crisis the game is only just beginning to address.

“I spent my career surviving the pressure I put on myself,” Wilkinson says. “When you get to the end you look back and you say ‘what did I do with my career?’ I survived it. Well if you had told that to me when I was 20 I would have smacked myself.”

But Wilkinson won a World Cup, four Six Nations and the Heineken Cup, twice. He scored more points in Tests than any other Englishman. “Look,” he explains, “there’s guys who made the World Cup squad and never got picked who are as happy as anything, and there are some guys that played in the final and won it who are utterly miserable.”

Wilkinson knows. He was one of them himself. “I lived a huge amount of my career thinking I was going to achieve joy through suffering,” he says, “but all I did was create a habit of suffering. I lived for those beautiful moments of being in the zone during the games, and I told myself they were the result of the ridiculous suffering I went through and the sacrifices I made. So I told myself I had to suffer more, because that was the way I was going to get back into the zone.”

In 2003 “my anxiety was at a peak, and then it paid off, we won the World Cup, so I was like: ‘Bring on the joy!’” It never came.

So Wilkinson just kept punishing himself. “I’d allowed that World Cup to become a defining moment, it gave me the proof I needed that I was doing everything right, so it reinforced this idea that I needed to destroy myself physically and mentally. It took a few years for the pressure to really build. And then it exploded.”

Wilkinson does not enjoy revisiting those memories, like the time he found himself sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool and screaming to himself underwater, or the moments he spent shivering in a toilet cubicle in the minutes before kick-off, scared stiff and desperate for someone to talk to.

He has heard about how Kearnan Myall opened up about his own mental health problems in a recent interview with the Guardian. He knows there are a lot of players out there going through the same things he suffered with himself. Anxiety, depression, angst. “The guys I was playing with when I started came from the amateur era, and they definitely had a better sense of balance because they had the grounding of working in an office one day and playing rugby the next,” he says. “They knew that the same guys they were working with in that office might be there in the crowd watching them play, so they understood that it was supposed to be for fun and entertainment.”

Wilkinson thinks the sport needs to find a way to recapture some of that spirit. The stigma of discussing mental health is being broken down, “but we have to get beyond that beautiful beginning where we’re all talking about it, and sharing our experiences, we have to get to a point where we’re asking: ‘What next?’ It can’t all be about ‘dealing’ and ‘coping’ and ‘managing’ with mental health. Because that path ends with you crawling out the other side of your career, thinking about how life gets so much harder as you get older.”

He feels as if he spent years trying to fight his depression with “another Six Nations Championship, or some more caps, or titles, or points. ‘Surely,’ I told myself, ‘that will keep you off my back?’ It doesn’t. It’s never enough.”

(Guardian services)