Irupa continuing to deliver key services for players
Five personal development managers to help players at every stage in their career
The first players to tell their personal stories are Ireland and Leinster front-row Jack McGrath who speaks emotively about how he coped with the death of his brother by suicide in 2010 and Irish women’s player, Hannah Tyrrell, who talks about how she overcame her struggles with self-harm and bulimia. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Player welfare in rugby is continuing to evolve in a positive and proactive manner for the most part, an important consideration when examining a sport whose constituents are bigger, stronger and faster than their predecessors in the game and where the collisions exact a significant physical toll.
Injury and concussion are primary and important considerations in any discussion relating to player wellbeing, but in an era when teenagers now view rugby as a professional career, the need to expand the duty of care to life off the pitch as well as on it, is undeniable.
This is borne out in examining the expanding role of Irupa (The Irish Rugby Union Players Association) in looking after the needs of players. Dr Deirdre Lyons is the Player Development Manager (PDM) for Connacht, one of five employed by Irupa – Dr Kate Kirby (Women’s Sevens), Derval O’Rourke (Munster), Crede Sheehy-Kelly (Leinster) and Pamela Gilpin (Ulster) – to assist players in various aspects of life.
Lyons heads up the programme that is comprised of five pillars: career advice and guidance, education and training skills, personal brand, financial planning and management and player wellbeing. The PDMs work two to three days in the provincial hubs meeting players by appointment in most cases or happenstance occasionally.
Where once they dealt with just the senior players, the PDMs are now looking to help those in provincial academies and sub academies to supplement the work already being done there. They have found the provinces receptive. Each PDM in the case of Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht works with roughly 80 players.
“At the start we had one player development manager, Hamish Adams. He worked with all four provinces. The support, while great, was very reactive. We now have five managers; that allows us to be more proactive.
“We have strategically focused on the academy and sub academy levels. They are a lot easier to get messages across to and they tend to work in a more focused and receptive way. If their manager says you have to go to this workshop, they will go.
“The hope is that by building that relationship with them when they get to senior level if they have any issues, they are used to you. Support seeking is one of the key skills that we would try and get them to build while they are still young.
“Guys who are very talented occasionally bypass the academy stage. Rugby wise they may be doing well but don’t always possess the other [life] skills that we would be concerned about. They would be missing out on what the academies are designed to do.
“You talk to any of the academy managers, when players come in their form drops straight away and then you see an upward curve with those who can adapt to the new environment. It’s not for everybody. You see it in every province where an outstanding player [on the pitch] just can’t deal the pressure or the regimen.”
The modern culture where some parents snowplough the way for their children, removing all obstacles and stress, can lead to an emotional immaturity and a difficulty in dealing with adversity.
Lyons said: “Áine McNamara, a psychologist from Limerick, wrote a paper, ‘Talent Needs Trauma;’ in order to build resilience, you need to experience disappointment and stress. It about transition toughness, developing life skills to be able to deal with change.
“One thing that we have to be very careful of as player development managers is that we don’t do too much, that we don’t go and fight their battles for them all the time.”
Lyons explained: “By offering choice we get a lot more engagement. The players want different pathways so there’s no point in running generic courses. We try and build relationships with as many different partners as possible. We have a lot of scholarship opportunities.
“We work with the main institutes of technology and universities in our area. For me in Galway it’s GMIT and NUIG as well as private colleges to make sure that the flexibility is there. There are 34 players in college in Connacht.”
Some players are receptive to seeking help, others less inclined. Lyons understands the notion of pushing against a closed door. More often than not it’s finding that initial hook.
Unsurprisingly, given rugby players love of coffee, one was organising a barista course with the help of 3Fe (Dublin), Badger and Dodo (Galway) and Baileys (Belfast). Two players who had never previously engaged came along.
The PDMs encourage all players to think about what they would like to do post rugby and not leave it until they are in the last six months of their final contract. They also offer financial advice on tax, pension and insurance and the need for long term planning.
“The recession taught a lot of the senior players harsh lessons in relation to investments. Getting them to come to a financial management workshop can be a hard sell. This really needs to be sold from within the playing group, encouraging others to embrace these courses.
“It is the group in the middle, probably your 24-28 year olds, whose careers are flying and on the up, earning well, comfortable and have their degree behind them; they are the hardest to attract to something.”
The personal brand issue is an interesting example of how a player can indulge a passion while still playing rugby; Tommy Bowe’s branded shoe collection with Lloyd & Pryce illustrates this neatly.
Lyons said: “Just because you’re Tommy Bowe the player doesn’t mean that you can’t be Tommy Bowe the entrepreneur. This is something that a lot of players are scared of; they think they have to be Brian O’Driscoll to have a brand.
“It is much easier to concentrate on it while you are still playing rather than trying to do so when you are an ex-player. What we do find difficult, it’s asking a 22-year-old, ‘what are you going to do after you have finished playing rugby?’ Some find it difficult to look beyond the here and now.
“Charity work and community engagement would come into this area a lot. Guys who are not interested in their later career might focus on coaching in the community.
“We have three levels of charity work. They can be a volunteer, an ambassador where they are a face for the charity or a board member. Some of our senior players have gone on the boards of the bigger charities and they learn so much from that experience.”
The high profile ‘Tackle Your Feelings campaign,’ trained the spotlight on mental health issues. “You can imagine going to 40 or 50 guys and talking about mental health is not the easiest thing but it is crucial,” Lyons said.
“We do have a 24-hour helpline that the guys can call on at any time. We have also started identifying local counsellors that we can refer players to should the need arise. Dealing with concussion, injury, not being selected, or being cut from a squad; there are a whole lot of mental health issues that affect the players.
“There is also a doctor-patient confidentiality to everything we discuss with a player across everything.”
Lyons cites of the example of Connacht flanker Jake Heenan who had a horrendous run with injury that pilfered 22 months of his young career. Counselling helped but so did starting an online degree course with the University of Copenhagen and charity work with Dochas don Óige and Ronald McDonald House.
“Once you have the qualifications, the respect and the relationships it doesn’t matter that I am not a rugby player or never experienced the game.
“About being female, I think we can ask questions sometimes men might feel uncomfortable. We might be the first person in their day to ask, ‘how are you?’
“This is ramping up to be a busy time. We have got the names of all the players being released and it is about following up on those. Those meetings can be pretty tough.
We are still working with players who have retired one or two years ago. What we have seen is players who are retired four or five years and embarked on a career are now going ‘this is not for me’.
“We try and encourage them to do career counselling. We are sitting down to do a transition booklet and the message will be, if the next career doesn’t work out don’t be afraid to come back and re-engage with us.
“The biggest growing group will be our past players.”
Lyons knows that there will never be 100 per cent engagement for the players and that while some days can be hugely frustrating, those small wins, a college course completed or a problem shared not only make it worthwhile but so important in the area of player welfare.