Mental health isn’t a simple matter but we’re making strides in rugby and beyond

Irupa’s work with current and ex-players provides an outlet for when times are tough

Former New Zealand great John Kirwan, the current  coach of the Auckland Blues was open regarding his own mental health issues in his book. Photograph: Getty Images.

Former New Zealand great John Kirwan, the current coach of the Auckland Blues was open regarding his own mental health issues in his book. Photograph: Getty Images.


Retirement is a strange thing. Coming to terms with the fact that what you do and love is gone is a tough experience no matter how far ahead you’ve seen it coming. I had it on my radar for about two years before I finished up but I still spent the first year of retirement feeling a bit lost and not really sure what I was doing or where I was going. After 14 or 15 years in the game, that’s only natural.

There’s a void in your life. You have to adapt and change accordingly. You have to find yourself a routine and come to terms with a lack of structure in your life. As a professional rugby player, you come to rely on structure a lot, being told where to go and what to do, when to train and even what to eat. Then you wake up one morning and all those decisions are yours and yours alone. That feeling of being looked after is gone.

It can feel surreal. It definitely felt a bit surreal for me. First and foremost, I missed my team-mates and I missed being part of something that we were all trying to do together. I remember when I heard that the lads were going back into pre-season that summer after I retired, I was hugely jealous. I was pining to be going back with them.

That’s how odd an experience it is – I was jealous of fellas going into pre-season training, which is without doubt the worst part of any season. Talk about it messing with your head!

It comes down to being fearful. People looking in from the outside must be thinking, “Sure, pity about you – what have you got to fear? Didn’t you get well paid to have sport as a job for 15 years?”

But when you’re used to something for so long – in any walk of life – the loss of it has to bring a certain amount of fear. You don’t know what’s next. You don’t know how you’re going to handle it. You don’t know if you’re going to be any good at it.

As the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (Irupa) has become more established over the past decade, this side of things has been a big part of their role. The importance of that transition period is massive, helping guys come to terms with getting back to a normal life. That can come in many forms – helping them meet businesspeople, pointing them towards college courses – but one of the most vital of them is in the field of mental health.

This is obviously an area of interest to me because I’ve had those issues myself and I’ve spoken about them a fair bit. The work that Irupa do for all players – current and past – is hugely valuable.

They have a members’ 24-hour helpline for anyone who wants to speak to a counsellor at any stage. If you’re depressed or down or just in a tough place, that facility is there for you. It can happen to anyone in any job, so there’s obviously no reason it can’t happen to a rugby player.

I don’t worry as much anymore as I used to. I try to look after my mental health much better nowadays. I try to take away the pressure that I sometimes brought upon myself as a professional rugby player and not transfer that same pressure across into normal everyday life. I try to live in the present as much as I can and not panic about what the future holds. That’s important for everyone, no matter what walk of life they’re in.

But I know better than most people that it can be hard to take a step back and see that. Rugby players spend their lives setting goals and meeting them, busting their ass to get that edge over the opposition, focussing down on the next session, the next game, the next contract. You go from a situation as a full-time player where you don’t think you have the time to sit back and think things out to being a retired player with all the time in the world but no experience of knowing how to do it.

Depression is definitely something that rugby has to keep an eye out for. We can’t ignore the stories that keep coming from America about ex-NFL players suffering with depression. Now, there are different factors at play there obviously – NFL players earn a lot more money than rugby players and consequently lose a lot more when things go wrong.

It’s clear that some of the mental health problems in that sport have to do with the financial chaos some players find themselves in after they finish up playing. I read a statistic that said something mad like 78 per cent of NFL players go bankrupt within three years of retirement. I’m not aware of it happening on anything like that scale in rugby.

Concussion problem
But beyond money, the concussion problem is a major one that is common to both sports. There is more and more evidence every year that certain forms of mental illness in later life are connected to the hits to the head that players have taken during their career.

You have seen some of the suicides of ex-NFL players in recent years take the form of players shooting themselves in the chest so that their brain can be preserved for doctors to examine afterwards. Again, this is a world away from what we’re used to in rugby but I think it’s important that we see the warning signs now that the NFL never had the chance to see.

To be honest though, mental health problems generally aren’t those big ones that make the news. They’re small, internal things that get you down in a quiet way that nobody but those closest to you notice.

It’s the longing you feel to be on the pitch in Thomond Park or the Aviva, or at not heading off to Europe with your friends to take on the best teams from England or France. You can’t replace those feelings and you have to learn to deal with the fact that they’re gone and they’re not coming back.

The best way you can do that is to work at your mental health the same way you would work at your physical health. You’ve got to become aware of what way you think, what way you feel. Think about what makes you anxious and what makes you happy and don’t just let it wash over you. It’s that knowledge that you can do some actual thinking and reframing of your mindset that helps you. It makes you realise that you’re not powerless, that you can take control of your feelings.

Rugby is a macho sport where these things have never really been spoken about to any great extent. That’s why the mental health side of Irupa’s work is so important. I was so nervous when I started talking about my mental health as couple of years ago because I didn’t know what way it would be received.

In the end, I was amazed at how many players came up to me and wanted to talk about their own issues. It wasn’t just that they were so sympathetic, it was that so many wanted to say that they felt some of the same things as well. They could relate to what I was saying, which I didn’t expect.

Our view of mental health is changing, not just in rugby but in society as a whole. There is a broad acceptance now that wasn’t there five or 10 years ago. A lot of it comes from natural emotions – people in every walk of life are affected by pressure, anxiety and stress and they’re willing to talk about it more.

Sport can’t exist apart from the rest of life and professional sportspeople have to take care of themselves. Fitness isn’t just being physically fit, it’s being mentally fit. You can give years in the gym to get your body into the shape required for the game but if you don’t look after your mental health, you won’t do yourself justice and be happy.

I didn’t always grasp that. It’s hard to think that way when you’re in the middle of your career. When I read John Kirwan ’s book on his own mental health problems, I recognised a lot in what he was saying. In one part, he explains that it was like an injury upstairs that he had to take care of just like he would an injury to the rest of his body. It sounds so simple when he put it that way.

Mental health isn’t a simple matter but it can be managed and you can work at it. Irupa are expanding their programme for current and ex-players all the time. I think in years to come, this side of their operation will be seen as one of the most important.

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