Ir­ish women’s rugby star Sene Naoupu writes about the men­tal health chal­lenges sports peo­ple face – and how we all need to em­brace ac­tiv­i­ties that bring us joy.

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As a pro­fes­sional sports per­son, who ded­i­cates ev­ery­thing to my cho­sen sport, I think the is­sue of men­tal health is vi­tally im­por­tant. It con­tin­ues to re­main a sen­si­tive sub­ject in so­ci­ety and I feel it is com­monly ig­nored and often brushed un­der the car­pet. I say the word ‘per­son’ be­cause when you strip it down – rugby play­ers, ath­letes, coaches – we are all hu­man be­ings.

There are so many highs and lows that oc­cur dur­ing a per­son’s ca­reer and life. It is never an en­tirely smooth ride. Per­son­ally, I would like to break the stigma, talk about this topic and ex­press how it has af­fected my life through my own ex­pe­ri­ences.

We can be­come so con­sumed in our­selves and our pro­fes­sional or per­sonal lives that our men­tal health is im­pacted greatly, often with­out us even re­al­is­ing it. It’s funny: when things are go­ing well in our ca­reers (ie. per­for­mances are good, your team is suc­cess­ful or you are re­ceiv­ing ‘good press’ be it in pa­pers, TV shows or on so­cial me­dia), then we can eas­ily jus­tify our sac­ri­fices, and we think we are im­mune to the lows of anx­i­ety, low self-es­teem or de­pres­sion.

This re­lates to our per­sonal lives too. When re­la­tion­ships are go­ing well, when work is suc­cess­ful and pos­i­tive, then it is easy to re­as­sure our­selves and stay happy, as well as keep­ing ev­ery­one around us close.

Flip that: we con­tinue to put in the same ef­fort and make the same sac­ri­fices, and yet some things that are sim­ply out of our con­trol may re­sult in dif­fer­ent out­comes for us as in­di­vid­u­als. You may get an in­jury from a col­li­sion in a game or in train­ing. Long term or short term, how do we men­tally deal with not be­ing able to per­form? Have we got help or sup­port? Or are we ex­pected to deal with it on our own? Very often, we feel iso­lated and use­less, so we may get into a habit of dis­tanc­ing our­selves from ev­ery­one around us. We be­come de-mo­ti­vated and men­tally drained, so we avoid do­ing the things that bring us joy.

Very often peo­ple ex­pect us to deal with it in ex­actly the way that they would, but each per­son is dif­fer­ent and what works for one may not work for some­one else.

I feel in rugby and even in life this is the way it is: you are ex­pected to “just deal with” ev­ery­thing that’s thrown at you. But what hap­pens when the bur­dens be­come too much? When self-es­teem drops very low?

Take the ruth­less­ness of rugby as an ex­am­ple. If an opin­ion of a player’s qual­ity or role in the team has changed, whether it be the man­ager’s opin­ion, other staff or even sup­port­ers, and we be­come ‘out of favour’, how does a player cope with those set­backs and dis­ap­point­ments? Through in­jury or non-se­lec­tion, we spend our time as a spec­ta­tor and there­fore have more time with our own thoughts.

Sports­men and women strive for per­fec­tion; we are pro­grammed like this. We are so hun­gry to do bet­ter, and push our­selves, that we often be­come neg­a­tive men­tally: “I should be this”; “He thinks I’m that”; “I’m get­ting worse”; “I hate this about my­self”; “I’m not good enough”. Some of the things we tell our­selves, or say about our­selves in our own head, can be soulde­stroy­ing. We wouldn’t dream of say­ing the same things to an­other hu­man be­ing, yet we often re­peat them to our­selves.

Many sports peo­ple may think that seek­ing help, or speak­ing to some­one about their men­tal health, is a weak­ness. On the con­trary, it takes great courage to ad­mit you have a prob­lem. Speak­ing to a spe­cial­ist isn’t go­ing to in­stantly fix things: it’s not like wav­ing a magic wand. How­ever, you will de­velop the skills men­tally to tackle these demons that thrive on neg­a­tiv­ity.

These skills in­volve dif­fer­ent ways of speak­ing to your­self – recog­nis­ing the things that give you a feel­ing of self-ful­fil­ment, and do­ing them more often. Thank­fully, there are more ser­vices avail­able now in this coun­try for peo­ple to avail of once they are ready and will­ing to take a big step to­wards seek­ing hap­pi­ness.

For any­one who feels they may need help with their men­tal health, or is strug­gling to con­trol their demons, the only thing I am sure of (and this is on a per­sonal level), is this: I have yet to meet some­one who has sought help and not found a ben­e­fit from it. Some have found it lifechang­ing, some have used the help to get out of a rut, and oth­ers sim­ply learned how to see the pos­i­tives more clearly in them­selves and to iden­tify the things that bring joy to their lives.


This sport­ing life: Sene Naoupu

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