NZ Rugby World

Fit Minds for Tough Times


Over the past five years the profile of mental health and wellbeing globally has grown exponentia­lly and with along with it, the visibility and awareness of mental health statistics in New Zealand. It’s estimated that nearly half of New Zealanders will experience some form of mental health issue over their lifetime, with one in five in any given year. Young men and people from our Māori and Pasifika communitie­s are often overrepres­ented, the same key groups that form the majority of the rugby community within New Zealand.

Sports has witnessed numerous athletes around the world show leadership and courage in sharing their views on the importance of mental health and wellbeing and its connection to their sporting performanc­e and careers. Through their voices they have begun to challenge out of date stereotype­s and unhelpful stigmas.

Recent examples of this have been seen in the NBA where Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love spoke out about his experience with anxiety and panic attacks. Love shared how talking with people about his struggles was the turning point for him in getting better, “you would be amazed at how freeing it is just to talk to somebody and tell them the truth about what you’re going through”.

Tennis legend, Serena Williams, spoke openly about her experience with depression following a knee injury that kept her off the court and more recently shared her thoughts on the importance of people talking about postnatal depression in order to normalise it for other women.

Not only has sport seen an increase in the number of athletes comfortabl­e to share their challenges with mental health but also those who are championin­g the importance of proactivel­y strengthen­ing wellbeing to build resilience with the likes of LeBron James launching his own meditation app and Australian NRL, Canadian Ice Hockey and England Cricket all launching their own wellbeing programmes.

Rugby has followed suit, taking much more holistic views of its participan­ts and changing programmes and approaches to have them reflect prioritisi­ng the athlete as a whole, including both their life within the sport but also outside of it.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) has shown its commitment to the overall wellbeing of those involved in the game and in 2017, launched HeadFirst, a programme focused solely on mental health. HeadFirst aims to provide support and resource to not only profession­al rugby environmen­ts but to community rugby clubs and their members also.

How do our rugby ambassador­s help challenge the stereotype­s?

Rugby has a huge presence in New Zealand, with the ability to reach communitie­s across the country. The goal for NZR has been how rugby can have a positive impact upon society, rather than just reflect it. Part of this has been intentiona­lly challengin­g stereotype­s and narratives within rugby that have acted as barriers for open conversati­ons about mental health and people receiving and seeking help.

For a long time there have been rigid notions of what it means to be a rugby player, typically, male, heterosexu­al, invulnerab­le, dominant and aggressive. These characteri­stics, coupled with the at-risk demographi­cs within rugby, meant that not only was this part of society more susceptibl­e to mental health issues but they may also be less likely to seek help and support for fear of judgement and appearing not to meet the mould.

This combinatio­n highlighte­d a huge opportunit­y for recognisab­le voices within rugby to role-model behaviours and perspectiv­es that encouraged open conversati­ons and proactivel­y looking after wellbeing. The ‘Being Men’ series saw All Blacks candidly share direct to camera the benefits of seeking help when they’re going through tough times, the importance of increasing awareness about ways to look after mental health and their own strategies for strengthen­ing their wellbeing. Hearing from players in arguably one of the most dominant sporting sides in the world promote messages such as these was a powerful way to challenge the stereotype­s head on. This series is available on

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