Fall-back op­tions are needed to give stressed play­ers peace of mind

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - SIR IAN MCGEECHAN

Sadly, statis­tics pub­lished this week re­veal­ing the ex­tent to which play­ers are suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety or other men­tal health is­sues, ei­ther dur­ing or af­ter their play­ing ca­reers have fin­ished, do not sur­prise me in the least. This is the nat­u­ral con­se­quence of play­ing in a highly pres­surised, pro­fes­sional sport where you are only ever one in­jury away from see­ing your dream (and all that money) snatched away from you.

In many re­spects, while we earned noth­ing, even lost money, I con­sider my­self for­tu­nate to have played in an am­a­teur era when we had to hold down jobs at the same time as play­ing.

Even then it af­fected us. I re­mem­ber when Scot­land won the Grand Slam in 1990, the head­mas­ter at my school told me I was spend­ing too much time on rugby. He gave me an ul­ti­ma­tum: teach or coach. I quit my job, but it was a wor­ry­ing time. My wife Judy was do­ing a full-time univer­sity course and I was out of work. For­tu­nately, The Scots­man news­pa­per got to hear of it and within a week I had nine job of­fers.

Look­ing back, I would say I was lucky in my ca­reer to have such an un­der­stand­ing wife, some­one who was pre­pared to fol­low me around and take care of the chil­dren. In hind­sight, I asked far too much of her. She would have been well within her rights to de­mand more in­put from me.

This was a time when the com­mit­ment to play­ing/coach­ing in­ter­na­tional rugby was de­mand­ing too much. There was lit­tle sup­port or sym­pa­thy from unions – in my case the Scot­tish Rugby Union – re­gard­ing the time we were putting in. It took the threat of Kerry Packer af­ter the World Cup of 1995 to change that mind­set.

Many part­ners strug­gle to cope in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, with their hus­bands away for long pe­ri­ods and so fo­cused on rugby. Fam­ily has to come first. Joe Mar­ler de­serves huge re­spect for hav­ing the guts to give up his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer, 12 months out from a World Cup, and for talk­ing so openly about the stress it was caus­ing him and his fam­ily.

It is in­creas­ingly tough on to­day’s play­ers. The more you earn, the more you have to lose. But while the num­bers might sug­gest de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety is grow­ing, I would haz­ard a guess that it has been like this for a while. It is just that it has not been talked about openly. The dress­ing room – par­tic­u­larly in rugby – is a unique place; a testos­terone-charged en­vi­ron­ment. Ban­ter reigns. Play­ers do not want to show weak­ness. I re­mem­ber one player who ad­mit­ted to me af­ter he fin­ished play­ing that he had not been able to sleep to­wards the end of his ca­reer; that he had been ner­vous, stressed out. You would never have guessed. He was al­ways jovial and up­beat, a real char­ac­ter. But that bravado was a shield. For­tu­nately, we had a good club doctor who was able to step in and help.

I have al­ways felt strongly that play­ers need to have a life out­side rugby. They need an ed­u­ca­tion. And they need to know that if the worst hap­pens, if they can no longer play rugby, they have some­thing to fall back on. I think it is the teacher in me.

At Northamp­ton, af­ter the game turned pro­fes­sional in the midNineties, we were one of the first to set up an academy which en­sured play­ers de­vel­oped other skills – plumb­ing, brick­lay­ing, phi­los­o­phy – what­ever they were in­ter­ested in. Nowa­days, or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Rugby Play­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion and Premier­ship Rugby are far more proac­tive in com­bat­ing men­tal health is­sues. The Player Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme re­quires acad­e­mies to work in con­junc­tion with schools, to ed­u­cate about strength and con­di­tion­ing, about health and safety, about life­style man­age­ment/bal­ance, and so on.

But we must do more. That point when play­ers leave school and em­bark on their pro­fes­sional ca­reers, at 18-20, is still a bit of a blind spot. Sud­denly, play­ers are fully fo­cused on rugby; on the gym; on try­ing to move up a very com­pet­i­tive lad­der. More and more this age group finds the pro­fes­sional con­tract not ma­te­ri­al­is­ing.

It has be­come es­sen­tial pro­fes­sional club acad­e­mies have a strong and di­rect link to a univer­sity. This al­lows par­al­lel pro­grammes to be fol­lowed and the dream kept alive with a safety net. I am proud of de­vel­op­ing this with Leeds Beck­ett Univer­sity.

It is im­por­tant to keep per­spec­tive. In­jury rates are in­creas­ing and play­ers need to have a safety net, for peace of mind as much as any­thing. I al­ways knew I could go back to teach­ing if it all went wrong. Most play­ers now do not have that fall­back op­tion.

Com­mu­nity pro­grammes, work ex­pe­ri­ence with lo­cal busi­nesses and club spon­sors, coach­ing age-grade rugby … all these things can of­fer that out­let, a sense of per­spec­tive.

They are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when play­ers are in­jured, which is of­ten a time of height­ened stress and bore­dom. We all have a duty of care to make sure play­ers do not get to 32 and say, “I’m 32, I’m re­tir­ing soon. What am I go­ing to do?” In­stead they should be say­ing “I’m 22, I’m des­per­ate to play for my coun­try. But I’m also plan­ning for the fu­ture, just in case”. Clubs must en­cour­age them to think this way, rather than al­low­ing them to put up the blink­ers.

Thank­fully, aware­ness of this is­sue is in­creas­ing, largely thanks to the tes­ti­mony of some brave play­ers who have come for­ward with their ex­pe­ri­ences. But we need to recog­nise how such is­sues can af­fect play­ers, and just as im­por­tantly, when they are likely to be sus­cep­ti­ble. Then we need to have solid plans in place.

Only then can we say we are build­ing from a re­ally strong base in terms of player wel­fare.

Pres­sure: How The Tele­graph re­ported on the prob­lems faced by play­ers

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