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