The extraordinary mental torment of Matt Smith: 'I'd always have thoughts of chucking myself... it got really bad at times'
A little under a year ago, Glasgow flanker Matt Smith found himself standing in the shower, skin numb to the jets cascading down his torso and a belt wrapped tightly around his neck. The now-retired forward was spent. He’d had enough of the misery that rugby seemed to heap upon him at a merciless rate – the non-selection, the empty promises and the long, back-breaking days battling injury.
He was done locking himself away at home, hiding his torment from the world. He felt embarrassed by a profound and prolonged bout of depression, and that seeking help was an admission of weakness in a sport where you could never give an inch. He felt like a failure.
Only 22 years old at the time, Smith saw his fledgling career begin to wilt. If he didn’t have rugby, what was there left to live for? “I’d always have thoughts of chucking myself,” he told RugbyPass. “It got really bad at times and I knew I couldn’t do it because of what it would put my family through.
“I felt like there was no existence for me beyond rugby, and if I couldn’t do rugby then what was the point in me being here. It just really ate me up. I constantly thought about it.
“It got to the stage where my partner at the time was terrified of coming home in case I’d done anything. It was really quite bad. I broke down crying near enough every day. I booked to see the doctor but I couldn’t bring myself to go – I just couldn’t do it. I really should have sought advice but I was just too terrified of speaking about it.”
There was more than one occasion where Glasgow back row Smith caught himself in the shower, grappling with a belt and frenzied emotions. How had life detonated so spectacularly?
As a gnarly, dynamic openside, he had long been earmarked for greatness, ever since thundering to prominence in a terrific Scotland U20 team. The hope was that Smith could star not just in the swashbuckling Glasgow sides, but had the skills to become a top international. He never realised – or perhaps was never allowed to realise – the scope of his talents.
Smith forever pinned his hopes on vague pledges that opportunities were imminent, then felt his world implode every week when his name wasn’t on the Glasgow team sheet. He got injured and injured again, fuelling a perception that he was “made of chocolate”. The most recent war wound, a damaged shoulder in January last year, curtailed his season.
Dave Rennie did not use Smith at Glasgow at all this term and so he was sent on loan to Edinburgh six months ago. The move was supposed to provide him with competitive minutes, but he made not a single appearance before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Ultimately, amid the turmoil and darkness, he realised he couldn’t go on. At just 23, he decided to walk away from rugby for good. His 25 professional outings are a meagre reflection of his ability. “Everything I ever did that I thought was alright, I would have meetings with coaches and they’d say it’s not good enough,” said Smith. “It just made me feel like I was constantly not good enough.
“That was another battle I had – feeling like I didn’t deserve to be there, feeling like I was wasting my time. Then injuries come and it’s just a conveyor belt system – you’re out the door, forgotten about. They say they’re going to give you the chance, but I waited for the chance and I never got it.
“I would sit down with Dave Rennie quite a lot but he would always say my time’s coming, my time’s coming. It never came. Young players just need game time and I didn’t get game time. What really p***** me off was moving to Edinburgh because I was told I would play and that was why they were moving me. I get there and Cockers [Richard Cockerill] just feeds me full of the same stuff.
“I just feel frustrated and annoyed because that was my final step to see if I would continue to like rugby and I ended up hating it again. I reckon if I’d gone somewhere else, it might have got my love and enjoyment for the game back, but it just spiralled out of control when I went there.”
— Matt Smith (@mattsmith230) June 24, 2020
Mired in the gloom, Smith became a master of disguise at Glasgow. Every morning before driving to Scotstoun, he would don his outfit – a beaming grin and a gregarious streak – to mask the true inner melancholy. This deceit is a common trait among people in the throes of depression.
Scottish Rugby has made laudable strides in addressing the mental health of its players, particularly through former All Black Ben Atiga, who leads the Rugby For Life programme. But there is no question that it can do more.
Jason O’Halloran, the recently departed Glasgow attack coach, bemoaned the lack of attention given to sports psychology in Scotland for years. Former Warriors centre Graeme Morrison shared similarly upsetting experiences to Smith and spoke of how little aftercare was afforded to retired players.
“Like everyone in the environment, you just feel like a macho man and you can’t show any emotion,” Smith added. “I’d always be one of the smiliest people around, but I used that to hide what was really going on. It’s all about being the best and if you have that slight weakness, then you are obviously not the best.
“I feel like my whole career, everyone was too scared of going to seek advice. At Glasgow, they told guys to come and speak to this mental coach, but he had to come into the building and you’d sit down in an office where all the coaches are, so they all know you’re speaking to him. If you were told to go away from Scotstoun, out of the environment, and you didn’t need to tell anyone, the coaches didn’t need to know anything, then a lot more players would do it and it would help a lot more boys.
“Every person should have to go and do it, even if they think it is stupid. And I’d say after every injury, they should straight away go and seek help. Injuries were the biggest thing that broke me. If you are put in that environment, you know it’s okay. Instead of being like myself, I was terrified to do it and I shied away from it a lot of times. Maybe if I’d had that experience of being comfortable speaking to someone, it might have helped.”
Smith’s tale is undoubtedly shocking and extremely powerful. At various points, he described his time rugby as “hell”, “crap”, “embarrassing” and plenty more colourful language.
And yet, those of us who watch from the stands or clatter at keyboards tend to gaze upon athletes with envy. We marvel at their gilded lives of pure sport and intoxicating fame. We gawp at their physiques and tut at their salaries. There is still a perception that if you are a professional player, you occupy a land of milk and honey.
“You only feel good when you’re on the pitch,” Smith continued. “In a 20-minute spell off the bench I would feel alive – the rest of it was just really not enjoyable. Everyone says it’s the dream job, but there is nothing worse than going into training knowing you’re not going to play, you’re just going to hold a bag for someone, be everyone’s bitch. You’re just there to make up the numbers, that’s all you are.
“Everyone has got this drive to be the best and you can’t and you’re not. No-one I know understands my story. Everyone thinks I’m just this idiot – why would you do that [retire at 23]? Everyone thinks it’s this dream job. I’ve had quite a few people say that to me. It will be good for people to know the struggle I went through.”
A great tragedy here is that any athlete – indeed any person – should feel ashamed of needing help. In Smith’s case, salvation arrived first from his sister Hannah, four years his elder and a Scotland women’s international. It was to her that Smith picked up the phone as it began to dawn on him that he had to leave rugby behind.
Smith then came across Neil Watson several months ago, who offered an apprenticeship at his steel fabricating plant near Glasgow. Plans are afoot to take night classes in mechanical engineering, bolstering the qualifications he already has in the field. “It got to the stage where a cog turned in my head and I was just like, what am I doing? Why am I letting this affect my life so much?
“I was looking for a way out and I was put in touch with Neil through one of my mate’s dads. He is always keen to help people out and chatting to the boys at his rugby club. He invited me to look around his factory and because I had all the qualifications, he said if you’d like a job then you can have one. That was really my blessing, in this difficult time when everyone is losing jobs and being made redundant, I was really fortunate to meet Neil and have him take me on.”
For all that rugby pushed him to the brink, it gave Smith friendships and memories that he will cherish forever. He doesn’t hate the game. He still plans to visit Scotstoun on matchdays to watch his pals in action and then share a beer with them afterwards free from stress.
— Matt Smith (@mattsmith230) April 30, 2020
The ordeal remains startlingly recent – barely ten months have passed since the showers and the belt – but escaping from rugby felt like leeching poison from a wound. The joy radiates from him now, a smile as broad as the Clyde emerges when he talks about the fulfilment and security of his new career and the sheer relief of removing himself from a toxic world.
“Getting out of that environment has done me the world of good,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve managed to get through it without doing anything stupid. I’m finally in a really good place again. I have sorted a job, I know what I need to do and what I’m going to do and it just feels amazing. I couldn’t be happier.”
Smith had the courage and capability to find this glee. In Scotland and at large, rugby must do more to prevent talent such as his falling into shadow.
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