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'We need to start prioritising players mental well-being'

By Rachael Burford
Chelsea Alley of New Zealand looks dejected after their side concedes a fifth try during the Autumn International match between England Red Roses and New Zealand at Sandy Park on October 31, 2021 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images )

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One of the areas we don’t tap into within women’s rugby, in my experience, is sport psychology. If a player has strong mental resilience, it can only serve to increase their on-pitch performance.

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Often clubs do have strategies in place, but as far as I can see there is no overarching league wide strategy which seeks to improve and maintain a player’s mental wellbeing.

We have to consider that at the elite level of this sport, especially in the Allianz Premier 15s at the moment, players are attempting to succeed in so many different areas of their life. Often without the right help things like burn out, depression and anxiety are inevitable.

Some of the rugby greats have attributed strong mental skills to their on-pitch success, the All-Blacks team for example regard mental skills as a basic necessity within their training sessions. The mental health side of things is taken just as seriously as players physical health, which is something we should be taking note of.

I distinctively remember working with sports psychologist Clare Sadler throughout my time playing sevens. I’ll never forget the impact, after just one individual session, that she had on me. I think every single player in the team broke down after just one conversation, it provoked some powerful feelings and made us see each other in a whole new light.

It’s not just at a domestic level that we could see these changes benefiting players. If we look at where the Red Roses are at now, having just come off a serious high beating the world champions, I do wonder what the next level will hold for the team, and how they can get there. I would be curious to know what difference a dedicated mental skills coach would have for the team, and if it could go some way to unlocking a new performance level for the team as a whole.

As an elite level sports woman, it is difficult to know who to turn to. I wouldn’t want to go directly to my coach, for fear of not being selected, but I also wouldn’t feel comfortable confiding in teammates either. Unfortunately, it’s often those closest to us outside of rugby circles who bare the brunt of our emotions and are responsible for recognising we need some extra support.

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Wouldn’t it be great to have this help and support already readily available to players? Rugby is a career, and there are certain things that come with the job that need to be given attention. The pressure can sometimes become unbearable and it’s not uncommon for players to cease playing due to a lack of wellbeing support.

In my eyes, I want to see mental strengthening as a core and purposeful part of the programme, it should be taken just as seriously as strength and conditioning training. We work so hard as players to build on our physical strength, each exercise is meticulously planned to ensure we give an optimum performance, why are we not doing the same for our minds?

Ultimately, I want to see procedures and steps put in place now, to prevent us having to pick up ill mental health when it is in crisis point. This starts with acknowledging the issues, and the potential solutions to this.

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In the rugby community we have seen companies like Loose Headz and Brave Mind do great work with education and understanding around mental health, but this is just the first step. We now need to move into a period where we have an overarching system in place.

There should, as the minimum standard, be some form of collective standard to which clubs have to adhere to. We should be working collaboratively within the rugby community to put strategies in place to prevent players developing mental health issues in the first place. This isn’t just about mental health, but more about a player’s overall wellbeing.

Also, we need to be shifting the responsibility away from players themselves, and onto the system they are in. That’s not to say players don’t have partial responsibility for seeking help when they need it, but how can they do this when at present there is no clear steps in place to allow this to happen?

Mental health as a phrase often gets a bad reputation, it’s a word that still to this day carries a large amount of stigma with it, and that often creates barriers to having difficult conversations. You can have the best facilities, the best training plan and access to top level coaches, but if you don’t fix what’s going on in your head, you’ll never be able to be as good a player as you possibly could be. We need to start re-framing mental wellbeing as an essential element in training, no matter what level you are playing at, grassroots or elite.

Within rugby, you are conditioned to be confident and strong at all times, on and off pitch. But we need to be realistic here in our expectations, this can only happen when players are given access to the right support which they need to excel in all areas of their career.

This piece is not intended to be a dig at anyone or any organisation. Instead, I want it to serve as a conversation starter in the area, to provoke discussions around how much emphasis we are putting on prioritising players mental well-being at the moment.

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