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A Cautionary Tale Of How Not To Handle Rejection In Sport

As a young man I dreamt of Captaining England at Twickers, lifting the Web Ellis Cup and touching down a worldy try against New Zealand for the Lions.

From the first time I was introduced to a rugby ball in PE at secondary school,  I was lavished with praise by my peers and by my teachers and coaches, it was the only time this really happened for me and I liked it!

Rugby soon consumed me and became the only thing that really mattered. I played for my local rugby club, my school team and then the county and at every level I was made to feel like a special talent, so when I was picked to go for trials at an established club, I thought it was just the next natural step in my ascent to the top of the game.

Nobody I knew was more determined, more obsessed or frankly as good as me in my position so I felt sure that I’d be taken on and I would soon have the career I’d always wanted as a rugby player.

The trials went well, I made it through the early rounds and was invited back to train with a large squad of boys from all around the North West, we played a few games and despite the obvious step up in level I felt I had done well so when I got called into the Coach’s office I was totally unprepared for what happened next.

The Coach thanked me for my efforts but said that I had not made the final cut and that I had to leave the squad immediately. It was the first time that I had experienced rejection and failure and it affected me deeply, much deeper than I realised at the time.

I can only liken it to the pain of losing a very close family member with a healthy dollop of shame for good measure and I had no idea how to handle the rejection. So, after a couple of weeks of mental torture hidden away in my bedroom, I did the only thing I could think of to protect myself from the pain and I dropped rugby like a bad habit.  I literally never picked up a rugby ball again for 19 years by which time I was 35 years old and well past my best.

Eventually, I moved to a new town with work and wanted to make some local friends so I went to watch my local amateur rugby team.  I got to know a few people and admitted that I had played as a kid and as often happens I was soon cajoled into making a very late comeback.

In a very short space of time of after re-joining the rugby playing fraternity I immediately regretted my decision to drop rugby all-together, I was a shadow of the player I remembered but i had not realised how much I had missed playing. I was playing with similar aged players who had enjoyed so many positive experiences throughout their prime playing years, telling exaggerated war stories and hysterically amusing tales in the bar afterwards so it was nothing less than a travesty and my biggest sporting regret to this day.

Who knows what I could have done in the sport, I was just 16 years old and full of talent, who knows what experiences I’d have had if I’d just had somebody to talk to!  At 16 you are just a boy, this was my first dose of the realities of life and what I really needed was counselling, instead I just ran from the pain as you’d expect most young boys to do.

I’m now a coach of an amateur side at my local club and I see this behaviour in boys/men of all ages, the pain of rejection is difficult to handle full stop. Players being dropped to the 3d team after a few 2nd team experiences feel it and we lose vulnerable players all the time who feel ashamed, rejected and embarrassed.

If we’re not going to lose those players we as coaches need to get better at counselling them through this difficult but unavoidable fact of picking teams. It’s a well known trait that human beings will do more to avoid fear, pain and rejection than what makes them happy when faced with the two options, we therefore need to get better at recognising this and combating it, otherwise we will lose more players to the sport and sentence more people like me to a lifetime of regret.

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