It is estimated that approximately one in four people will experience some form of mental health condition each year in the UK alone. For these individuals, the stresses and strains of everyday life can often be overwhelming and act as a catalyst that can trigger mental health problems, with the most common being depression and anxiety.
Unaspiringly, it is not exactly breaking news that playing a team sport has been proven to have several benefits on your mental health. There are countless blogs, articles and reports outlining why every sport from football to hockey can positively affect your wellbeing and self-esteem, but why is rugby in particular the ideal tool for tackling mental health?
In my opinion, the culture of the game is what makes rugby one of the most mentally fulfilling and truly special sports played today. I was recently watching an episode of Rugby Pass’ new YouTube series, ‘The Academy’ and there was one comment in particular that got me thinking about the culture of the game and it came from Leicester Tigers club captain, Tom Youngs – “People say that it is only a game but this place is more to me than that and it has been for a long time. It’s helped me through some really tough times.”. To me, any sport that can evoke a feeling of belonging is a true testament to the power that the game has to genuinely change people’s lives for the better.
Moving beyond the physical game itself, the social aspect and team camaraderie stretches far beyond the 80 minutes spent on the pitch. I don’t know about you, but I have never once finished a match, home or away, and not then felt compelled to go into the clubhouse for a post-match meal and beer (or two). There is almost an expectation that, win or lose, the team remains together and spends time with one another, which can often provide a much-needed sense of purpose for those suffering in silence.
So, we’ve discussed the culture of rugby and the game itself. What about its biggest ambassadors, the players? In a game where competitors are often perceived and stereotyped to be ‘alpha males’, the impact that can come from professional players speaking openly and honestly about their mental health can often be more meaningful than anything else. Over the past few years, players such as Joe Marler, Jonny Wilkinson, Kearnan Myall, Dan Mugford and Tom James have all discussed their personal experiences with mental health issues, ranging from depression to OCD. The reason that these conversations are so impactful and important is because it demonstrates that even though you may be seen as an indestructible, muscle-bound professional athlete, looks can be deceiving and anyone, absolutely anyone can be affected by mental health. Without a doubt, younger players idolise professional rugby players in the hope of one day emulating their successes and achievements. This salient fact is why it is so crucial, now more than ever, for players from both the men’s and women’s game to air their mental health journeys. Demonstrating that no one should ever be ashamed to admit they’re struggling or embarrassed to seek help is the key message that rugby can help to deliver on a local, national and international stage.
Even from the top down, the game of rugby is looking for new initiatives to help start the conversation around mental health and encourage people to speak up about any difficulties they’re experiencing. The English RFU have teamed up with one of the leading mental health charities in England and Wales, Mind, to provide information, advice and guidance to anyone involved in rugby who may be dealing with mental health issues.
Together we can #TackleTheStigma around mental health.