'Big problem in South African rugby'
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: For professional rugby players, the constant pressure and strains of having to be the best can have dire consequences.
Week in and week out coaches, administrators and supporters are obsessed with the player’s physical condition while his psychological and emotional well-being takes a back seat.
The notion not to place attention on the mental state of an athlete fuels the tendency not to talk about it and adds to the stigma surrounding the issue.
Last year, Wasps forwards Kearnan Myall openly talked about his mental health issues which set off alarm bells in England. In an interview with the Guardian, Myall revealed he was suicidal and was unable to seek help for the fear of the various repercussions.
Myall’s ordeal is certainly not unique.
Globally athletes’ rigorous schedules can lead to unstable mental health, but how the different countries perceive the issue is somewhat different.
In a year-long research project by the South African organisation MyPlayers, it came to light that that mental health issue is a “big problem in South African rugby,”
According to the My Players‘ findings, four in 10 South African professional rugby players have indicated that they suffer from one or more symptoms of common mental disorders.
While one in 10 of professional rugby players surveyed is not sure about the status of their mental well-being, one-third indicated that they suffer from sleeping disturbance, while five percent admitted to being addicted to sleep medication (this pattern seems to linger after retirement).
Most players deal with the mental health disorder in silence with the fear of being regarded as weak, emotional and even being dropped from the team. For players in South Africa, common mental disorders “has to be made less taboo before players will open up about it.”
One BlitzBok stated: “In South Africa, men apparently don’t have problems. It ’s crazy. We might have problems, but we don’t say a word about it. Perhaps behind closed doors with a bottle of brandy.”
The notion of “cowboys don’t cry” has been ingrained in the psyche when it comes to mental health issues.
In very few cases, players felt comfortable talking to their coaches about vulnerabilities, anxiety, and their reasons for performing sub-optimally. A senior international player recalled: “Anything affecting your performance was
wrong, and it got pushed back into your face. That ’s why guys are scared to say something.”
While for players, who played abroad, the South African rugby environment lags behind some other nations in this regard. Consequently, some players feel that mental health support is not prioritised locally.”
The survey revealed that injuries, retirement and performances are three main triggers that impact a player’s mental state.
When it comes to injury, the long rehabilitation processes make players anxious, and some feel that injured players should have access to guidance, mentorship or professional help with the mental aspects of injury rehab.
Life after rugby is another feature which gives player anxiety and sleepless nights. According to My players ‘ survey, all players said not enough is being done in South Africa to mentally prepare players for a life after rugby.
The seasoned players revealed that depression often follows after retirement and the first two years after retirement is extremely difficult.
The burden of having to perform on a weekly basis is another feature that leads to anxiety. A senior Super Rugby player mentioned that Mondays are the toughest day at the office, win or lose.
“It ’s brutal, especially after you’ve lost. You worry about letting your coach and the public down. Your selection becomes an issue. You’ve got a review coming up. It all happens in a week, and you don’t know when it will happen, or how it will happen.
“The uncertainty creates a lot of anxiety, and it has to be dealt with.”
While talking about their psychological well-being remains uncomfortable in this very macho sphere, in South Africa there are campaigns to alleviate the stigma.
In 2017 MyPlayers created a mental health helpline, which is managed by the Institute of Psychology and Well Being (IPW), a department of the North-West University in Potchefstroom.
Varsity Cup also launched the campaign called ‘Speak up’. The initiative raises awareness of depression as a biological illness and also raises funds for research on depression with the help of Varsity Sports.
Compiled by Leezil Hendricks
*Additional Source: MyPlayers & The Guardian
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Please note: My Players made use of in-person interviews and online questionnaires to gather information. All data were recorded or captured anonymously to protect player privacy and to encourage truthful responses. Only senior franchise players, Springboks and Blitzboks were interviewed, while an online survey was sent to all professional rugby players in South Africa.