Mental health in sport

Last week saw National Mental Health Awareness Day here in Great Britain and it gave me an idea for this article; why do we hear more about mental health difficulties in rugby league compared to other sports, especially in those still playing?

As a Leeds Rhinos fan, I am aware of one especially well known player who has suffered with his mental health and that is Stevie Ward. He recently acknowledged this when, the week before the Grand Final, he dislocated his shoulder. Fearing the worst when medical professionals struggled to get it back into the joint at first, he said that he didn’t feel that he could do another long stint of rehabilitation and recovery and that thoughts of retirement came into his head. Fortunately, he recovered and played a starring role in the Grand Final victory – good news for Stevie, Leeds and rugby league as a whole.

He has been very open about his mental health in the past, often linked to his other injury problems. To bestfitmagazine.co.uk, he stated that “I struggled to cope – I wasn’t able to do what I enjoy most, and I wasn’t in a great place. I suffered. I had a lack of self value, of self esteem, and I wasn’t getting enjoyment from the usual things in life.” To BBC Sport, he said that “you struggle to get out of the house as much as you do when you have a broken leg,” a point of view which many people say but the general public seem to overlook – just because injuries aren’t physical doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

A huge sense of belonging and purpose for people is their profession. For sports players, there is often a large amount of time where they aren’t working as training is often shorter than people’s general working days and off-seasons are lengthy. Kallum Watkins is another Rhinos player who, recently, has been open about his struggles, saying that when he has to return to normal family life in the off-season, his mood drops – not because he doesn’t want to be with his family, but because he has lost his sense of purpose for that period of time. He and his wife acknowledge in Mantality magazine that it isn’t something that necessarily gets cured but that people have to learn to live with.

Mantality magazine was set up by Stevie Ward himself to try to promote awareness of mental health issues in the modern world, especially in young men, and to encourage people to talk. He set it up after his recovery and I would agree that sports people could be at the forefront of mental health awareness.

Other sports people who have opened up about their mental health problems include Dame Kelly Holmes, Ian Thorpe, Stan Collymore, Freddie Flintoff, Victoria Pendleton, Neil Lennon and Marcus Trescothick – all of whom are household names but, mostly, did so after their professional careers had come to an end. Perhaps this is because people fear the reaction they may get from their peers, managers or fans. Maybe the media could have got on their back and affected their performance – people with mental health difficulties often have already low self esteem and the media or fans haranguing them wouldn’t help at all. The rewards for being a professional sportsperson are often huge – why would anybody want to take the risk of opening up about difficulties publicly in an often unpredictable society where mainstream media isn’t the sole source of news or opinion. Social media sees many ‘keyboard warriors’ or bigots voicing their views on many matters without fear of punishment which may well add to people wanting to keep quiet – and it’s impossible to police social media entirely. In rugby league, groups like State of Mind are hugely important for players to feel comfortable coming forward and the well known Sporting Chance clinic which has helped the likes of footballer Tony Adams and rugby league star Leon Pryce is there as well. Both of these are vital and there are, indeed, other organisations who offer the same support.

There is no doubt that society is slowly moving in a more accepting direction and high profile professionals opening up is certainly a good thing, as is Ward’s Mantality magazine, but there is still definitely work to do.

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