In professional rugby, there is not only significant stigma surrounding mental health but also the elite athletic environment can be a cause of mental challenges as well. The stigma perpetuates a perception that mental health challenges are a sign of weakness while the minimal conversation of it in the sport has long-term impact.
Many rugby players have come forward to express their personal experiences, among them – Joe Marler, Alan Quinlan, Jonny Wilkinson, and James Haskell. Through awareness of these athletes’ experiences, there is knowledge that is gained regarding the continued importance of good mental health in rugby and facilitating conversations to eliminate the stigma.
Joe Marler, a loosehead prop for the Harlequins in the Premiership did a documentary with sky sports regarding his mental health challenges. In the documentary ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’, Marler specifically discussed the stigma surrounding mental health, saying, “rugby’s a very macho sport. You puff your chest out, you get in people’s faces… if I was to turn around and talk openly about being mentally weak and struggling with depression, I would worry that that would be seen as a weakness and not being able to do my job for my teammates or the club that i’m playing for.”
Although Joe expressed that the cause of his mental health struggles began at a young age, he explained that this depression stirred up during a time when he had everything he wanted. While he had a “beautiful wife, beautiful kids, a house, a job” and was a professional rugby player “living out a dream”, he felt this depression sink in.
“I think there’s a lot of it going on but a lot of people not saying anything about it.” – Will Stadler, Joe Marler’s coach at the Eastbourne Rugby Club
Situations in rugby and the professional sport atmosphere have been known to cause mental health challenges. “Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety” (Athletes For Hope). This can be seen through Alan Quinlan, Jonny Wilkinson, and James Haskell who experienced mental health challenges caused from their participation in professional rugby.
Alan Quinlan was an Irish rugby union player who played for Munster. A few years prior to his retirement in 2011, he experienced deep depression following an eye-gouge in the Munster versus Leinster match which caused his 12 week suspension and missing of the 2009 Lions tour. In his autobiography ‘Red Blooded’, Quinlan wrote “the act was brief but the consequences were almost a life sentence for me”. During this time, the press coverage was endless and he knew his reputation was changed forever.
Jonny Wilkinson, who is also retired, played as a fly-half for Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, and represented England both on the international team and in the British and Irish Lions tour. While he is known as being instrumental in England’s 2003 World Cup victory, he has since admitted mental health challenges he faced during the height of his career. Wilkinson increasingly felt performance anxiety, saying “when I was younger it was 50-50, half of me was loving the game, half was worrying about what would happen if it went wrong. And as I got older that ratio became 70-30, then 85-15, and it left so little space for joy.” He explained that the measure of success became what he could do physically in the sport so felt this increased pressure.
“I feel I’ve gone through three phases in my life. The first was trying to be the best ever rugby player on a journey full of stress and pressure. The second was trying to be the best I could be, but only by comparison with others and sometimes only feeling better when others lost and suffered misfortune.The third is now and is about letting go of everything – from assumptions to judgements – and exploring all I can be.” – Jonny Wilkinson
James Haskell played for Wasps RFC, Northampton Saints, and internationally for England but retired from professional rugby in 2019. Haskell participated in the Rugby Players Association’s #Lifttheweight campaign in 2017, which discussed mental health in sport. In an interview that he did for this campaign, he expressed an uneasiness he felt when he was 19 years old and playing for Wasps. Specifically during this time, he didn’t have great confidence and wondered if he was “worthy” enough to be there. However, he began to speak to a sports psychologist and stayed consistent with this practice through the entirety of his career.
Good mental health is imperative for performance in sport. Although physical health might seem to be the highest priority, both mental and physical health go hand in hand to promote the highest athletic performance. The Professional Players’ Federation (PPF) in the UK did a survey of retired players and revealed that 62 per cent experienced some sort of mental health issue (Lift the Weight, Peter Robinson). Moving forwards, hopefully the stigma regarding athletes’ mental health will decrease and there will be more awareness surrounding this issue.
Frontier aims to use this men’s health awareness month to spotlight the reality of mental health in both sport in general, but more specifically – rugby. We want all athletes to be comfortable to open up and certainly within Frontier, we encourage a culture of openness. Amidst the noise and buzz of a November international window, it’s important for everyone involved with players and player welfare to take this month as an opportunity to check in and encourage an open dialogue on men’s general AND mental health.