Rugby. I love the game and it’s Six Nations tournament time, which has already had some brilliant games and moments in it. I loved my time coaching the minis and juniors at my local club a few years back. Now before you stop reading this isn’t a blog about the game but possibly how some of the key principles of rugby can be applied to managing depression or indeed mental wellbeing overall.
It’s worth reflecting that I don’t really recall much of the 2017 6 Nations. I had none of the excitement that usually builds up in January. Looking back in my journal I noted that for the first England game I just sat and numbly watched it. I usually jump around or call out at things that happen during the game, but not last year. I wrote at the time that this was one of those moments I realised how much depression had taken from me. This year I noted the build up and have been much more engaged with the games (am yet to scare the dog out of the room yet though)
Before some hints and tips based off the game, I will highlight The Rugby Players Association campaign called Lift the Weight, encouraging players to talk about their mental health. The campaign includes many ex and current players, including my hero Jonny Wilkinson. Now Jonny is my overall rugby hero for many reasons, not just because of his many achievements , but because I recognise in myself some of the things he has struggled with – self-criticism and perfectionism. In an interview with the Blurt Foundation Jonny described when he realised that he had depression:
‘I think it was when I started giving up and stopped caring and when I had no answers and couldn’t function”
That sums up depression. Nothing there, no care, no energy, no motivation. Nothing.
The depression page of the Lift the Weight site features scrum half Jono Kitto (formerly of Leicester Tigers, now Harlequins) and prop Duncan Bell (retired Bath and England) talking about depression and stigma. It’s well worth looking at.
Another England rugby hero of mine is Brian Moore. In the book Beware of the Dog, he explains how many times a critical voice, called Gollum after the Lord of the Rings character , would taunt and question him. In one telling paragraph Brian explains why he wasn’t present in photographs capturing the celebrating England team after they achieved the Grand Slam in the then Five Nations 1991 tournament. He stayed in a dressing room with questions raging around how lucky he was to be in the team and that he was no good. Can you imagine that? All the training, all the preparation, the effort and pain in the games and at a moment of celebration your thoughts attack you. I understand that thinking process.
Lastly I’ll mention the rugby referee Nigel Owens. Nigel has spoken about his depression and eating disorder challenges over the last couple of years. He campaigns to address stigma on mental ill health and on LGBT issues. Nigel shared his very moving and inspiring story on a Desert Island Discs appearance that is really worth listening to. (As is Brian Moore’s appearance too, including talking about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.)
Depression doesn’t care whether you are whether a top class rugby player or not.It doesn’t mind if you are famous or not. It doesn’t care. And it doesn’t want you too either.
So how could rugby principles help ?
- Go forwards: one of the main principles is to always be moving forwards. Depression doesn’t want you to, it much prefers looking backwards. Or if it does look forward, all it allows you to see is a great big back row of anxiety and worry about to tackle you. Small steps forward are still forward. Keep moving if you can.
- If in doubt go to ground: depression can make us very unsure of ourselves, can overwhelm and at times it is hard to move forwards. When that happens, stop and take your time. If that means a duvet day to manage, then do it. When depression has tackled you fully, protect yourself and turn around towards support.
- Support & teamwork: when you go to ground, you look for the support of your team, to come and help you. Reach out to friends, family, medical professional or support lines (Samaritans , Mind). Talk about it, don’t keep it to yourself. Let others help you to offload. They can also help you to move forwards.
- Find space: rugby is a game about making and using space. Often with depression we need space. In our head and around us. Breathing exercises, meditation, focussing on a creative activity, exercise, being outside in nature are all ways that may help in helping create space. Sometimes we need some time alone to rest up.
- Take the hit: sometimes you know there is a big tackle coming your way. You can’t sidestep it and to keep moving forwards you have to deal with it. Do so with compassion towards yourself. This doesn’t mean just being kind, but rather being courageous and accepting that it’s going to hurt. That the pain is part of moving forward and that you can do it, without being critical or judgemental of yourself.
- Respect: rugby has an underlying ethic of respect. Towards your team, your opposition, the officials and the game itself. So while the match is on the players will tackle hard and do their best to win, at the end of the match they shake hands and applaud each other. Depression doesn’t want you to respect yourself. It will tackle you, run over you and never, ever shake your hand. Respect yourself, look after yourself through good self-care routines and celebrate being you.
Did I miss any suggestions? Or is there another sport that could provide some helpful hints and tips? Love to hear of any you can think of, leave a comment on the blog or on social media.