Rugby and Men’s Mental Health – Conservative Article
Rugby is a very brutal sport often played by men who you could describe as archetypal examples of masculinity. Usually standing at over 6 feet tall with broad shoulders, strong arms, and bushy beards. Due to this, male rugby players are usually perceived as anything but in touch with their mental health.
After reading the autobiographies of former England internationals this does not seem to be the case. I read the autobiographies of Dylan Hartley, James Haskell, and Joe Marler, and England head coach Eddie Jones. Besides rugby, there was one theme that all of them kept referring to in their books: feelings.
It is evident that you can be a resilient and tough individual, whilst also being able to express your feelings.
Something that these men (and rugby players in general) regularly fail to show is their ability to speak eloquently. In their respective books, each of the four men expressed how they felt during their careers, both at peaks and troughs. Dylan Hartley’s book The Hurt begins when he was dropped from the England squad in 2019 before the Rugby Union World Cup. Hartley goes into great detail about the emotions he experienced. He initially resisted Eddie Jones’ decision and attempted to get himself back into peak physical condition despite a chronic knee injury.
He traveled to a “Reconditioning and Athletic Development facility” in America to improve his knee. With the hope of making it into the England squad if one of the other hookers suffered from an injury. Eventually, Hartley realised, that it was time for him to give up international rugby. He discusses how difficult it was for him to come to this decision, and how it impacted him mentally.
In addition to this in Loose Head, Joe Marler talks about periods when he lost all love for the sport. Marler even expressed having suicidal thoughts as he was struggling under the pressure of test rugby. Since the publication of his book, Joe Marler has gone on to do a documentary with Sky Sports about the importance of people, and specifically men, to open up and express their feelings. It has been titled, appropriately, Big Boys Don’t Cry after the misguided expectation rugby players cannot show emotional weakness.
From the outside, it may appear that rugby has remained a bravado-fuelled sport for the toughest and most resilient people. I argue that it has in fact come a long way since the amateur era. Immense change has happened regarding mental health.
Eddie Jones is renowned throughout the rugby world as being a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails coach, with little sympathy. Yet ironically, he has been one of the pioneers of letting players feel free to express their feelings as rugby transitioned into the professional era.
During his time as the head coach of the Wallabies in the early 2000s, Eddie Jones would gather his players and get them to talk to the team about what rugby meant to them. Whilst on the surface this may seem insignificant, Eddie Jones believed that it helped the players form stronger bonds by seeing each other at their “weakest”. “Weakest” in the sense that they are opening up emotionally.
Jones continued this practice with his 2003 World Cup squad, one of his players even began to write poetry to express his love for the game and teammates. With this practice, Jones managed to take a team that was in decline to the World Cup final, beating teams who were objectively better sides, and missing out on World Cup glory by only three points.
Anyone who has ever taken part in something as part of a team can appreciate how important it is that you have the support of your teammates, and rugby is no exception. I believe the sport has entered a period where the players can still be larger-than-life characters, without having to compromise their mental health.
Exemplified by these four men’s autobiographies there is room in the sport to express your emotions sometimes. This is true of life too. The most resilient and masculine men need to feel that they can break down and cry sometimes.
Overall, I believe rugby has proven itself to be good for men’s mental health since entering the professional era. Many more players openly talk about their mental health and the stresses of playing rugby at such high levels. The esprit de corps is unlike any other bond you will forge, especially due to the aggressive nature of the sport.
If some of the biggest, toughest, and most masculine men can open up to express themselves, then the sport is definitely moving in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how England does in the Autumn Nations as Eddie Jones continues to push the players to be true to their feelings.
I have previously written about Women’s Rugby and the impact of Covid 19.
Within the rugby community, there are some amazing initiatives helping people with their mental health. The most prominent organization trying to tackle mental health issues is LooseHeadz whose website I sincerely recommend checking out if you are facing any issues yourself.
Written by Co-Deputy Chief of Conservatives, Peter Pearce
Point of Information
I applaud their bravery to talk about mental health – A Labour Response
Peter has written a brilliant article here. I think it highlights the status that rugby has acquired as a hyper-masculine sport. A sport in which its athletes embody everything that a man is “supposed” to be. This has always been an unfair expectation of rugby stars. I find it inspiring to see them talk so openly about their mental health issues, especially given the fact that they are the people most likely to receive criticism for doing so.
It must be scary to be so open and candid. Particularly given how resilient rugby players are expected to be. You can even see this in the way that rugby is so often compared to football. It’s always joked that football players will fall over due to a slight gust of wind. Meanwhile, rugby players could be covered in blood and would still carry on. I’m not saying that this is a bad perception to have, but it certainly shows the expectation that people have of rugby players. They must never show “weakness”, and they must always plow on through their pain without complaint.
This is why I find it so inspiring to see some of England Rugby’s biggest stars talking about these issues. In James Haskell’s podcast, ‘What a Flanker’, he regularly talks about the things he’s struggled with in the past. His feelings of rejection from his club and subsequent depression are important in validating the mental health issues that other guys are having. This is refreshing to see, and I hope that it reduces stigma and inspires others to be just as honest.
I am just hopeful that we can see more of this at the grassroots level as well. Lower league players may experience greater volumes of toxic masculinity as well as harmful “banter”. There is also far less support when players are badly injured. I think that the more these things are spoken about, the closer we are to creating an environment in which help is sought before anything tragic happens.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Jack Rolfe
The band of brothers has to face its next challenge – A Liberal Response
As I have always said, the front row just wants to be loved. As a fellow front row, doing all the dirty jobs in the rugby team and usually being one of the overweight ‘bois’, being a front row can be tough. However, I am so proud of the likes of Joe Marler and Dylan Hartley who have come out and spoken about their situation. Joe Marler in particular posting a topless picture is a statement that men, no matter their size, can be proud of who they are.
It is great that a lot of the super-tough and aggressive rhinos of the forwards are talking about their mental health. However, there are currently two problems. Firstly, the sport may be less taboo about mental health but still offers little support.
Rugby, as a sport, still struggles when reacting to an individual player’s mental health. Particularly, at the lower levels of the sport. When players are open with their issues, fellow players are unsure of what to do. Also, there is little to no support from the rugby club or even provided by the government.
Also, the campaigns are currently led by your ‘average Joe’ front row. This is fantastic for people like me, but the ‘pretty bois’ at the back have been suspiciously quiet. It is becoming acceptable for front rows to come out and talk about their problems. However it seems the culture of fly-halves having to control the pitch, full-backs remaining cool under pressure, and scrum-halves dictating the forwards who are out of breath where to go doesn’t allow this. There are no prominent mental health advocates for the backs that I can think of. No one they can look up to. I fail to believe that mental health has only affected forwards. It needs to become acceptable for backs to talk about their problems.
Secondly, a lot of the issues that players talk about are typical problems. I do not mean to trivialise these issues. However, anxiety and depression are the two mental health situations that arise often. Addictions, for example, are not being addressed. Indeed, are still seen as taboo for professional players. Addictions to porn, alcohol, or even shopping, are kept under wraps. This should be broken.
Rugby is a fantastic sport for anyone who has played it. It has been incredibly heartwarming to witness firsthand the change in rugby culture to become more accepting in general. Arguably, more so than football. The likes of Joe Marler and James Haskell should be proud of themselves. However, there is still a long, long way to go.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Max Anderson