Rugby World Cup: How Elite Players Tackle Mental Health Issues And Improve Their Wellbeing

How Elite Rugby Players Tackle Mental Health Issues

As the England team prepare to face Fiji in their first Rugby World Cup match, the players will need to consider their mental health, as well as their physical health, if they want to play at their best.

"It is vitally important for athletes to consider their mental preparation in sport," Dr Rachel Arnold, a lecturer in sport and performance psychology from the University Of Bath tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

"It can have a positive impact not only on their performance and in helping them to achieve their potential, but also for their functioning and optimal wellbeing both before, during, and after the competition.

"In terms of performance, evidence suggests that more successful players differ from less successful ones in how developed their psychological skills are."

With the world's media watching their every move, the demands on elite rugby players ahead of tournaments such as the Rugby World Cup are sky high.

Thankfully, many players have discovered a whole host of ways to manage any issues they may be having with their mental health, and improve their overall wellbeing.

England's Sam Burgess with team mate Anthony Watson after the World Cup Warm up match at Twickenham Stadium

The London rugby union club Wasps is reported to have introduced regular yoga sessions for its players - some of whom appear in the England team.

Wasps and England forward James Haskell, 30, has been practising yoga for three years to get his head in the game and improve his physical strength.

"I’m not there to get my chakras aligned – I use yoga to give me an advantage in my game and keep me on the field," he previously told The Telegraph.

"When I was 18, I’d just go straight out and train hard. Now my first port of call is to get out the mat – otherwise I’m like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. I seize up."

Australian Rugby League team South Sydney Rabbitohs during a yoga session

Meanwhile England centre Sam Burgess is an advocate of meditation when it comes to improving wellbeing.

The 26-year-old first tried meditation when he was playing rugby league in Australia, but continued to practice mediation when he made the move across to rugby union.

"I was quite sceptical when we first started meditating at South Sydney, but I began to connect with the people who were doing the sessions so I bought into it," he said in an interview with the Daily Mail.

"It was all about opening up our minds and talking to each other a bit more, and also about clearing your own mind in terms of being calm and ready to perform.

"We used techniques to bring ourselves back down to a calm level if we found ourselves getting frustrated or lost confidence during a game. As I see it, the brain is a muscle and I’ve got to train it like I train other muscles."

Sam Burgess

Elite athletes face a range of demands that may lead them to seeking respite in pastimes such as yoga and meditation.

Sports psychologists often talk about the demands that athletes encounter in three categories: personal, competitive and organisational.

"Personal demands are those environmental stimuli associated with non-sporting life events, such as moving house," Dr Arnold explains.

"Competitive demands are those stimuli associated with competitive performances, such as physical fitness and tactics. Organisational demands are stimuli associated with the organisation to which an individual is affiliated, such as selection, finances, competition schedule, travel and accommodation."

Somebody who knows about the demands facing professional rugby players all too well, is former England hooker Andy Titterrell, who retired from rugby last year at the age of 33.

Titterrell, who now coaches for Wasps, began to suffer from depression as a young player shortly after he transferred from Sale.

"A lot of my depression stemmed from rugby," he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

"Coaches would say one thing to me, but then do another. At the time I thought ‘I’m doing everything that’s asked of me, but you’re not giving me the opportunities that you said you would'.

"I started asking myself ‘Am I training right?’ and ‘Am I not speaking out enough in meetings’- I began to question every little facet of the game and for a while didn’t enjoy rugby.

"I started to see changes in myself and I didn’t understand what was happening. There were times that I wanted to quit.

"But thankfully, I had some fantastic support around me and I realised that when I started to relax and push all those pressures aside, I did still love rugby."

Andy Titterrell

Later in his career, Titterrell discovered ways to help him stay relaxed off the field and ultimately improve his game.

"I always made sure that I lived a good 40 or 50 minutes away from training, so that I had a nice drive away just to forget it. I didn’t want to have to walk out of my front door and straight away have the club around me," he says.

"Having family days with my two boys and my wife was a great distraction, too."

During his time playing for England, Titterrell says players were encouraged to keep diaries detailing their goals and long-term ambitions, as a way of managing expectation and being mindful of their own wellbeing.

Many of his team mates would also stop reading media coverage ahead of a big game, in order to avoid the added pressure that can bring.

Now, Titterrell is an ambassador for State of Mind Rugby Union - a charity dedicated to highlighting that mental health and wellbeing should be a priority in the rugby union community.

The charity was started by Mick Finnegan, a rugby coach who has also battled with depression.

"I had a bit of a mental breakdown and ended up getting into a bit of a standoff with the police in London," Finnegan tells us.

The "meltdown" he describes was a high profile case in 2009. The British Transport Police charged Finnegan with trespass, public nuisance and obstructing a railway line when he threatened to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.

After much public interest in the story, the case against Finnegan was dropped on the grounds that he was suffering with depression.

Finnegan now dedicates his time to raising awareness about mental health.

Mick Finnegan

He and State of Mind ambassadors like Titterrell travel to amateur rugby union clubs around the county and give the players advice on mental health.

"What we do is not rocket science. It’s about taking ownership of the situation," Finnegan says.

"Mainly, we encourage players to talk about their feelings, but looking after yourself in other ways also comes into it. Eating well, spending time with loved-ones and taking a break every now and then - a small distraction like exploring somewhere new can make all the difference."

Above anything, Finnegan wants rugby players to acknowledge and accept who they really are so that they feel able to seek help when they need it.

"Bottling up your feelings is definitely a problem. I didn’t talk about my feelings and the pressures of that ultimately led to me trying to take my life on a bridge in London," he says.

Throughout the Rugby World Cup and beyond, Finnegan and Titterrell believe changing the perception of the sport may be the way forward in order to tackle mental health issues and improve wellbeing once and for all.

"Although rugby is seen as a big macho sport, we can be affected by external things that aren’t necessarily physical and it can be devastating," Titterrell says.

"Getting involved with State Of Mind was my way of saying ‘I’ve been through it as well, there are people out there who are willing to help and willing to listen'."

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994; email: or visit the website
  • HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pmand 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
  • HeadMeds - a straight-talking website on mental health medication
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