Cerebral challenge: Mental health special report

Rugby stakeholders have acknowledged the need to tackle the sensitive subject of mental wellbeing, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Mental health. Urgh. Like uncontested scrums, bag-snatching and Romain Poite, it’s a subject rugby players prefer to avoid. But, increasingly, it’s the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored. Players are slowly beginning to talk; to one another, to psychologists, to the media.

‘Among all my ex-player friends, I don’t know one guy who has finished up playing and hasn’t had diagnosable depression to some degree,’ says a prominent Cape Town psychologist who happened to play lock for the Lions and Biarritz until 2011.

Trevor Hall is thus well placed to talk about mental health in rugby, having seen players struggle and then been involved clinically to help them.

‘The pressure to be athletic machines and morally upstanding is immense,’ he says. ‘An inordinate amount of pressure is placed on them and this can take its toll.’

To Hall, it’s a simple rationale: if a certain percentage of people are susceptible to mental health issues, players aren’t immune to the same challenges.

He is pleased that the stigma is slowly being erased in rugby, as he discovered when working with the Lions last season. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, players dealing with injuries were often the most anxious. Depression and feelings of worthlessness can take hold.

Only recently has the spotlight swung to South Africa, the issue having been confronted in the UK and New Zealand especially in recent years. The great New Zealand wing John Kirwan was the first prominent player to come out to talk about depression publicly, having hit rock bottom when on tour with the All Blacks to Argentina in 1991. He’s since become a champion of mental health and was knighted for his efforts.

More recently, in April, former Scotland centre Graeme Morrison spoke movingly of contemplating suicide in 2010. His torment endured for seven years before he got to grips with it.

Closer to home, top players AJ Venter, Robbi Kempson and Joe van Niekerk have all spoken of their experiences, a welcome move given the macho culture that largely defines the sport in South Africa.

‘Coming to the end of you career can be a scary place,’ Van Niekerk told Hall in a public YouTube conversation in April. ‘When you’ve been revered and coming to the end, you can feel a real loss of identity.’

Asked how often the subject of mental health had arisen during his 15-year career, former Bok captain John Smit said, ‘not once’. He added, though, that rugby was practically engineered for mental health problems.

‘In rugby, we rely on spiked dopamine [chemical] levels, so there is a regular high. As a kid, you always want to be in the first XV, you want to outscrum your opponent, you want to be the best. Then, all of a sudden, when you retire that tap is turned off … no more Saturdays to give you a big rush.’

Players like Smit and 1995 World-Cup winner Joel Stransky eased their transition out of rugby by embracing a different sport (cycling), which helped filled the void Smit speaks of.

‘I haven’t missed rugby for a single minute,’ says the 2007 World Cup-winning captain.

Okes who struggle never spent much time on other things. I always had an open mind, a sense of real life. But others had no idea what was coming.’

Part of this transition is coping with wealth management, which can be linked to mental strength if it isn’t taken care of.

Smit says wealth creation and investments were spoken of ‘marginally more’ than mental health, which is to say, not very much.

He has tangible proof of the consequences, regularly taking calls from players asking for help.

‘A lot of guys fall victim,’ he explains. ‘The real problem is those who didn’t do well enough out of the game.’

One such player is Hilton Lobberts, a two-Test lock who felt the local rugby environment hadn’t worked for him in insulating his future.

‘I never knew how to manage my money. Nobody taught me,’ Lobberts recently told SA Rugby magazine.

Smit isn’t sure who should be responsible for players managing their cash but reckons it might be everyone who surrounds the player, from fathers to coaches, to CEOs and agents.

He acknowledges, as many do, the good work done in recent years by MyPlayers, the players’ organisation of all professionals in South Africa, of which he is a non-executive director.

He says MyPlayers has done a fine job working through the attitude that tough guys don’t cry.

Indeed, this view is borne out by Hilana Claassens, an industrial psychologist who works as MyPlayers’ national player development manager. She never goes into player meetings without tissues. ‘There are always tears,’ she says.

There wasn’t much awareness around mental health when she started her job in late 2018, she says.

‘We’ve started beating the stigma and now offer a hotline and psychologists. Players don’t like to hear about depression; they respond better when you talk about chemical responses, stuff like that. It’s a fine line and there’s been an interesting response.

‘We’re trying to create a safe space because it’s a high-performance arena. A lot of players aren’t where they are supposed to be mentally, so I refer them to psychologists. We must sometimes deal with a bit of broken trust. In the past, a team psychologist has broken confidences by talking to a coach, which is a no-no.’

Interestingly, she says issues tend to differ from team to team with a player’s anxiety often reflecting the specific culture of the union.

Given the raging concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic, Claassens’ phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Players are stressed, not least because their financial positions have been compromised.

MyPlayers offers advice and courses and also has a compulsory pension fund which has allowed for a ‘pension holiday’ during the pandemic to help ease the financial burden on players. As a players’ representative body, MyPlayers is a model of excellence and an example to other countries.

For every player struggling to set himself up for a life after rugby, whether materially or mentally, there is one who has made a good fist of things.

Years ago, Selborne Boome was an outlier on Springbok tours. Rather than bang away at PlayStation or tour the coffee shops, he’d invariably be in his room hitting the books, cultivating his future by studying towards a BSc degree.

Stormers captain Chris van Zyl is another such example. Unusually, he finished a degree (BCom Financial Accounting) before contemplating life as a rugby professional. More unusually, he recalls that when he was with the Lions, he and Dylan des Fountain used to challenge their teammates about what they were lining up beyond rugby.

‘No time,’ would be the general refrain before hopping on to PlayStation.

‘I knew it was rubbish,’ says Van Zyl. ‘“Life after rugby” is a tired phrase. It should be “life during rugby”. If you want to be the best, you should have something else to keep you engaged and stimulated.’

Van Zyl reasons that if you spend time your free time watching rugby on television or playing it online, you remain over-stimulated by the game.

The lock joined Deloitte for his articles and then three years ago opened his own firm (Walworth Consulting), which allows him to step away from the heat of the game. It’s an example he learned from his older brother, Anton, and it’s little surprise that they rank among the more cerebral rugby figures in South Africa.

‘At 18, I was never told I was going to be a star, so having something else was good for me,’ says the 32-year-old, who plans to leave the game on his own terms. He seems well-equipped to do so.

Having a degree has given him the luxury of being able to make mistakes in his professional life because his Stormers contract is an insurance of sorts. It’s a buffer others could learn from.

Van Zyl also commends MyPlayers for helping to educate its members. He’s encouraged, too, by the new contracting model which promises to be a slicker, more efficient mechanism that spits out fewer professionals.

‘Running my own business is something I love. A lot of guys go into farming, like Pieter-Steph du Toit and Wilco Louw, which is encouraging. The challenge is for those who don’t do something.’

Rugby might still have a long way to go in getting to grips with mental health and its associated demons. But it has made a start, giving its constituents hope and heart for a better, healthier game.

*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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Former Lions, Cheetahs and Boland lock David de Villiers is the GM of MyPlayers’ Financial Services, boasting an array of qualifications.

He gained his first pro contract at 27 and thus advocates for players carving out a career alongside rugby. ‘I believe you’re a better player when you do both,’ he says.

De Villiers believes the biggest recent challenge was players’ failure to build assets during their playing years, chiefly by paying bonds or contributing to a pension fund.

MyPlayers assists players with several financial services, including a registered pension fund, with an advisory panel activated by MyPlayers.

Approximately 650 of SA’s 700-odd professionals contribute; the fund recently became a compulsory component when players are contracted.

An independent investment consultant reviews the fund every year.

MyPlayers also advises on injury insurance, with payment available for when a player’s contract precludes payment due to injury. This can ensure prolonged salary payment for anything from 12-24 months.

Additionally, catastrophic injury cover kicks in for up to three years.

Every player must also sign up for medical aid and gap cover.

De Villiers points out that their representation is for group interests rather than narrow interests, which helps keep costs in check. Similarly, this philosophy allows for product development with insurers, effectively customising products’ for rugby’s specific needs.

MyPlayers embarks on road trips to unions three times a year, but much interaction takes place on their app and, appropriately, with platforms like email and WhatsApp.

‘It’s all about education,’ says De Villiers. ‘We are happy to do the heavy lifting on behalf of the players.’