PROFESSIONAL rugby clubs should employ full-time psychologists as part of measures to ‘break the taboo’ around mental health in the sport, a former Jersey Reds star has said.
Guy Thompson, who has been an ambassador for LooseHeadz since he lost a friend to suicide in 2015, has spoken out about how the mental wellbeing of players is affected when clubs fold – a scenario which he said was ‘upsetting’ and ‘should never happen’.
Two Premiership sides – Wasps and Worcester – have already been expelled from the top flight in recent months while London Irish has until tomorrow to prove it has the required funding to fulfil its obligations for the 2023/24 season or risk being removed as well.
Thompson spent two successful seasons at Jersey Reds between 2011 and 2013, before going on to play in the Premiership for Wasps and Leicester Tigers. He spent one season with Ealing Trailfinders before returning to the Island to have a final season with the Reds in 2021-2022.
Discussing the collapse of his former club Wasps, Thompson said: ‘That’s a very upsetting scenario on the whole. What help is there for these players? One day they’re going into training, and the next they’re unemployed. Luckily, Japan and France, plus some Championship teams, picked up a lot of contracts, but where does everyone else go? It’s a very tough scenario for everyone.
‘That’s 40 players per squad, which is 120 players from three clubs out of work. And that’s just the players. People forget the security, the ticket sales, the media, the marketing, the coaches, the physio, the team manager. You’re looking at 500 to 600 people out of work now because of this scenario, which should never happen. A professional club should never go bust like that. It should be run like a business and the emotion done between the white lines on the field.
‘LooseHeadz has stepped up massively and offered their services to any rugby player who needed help or needed to talk.’
In 2015, the former back-row forward became an ambassador for the charity, which works to fight the stigma around mental health in rugby.
‘It was a tough time for everybody in and around the sport,’ Thompson said. ‘I reached out to LooseHeadz and told them I thought what they were doing was incredible and asked if I could help out. To have an opportunity to help in my tiny way is really important.’
The charity is seeking to place a mental health lead – a ‘Loose Head’ – into every rugby club around the world and give teams the resources to improve the mental wellbeing of people around them.
Ambassadors such as Thompson are there to ‘break the taboo around this subject, around masculinity and mental health’ by sharing real-life stories ‘about how a masculine rugby player, playing what is perceived to be a barbaric sport, can struggle as well’.
‘They might struggle in slightly different ways, and they might struggle in silence, but they have definitely been struggling for a number of years, since rugby went professional, and perhaps even before, but they had no outlet to talk to and nobody to understand them,’ he explained. ‘They probably didn’t understand they were going through it themselves. Until somebody starts raising the awareness and starts trying to break down this taboo subject and stigma that boys can’t talk and boys don’t struggle, then these boys and men will still suffer.’
He added that players often struggle to come to terms with retirement – particularly when it is enforced through injury.
Thompson said: ‘It was tough realising that my body was not in a position to do what my mind wanted it to do. At 36 years old, I couldn’t complete at the level I wanted to compete. That was really hard.
‘But I always knew that rugby was a short career and I had planned and prepped what I was doing post-rugby.’
Playing elite sport creates pressures that can be damaging to mental health, Thompson added.
‘In a rugby environment, when you’re around 30 or 40 other men and the camaraderie, this big strong masculine environment, you then start going through anxiety when it comes to team selection, annual reviews, preparation for matches, media, crowds.
‘All these areas of this professional environment, where you are designed to peak at a weekend and be excellent in your sport, start chipping away at you.
‘We understand that playing a sport for a living is lucky and we are thankful, but at the same time you do have to enjoy it and a lot of these areas would make boys doubt what they were doing – they wouldn’t enjoy it, they couldn’t get themselves up for games. These issues would start to take over their being and their performance.’
Professional organisations and clubs employing full-time psychologists would be a ‘start’, he said.
‘I have seen a massive change in mental health as a whole throughout my career. ‘We’re very early on a long road and I don’t think it’s a road that will ever end. The most important thing is people are talking about it, people are accepting it, and people are trying to help each other.’