28 May 2023

Mind. Set. Engage: What happens when you're off your game?

6:59 pm on 28 May 2023
21st November 2020; Welford Road Stadium, Leicester, Midlands, England; Premiership Rugby, Leicester Tigers versus Gloucester Rugby; A general view of the Mattoli Woods Welford Road Stadium pitch with practise balls lined up

Photo: All Rights Reserved

A lot gets said about the mental fitness of our All Blacks and Black Ferns, particularly in recent years. What used to be a pretty hardline conversation about toughening up and playing through adversity is now far more nuanced, and one that elite level players are becoming more and more open to talking about.

But what about the rest of New Zealand's 140,000 players? Obviously having high-profile players getting the conversation going is a start, but like everything with rugby, is it filtering down to the grassroots?

"We need to normalise the stigma of openness, particularly around young males," said Nathan Price, NZ Rugby culture and wellbeing manager.

"In a rugby context it could be as easy as asking why they might not have been around at the social functions after games, or noticing they seem a bit down at training. Then picking those right moments, not in front of everyone, to get alongside and talk.

"We need to make it more part of our culture - we haven't quite got there yet but it's definitely changing."

Mind. Set. Engage is a new iteration of the HeadFirst programme, which has been running for the last six years and needed a rebrand due to… well, obvious reasons. It explores mental fitness and provides tools for maintaining it, much like any other facet of keeping in shape. Except this isn't like a leg press - feeling good upstairs and staying that way is very different for everyone.

"There's often a connected disconnection," said Price.

"If someone blew their knee out and came to training on crutches, we'd go and see how they are… we don't have that same mentality if someone's just going through something - it's the same to ask, how's the family? How is school and things like that?

"As a society we are increasingly more disconnected from each other and that's a key issue as to why we're not opening up. We just don't know each other that well, but rugby has always been an awesome place to do that."

Focus 'much-needed'

Someone who has had plenty of experience at both ends of the spectrum is former All Black Pita Alatini, who these days works for The Cause Collective and has been involved in Mind. Set. Engage for a year now. He said the focus on mental health these days is "much-needed".

"Different people have different reasons for playing the game. But you gotta have something there, because the challenge is for the clubs to know if something is happening in their environment, it can be dealt with. What our kids go through, they have to know they're supported within our community. We all have that responsibility.

"I think our coaches often underestimate their roles in spaces like this. We know you just want to coach rugby, but there's a huge man-management part - how you come across determines how they're feeling. It's a massive role, so how do we make sure the coaches know what that responsibility is?"

Pita Alatini at the Pakuranga United Club

Pita Alatini. Photo: RNZ Sara Vui-Talitu

Alatini knows that personally. His 17-test All Black career didn't have a fairytale end, or even one on his own terms. He says it took him "about three years" to deal with being dropped.

"I fell in a hole and wish I'd known then what I know now. I got sick of trying to prove myself and didn't know how to pick myself up. That's why I love going back to play club - no sponsors or reporters, just you and the boys and footy.

"But because I never dealt with that disappointment, it took a long time to accept that. I needed to talk, I needed other ways to stimulate my mind. So that's why it's so important to get that balance these days."

He was recently director of rugby at Pakuranga RFC, one of Auckland's largest clubs. Alatini said the experience opened his eyes as to how far things have come in the mental health space.

"In my role I could see kids were struggling. Trying to navigate every environment they were in, whether that be training, trying to make rep teams, at home, work. For a lot of clubs, there needs to be an understanding of mental health, it's crucial… we're still in the mentality of outcomes overall."

While any discussion about mental health is pertinent, it's not all washed in positive sentiment. The ongoing debate around what level of coverage secondary school rugby should get always has the caveat of players' mental health dropped like a sledgehammer by principals, without any sort of discussion about what that actually means other than not being able to question their closed-shop attitude. The same has been somewhat applied to the All Blacks after poor performances, which overlooks the fact that being almost emotionally invulnerable is what the team's legacy and brand are highly reliant on.

"We've been confronted with that by high performance managers, about how we don't want to create a soft underbelly," said Price. "But there's strength in vulnerability, the connection and trust you have with a teammate is something that is very valuable on the field as well. Knowing someone has your back.

"We're sometimes asking people to put on a mask when they're on the field, then asking them to take it off when they aren't. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance there…we've created a mould of what it's like to be a rugby player, but that can be changed."

Pros and cons of alcohol

Then there's rugby's relationship with alcohol, which can be described as robust at best and outright harmful at worst. But even then, there's a grey area: men who aren't prone to opening up often do so after a couple of drinks, so can having those conversations in a traditional post-match rugby club environment be seen as a net positive?

"If you take rugby out of it and just recognise that it's men finding that connection point and they find a place where there's some vulnerability, that changes things and makes it really hard to say it's a bad thing," said Price.

"But I think it shows how crap we are at doing that without the social lubricant of alcohol. As a society, we have to make it so it doesn't need that, but I realise that's going to take years to change. It's a tough one."

Mind. Set. Engage has come a long way, said Price, but he doubted it will ever have an end. NZR was clearly taking the entire concept seriously, with four dedicated staff to ensure wellbeing across the game, the highest number in the country for any sports organisation.

The plan was to present the programme to every rugby club in the country, and then start all over again when they are done to reach all the new players that will be coming through what is an increasingly complicated stage of life.

"I remember Dame Therese Walsh came in to talk to us a couple of years ago," said Price.

"She said, 'Don't underestimate what you can achieve through rugby.' It stuck with me; in many respects we have the ear of the nation. The opportunity we have to reach people, in rural communities, Māori and Pasifika youth for example, is something we should take on."

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