rugby and mental health

Like many others, I was struck by Kearnan Myall’s Guardian interview this week where he described how one of his former teammates caught him about to jump from a hotel balcony.

It was incredibly honest, didn’t let himself off the hook for his own behaviours and outlined the dichotomy that’s at the heart of elite sporting performance.

When he was at his lowest point, he was professionally on fire.

“I was playing some of the best rugby I’d ever played. I didn’t care. I was going out and just throwing my body around. It was completely unsustainable.

You can see how you’d be caught in a cycle here. I had a former teammate, a young guy fresh out of school, who kept going out drinking on Wednesday nights. I often went along too.

He went out every Wednesday and the team kept winning. Not only that, he was unexpectedly in the team every week and playing very well. One Wednesday evening I walked in to the living room and found him watching tv - we joked that he should be going out on the piss, he went to get changed and left the house within 15 minutes.

This is an amusing and slightly trite example but it points to Myall’s inertia and the attitude of those around him:

‘He’s on fire.’

Beyond that, who cares?

Coaches will largely let anything go as long as the on field performance is there. It’s a bit of a don’t ask don’t tell situation. Sometimes it’s because going out on the piss is fun in a furtive way, a way of young men going out and having fun, blowing off steam. Sometimes it’s indicative of something darker and more painful.

I doubt Myall is the only person in the Premiership who has behaved in this manner but he’s decided for his own reasons to come out and talk about it.

He was quoted in a followup article about the language we use around the topic:

“I saw a quote saying ‘Mental health affects one in four of us.’ What it meant to say was: ‘Mental illness affects one in four of us.’ The language we use needs to be more precise.”

A friend of mine listened to a talk with a professional cricketer who made this same point. ‘Physical health’ is a phrase with positive connotations while ‘mental health’ has a negative stigma.

Myall is making the distinction between health and illness. One needs upkeep, the other needs treatment. They are two related but different things.

There’s so much to say on this topic and it needs handling with some sensitivity. I’ve been collating material for it but could do with some other eyes on it. If anyone is interested then please let me know.