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House of Rugby

22nd Dec 2018

Former England captains engage in fascinating discussion about mental health issues in rugby

Patrick McCarry

62% of retired rugby players have suffered mental health problems.

As stand-outs figures go, this one from the Rugby Players Association’s latest players’ survey certainly stands out.

Mike Tindall was part of a new breed of rugby players that emerged after the game went from amateur to professional in the mid 1990s. It took a year or two for rugby nations to come to terms with professionalism, and some will argue that the powers-that-be are still trying to get their heads around it.

Tindall was in that first generation of players that went from schools, colleges, academies or clubs and became a fully professional rugby player. There was no profession or trade behind them. They were rugby players. That is what they did.

The former Bath and Gloucester centre was more successful than most – winning Grand Slams and a World Cup along the way – but the end came for him as it did everyone else. The day arrives where the boots are hung up and, if a player is lucky, you are in your mid 30s and starting from close to scratch.

The RPA findings sparked a fascinating House of Rugby debate on identity, the next steps and mental health in rugby. Tindall was joined by former England Sevens captain Rob Vickerman and show host Alex Payne for a discussion that often belied the festive, cheery Christmas jumpers that all three donned.

Payne called the RPA survey figures “staggering” and it is hard to disagree. 52% of former players said that, in the first two years after retiring, they felt as if they had no control over their lives. 50% admitted they struggled financially in the first five years after their retirement.

“It makes you gulp a little bit,” said Payne, “as these are guys that are putting their bodies on the line for the entertainment of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, and hundreds of millions at the international level.”

Tindall admits he was anxious about his next steps when he retired from the game and ‘said yes to anything that came up because I wanted to fill a day’. Such is the structured nature of professional rugby that Tindall, and many others like him, was craving that order and purpose back in his life.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “rugby can end for you in an instant. It can end at 22. I was very fortunate in that I was able to roll through [until 2014 when I was 35].” Tindall feels he was one of the lucky ones. He continued:

“It’s the people that didn’t quite to get to that top level or who might have finished having played 19 years for the same club but they never really hit that international level. They’ve always been that solid club player.

“They might have been in the Championship and played 18 or 19 years for between £10,000 and £30,000. Then they’ve suddenly lost everything they’ve had and whether they’ve had a chance to upskill themselves or not, that is what I’d worry about.”

Vickerman took up on Tindall’s point on the club pros and journeymen and noted that he is a freelance rugby pundit and coach who often does not know where his next payment is coming from.

“I was one of those players, like Tin’s mentioned, that didn’t quite hit the heights in the 15s game… Your well-being is measured by five elements. You’ve got social, career, community, physical and financial.

“As soon as you finish playing rugby, you lose control of all five of those elements. The biggest one that people often underestimate – they think it’d be financial – is physical. You’re not training as much and your brain is not as active. You’re not doing the things that put you in such prime condition, because you were an athlete.

“You’ve then often got to work [in a new profession] five times as hard for perhaps only a fifth of the salary. Of course that’s going to be hard to take.”

Vickerman spoke superbly on how players in their 20s and 30s ‘fall off a cliff’ when they retire. No more weekly targets and daily goals. No support mechanisms. No more fans and backroom staff urging you on. Many players suddenly find they are on their own and struggle to cope.

Vickerman also touched on how the transition is tougher again for Championship players who also put their bodies through the wringer but for paltry salaries and with even less support and connections when they finish up.

“We’d need a whole other show for that… The Champo is the Wild West,” Vickerman stated.

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Episode 10 sees Alex Payne joined by Mike Tindall and Rob Vickerman to discuss English Champions Cup woe, Leicester’s form and mental health in rugby.