Hugh Farrelly: IRUPA support system gives peace of mind
ANY one who has played sport, at any level, knows about the inner demons that assail you. In team or solo sports, the desire to perform, and be seen to perform, creates an intensely personal pressure and a doubt-laden environment where insecurities abound.
It is the reason why so many players seek comfort in small superstitions before taking to the field and why others use their religious faith to steel self-belief.
The issue of depression in sport has been thrust to the surface following the death of Gary Speed last weekend and this is a problem which confronts all sports. Cricket is particularly susceptible and the death of former Somerset batsman and cricket writer Peter Roebuck, who jumped out of a window on the sixth floor of a Cape Town hotel last month, is one of a host of depression-related deaths in that sport.
David Frith has written two books on the subject. The first, 'By His Own Hand' in 1991, chronicled the stories of 80 cricketers who are believed to have taken their own lives and his 2001 work, 'Silence Of The Heart: Cricket Suicides' in which he has compiled accounts of 151 cricketing suicides, including 23 Test players.
While cricket is a team game, bowling, batting and fielding are individual activities, where mistakes are harshly exposed with little sympathy within the sport's culture of verbal intimidation.
In rugby, there is less individual exposure, the nature of the sport demands a reliance on the players around you, which brings a greater sense of shared responsibility. Nonetheless, the pressures are considerable, particularly at the top professional level, where scrutiny is greater and players' livelihoods depend on good performances and successful results.
But even at the lower levels, rugby dressing-rooms can be lonely places if you have played poorly, regardless of whether your team has won. As can post-match clubhouses, where players can be accosted by angry supporters after a bad display or, even worse, ignored out of embarrassment.
Not every clubman is as supportive as the alickadoo who travels the length of the country to watch his side play an All-Ireland League match and, when they are roundly beaten, greets every player with a pat on the back and the pick-me-up line of: "Don't worry about it lads, we never thought ye'd win anyway."
Professional rugby has become a high-profile sport in Ireland over the last 10 years and expectation levels have risen accordingly. Players are acutely aware of the responsibilities they carry to their team-mates, supporters and employers as well as the media scrutiny, where huge importance can be attached to the opinion of a pundit or the number on a player rating.
There is also the frustration that goes with long-term injury -- the spotlight is suddenly turned off, players feel removed from their colleagues because they are unable to contribute and there are worries about whether they will be able to return to 100pc fitness, or at all.
Players frequently talk about being "blessed to get paid for doing something I love," but behind the scenes there are inner battles to fight and rugby's macho environment is not the easiest place to exhibit signs of weakness or vulnerability -- especially if you feel you have let your colleagues down.
Thus, it is encouraging to hear that player's body IRUPA has established a system to facilitate players experiencing mental health issues and equally encouraging to know that there has been significant use of the services provided.
These include a helpline through the Employee Assistance Programme and, if a player wishes, a free and confidential one-on-one session with a qualified counsellor.
IRUPA is jointly funded by the IRFU and the union's role in this area deserves to be acknowledged, with the provision of greater resources to help players deal with various lifestyle issues a work in progress.
We are heading into a phase where the first wave of full-time professional rugby players are retiring -- a lifestyle change that carries a massive shock adjustment factor for players who have spent the best part of 10 years in a bubble with no experience of operating in a civilian sphere and it is encouraging that there are systems in place to help with that process.
'Do your talking on the pitch' is a familiar phrase in rugby, but being able to talk off it can be even more important.
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