Monday 20 January 2020

Dear Mary: Rugby rejection has my son on depression pills

Mary O'Conor

I'M a middle-aged working mother with two teenage boys, both of whom attend a well-known rugby school. These places are probably the most notorious for parents pushing their sons and egging them on to greatness on the rugby pitch. The junior and senior cups are fiercely competitive and the boys are encouraged, from the age of eight or nine, to play for these elite teams.

So much emphasis, so much hype, so much training -- it's no wonder the boys are exhausted before they start. I have been through these competitions now four times and we have had our sons picked and dropped each and every time.

It is with profound regret that I encouraged my children in what can ultimately only be devastation for them. Only one team wins the cup and only 25 can be on the squad so after years of training, summer and winter, far too many are left devastated with everything they worked for in tatters.

My younger son was dropped after Christmas of sixth year. He, who was on the A team since he started aged five, now cannot even look at a rugby ball.

When he was dropped by the coaches, he was also dropped by his team, considered not good enough to make it. When he retreated to his non-rugby friends he was jeered -- "now that you are dropped for the rugby you think you can have lunch with us?"

All lunchtimes, for two years, were taken up with rugby practice and pep talks. There is no reassuring hand of comfort from the coaches or any pep talk now to console the disappointed boys.

Now my confident, cheerful son feels alone and isolated. He says he has reached "rock bottom". He is getting help but is it enough? He reaches out to friends who don't want to know him, the result -- he has been diagnosed with reactionary depression. A consolation for me is that he is not the only one! Several other distraught parents were left picking up the pieces too. Some year, a parent may be too late to rescue their son. Those glorious rugby days are at a very high price.

My boy has been prescribed anti-depressants and talk therapy. But they only help so far. What do I do to lift the gloom and to restore happiness and confidence in my once buoyant, ebullient son?

Mary replies:

REJECTION is a very difficult experience at any age. Your natural instinct as a mother is to try to protect your child from any form of rejection and as you have not been able to do this you are now left feeling both frustrated and concerned.

Alan Quinlan spoke recently about his regrets at what he saw as an unfulfilled international rugby career, even though he had played for his country 27 times. So it happens to players at every level, and you now have to help your son understand that life deals us blows from time to time and it is how we handle these disappointments that matters.

Parental approval is very important to children, particularly approval of the mother, and indeed this continues right through their lives. You have ferried your son to and from coaching sessions, matches etc while holding down a full-time job, and it may be that he feels that he has let you down in some way by not getting on the team. So you need to reassure him that you are indeed proud of him and all that he has succeeded in doing, both on and off the rugby pitch.

We all benefit by having something to look forward to, so what has he got to look forward to? Rugby, which has dominated his life up until now, needs to be replaced with something else, whether it be learning to drive and getting a licence, going on a trip of his choice, or whatever it is that will give him joy and a reason to get up in the morning.

He wants nothing further to do with rugby, but he is obviously very sporty so what about a sport where he is master of his own destiny and doesn't have to depend on being chosen for a team. Golf, athletics, archery, tennis -- there are lots of sports to choose from. This will also ensure that he continues to be fit, as his body must be in great shape as a result of all the training he has done up until now and he will not want to lose this.

Also, although he is approaching the end of puberty he is probably still beset by all the normal doubts and uncertainties of adolescence. Indeed, hormonal changes can at times contribute to some form of depression.

Girls will have started to be part of his social life, although if he has gone totally into himself he may not be socialising at all. As he has no sisters, you are the only female in his life, so try to give him an opportunity to talk to you about his worries and fears around girls.

You have taken the precaution of having him talk to somebody, but the most important person who can talk to him and continue to let him know how much he is loved is his mother -- you are at the heart of his world, and at times the going can be very tough. But it will get better as gradually the disappointment of all of this fades and he once more starts taking an interest in what is going on around him.

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