Rugby and Mental Health-Are we overlooking some basic principles in Rugby?

Scotland v France - RBS 6 Nations
Lamont in action for Scotland


Following Mark Palmer’s hard hitting article in ‘The Sunday Times’ about Rory Lamont’s (ex-Scotland winger cum fullback) life after rugby, I thought I’d weigh in on how the sport based on teamwork and respect seems to over look these, the very principles on which the game has been built.

To start with the positives, Rugby can be a very positive sport for many people. Rugby can really help to give guidance and focus to those who play, with a clear goal and a team to work for. Player’s address the referees (generally) with respect, are punished (sometimes questionably) for cynical actions; whether physical, verbal or just not sporting. Their livelihood relies on teamwork and they create strong bonds with the people around the club, including the fans.

Rugby provides a place to release frustrations in a safe and controlled manner, making an ideal hobby for many. This makes it perfect for people to build some focus and control their emotions. A brilliant example of this is the Glasgow Warriors ‘Game On’ scheme with the rugby charity ‘Wooden Spoon’. The programme helps sixteen to nineteen year olds in Glasgow, and gives them an opportunity to play and train at Glasgow’s facilities, but also gives them employability training to help them off the field. You can see more information about this on the Glasgow Warriors ‘Game On’ page.

Regular exercise is also well documented to help with depression. Many doctors will include this in treatment for depression and it is one way that many people fight back to full mental strength. This is, of course, not exclusive to Rugby, but playing a team sport can often be far more motivating than joining a gym or going running for example.

However, as a sport built on these principles, Rory Lamont has shed light upon some pretty glaring issues with mental and physical health within the game. The first thing I want to highlight is an accusation about physical health. Lamont was forced to play whilst injured. We’re not even talking about in a club game, although that could well have happened too.

In 2010 Scotland welcomed the All Blacks to Murrayfield and on the day, Lamont started on the opposite wing to his brother, Sean. The All Blacks crushed the Scots in a 3-49 victory. In an interview with ‘The Scotsman’ shortly after he was forced to retire through injury, Lamont shares his experience of being forced to play against the all Blacks for Scotland in 2010, whilst carrying an injury to his quadriceps. Before the game, Lamont had told medics and coaches that he was not fit to play but this was ignored.

“We lost heavily, a coach asks me after the game if I have a mental issue with playing the All Blacks. I just shake my head”. Lamont was highly criticised following his performance in this game and on many occasions people questioned whether his heart was in it. Your heart can be in a game, but if your body isn’t, the fans will be none the wiser. Why would coaches select injured players?

The original article is online, here.

I put it out of my mind and concentrate on my first job, to sprint from the kick-off and make the first tackle. The whistle goes, and I take off and, after about 15 metres, I feel something go ffffft in my thigh and the pain suddenly becomes excruciating”- Rory Lamont

Fast-forward three years to his interview with ‘The Sunday Times’ where Lamont talks of his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. The sport that he once loved had hung him out to dry. He spent the following three years struggling with his depression, recalling the “shame and stigma” of his condition.

Lamont is of course not alone in feeling this abandonment and depression with the sport. In the past Mathieu Basteraud has suffered with issues of depression during his career and John Kirwan’s post-rugby depression is well documented online too. Former Bath and England prop Duncan Bell and ex Sale and Lions hooker Andy Titterell can also be added to the list of people who have been open about their struggles with mental health.

Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get struck by lightning or step in front of a bus”- Rory Lamont

One of the most worrying things highlighted in the article is that the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) don’t have a body there to support players once they retire from the game. Of course, there are some good examples of success in managing retiring players. Glasgow Warriors captain Al Kellock is now working as an SRU ambassador and having recently retired from playing due to concussion, scrum-half Mike Blair has been awarded the Macphail coaching scholarship in New Zealand and will continue to work with the Glasgow Warriors squad next season.

Even at the lower levels, there is an issue. Especially with mental health issues being such a taboo in our society, perhaps this is not surprising. Recently, I received a private message on twitter from a follower described what rugby meant to him. Having lost a parent, his rugby coaches were like fathers to him and he was incredibly thankful for the support they provided and the time they invested in him as a player. It helped him grow his confidence and bring some focus back into his life and this for me sums up what rugby is about and why we love it so much.

However, the professional game is very different to the amateur one; has professionalism caused rugby to push results and overlook the principles that the game has grown from? Of course professional sides need results to keep interest, investment and a fan-base, but their employee’s should be respected and provided for in a sport where so much is on the line.

Many people are labelling Lamont brave and I agree with that, but why should it be necessary? We are Rugby well over a decade into professionalism, shouldn’t more be done to lose this stigma and further support provided for retiring players? As Lamont says, it’s an issue of the macho rugby image, but also an issue in society where mental health issues are still very much a taboo.

As rugby fans, we are always the first to comment on how great our sport is for respect and teamwork. Indeed, the sport has openly gay players and referees (although not many) which can be seen as somewhat more progressive than some sports. But can we truly claim our sport builds these qualities when players once at the top of the game are seemingly abandoned? Finally, if medics and coaches don’t always take physical injuries seriously, how can we expect people to take mental one seriously? Unfortunately, this is often the problem with mental health.

You can see Mark Palmer’s article with Rory Lamont, here. If you do not subscribe to ‘The Sunday Times’, a copy is available here.

‘The Guardian’ also did an interesting follow up piece, available here.

My follow up article on how we can support Rugby’s retiring stars is now available, here.

As usual, let me know your thoughts in the comments or on twitter and may I wish Rory Lamont well on his recovery.

The Scribbler, 3rd April, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler


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