JOHANNESBURG – The “empty hours” of lockdown haven’t been all bad for South Africa’s professional rugby players.
In fact, the state of national disaster and the suspension of all sport because of the Covid-19 pandemic have forced this country’s top players to re-evaluate their lives, and their hopes and dreams, according to industrial psychologist Hilana Claassens, a National Player Development manager at MyPlayers.
The organisation looks after the commercial, financial, labour and personal well-being of South Africa’s professional rugby players.
While the lockdown and suspension of sport had brought about “anxiety” in the professional player pool – mainly because of uncertainty over the future – the time away from rugby had also been beneficial, in some respects, according to Claassens.
“This is an uncertain time for all of us. The uncertainty is causing players to feel anxious about when they will return to play, what the effect will be on their futures and how they will be affected financially,” said Claassens.
The good news, according to Claassens, is the players have generally dealt with the situation well. While there are mental health challenges in the rugby fraternity, “there has not been an increase in players reaching out” in this regard since the lockdown started.
In a recent survey by MyPlayers it was found that four in 10 players suffer from one or more symptoms of common mental disorders, while one in 10 is not sure about the status of their mental well-being. Also, one third of the professional rugby players surveyed indicated they suffer from sleeping disturbance, while 5% admitted to being addicted to sleep medication.
Furthermore, according to the survey, the players acknowledged that mental health issues are a “big problem in South African rugby” but players didn’t feel comfortable speaking out. Many felt weak and vulnerable.
“Playing rugby on a professional level is like being in a war zone. You compete with your teammates for a spot in the team and then, once in the team, you have to consistently perform optimally, otherwise the next guy will take your place. The fans also have harsh opinions about the players so there is a lot of pressure and no room for mistakes.
“This high performance environment is also coupled with traditional masculinity (what players believe defines being a man), that you have to be tough all the time, that you have to lead and provide, that vulnerability means weakness.
“This leads to players finding it challenging to speak up about mental health challenges.”
The current forced time away from rugby, while challenging, would also, according to Claassens, hopefully have some benefits. Covid-19 had led to players realising that rugby is what they do, and not who they are.
“This realisation opens doors to great adventures and a world of new possibilities. Players are exploring study opportunities, pursuing ‘off the field’ dreams, creating business plans, improving life skills, networking, building their personal brands, and making plans to leave a legacy – on and off the field.”
By Jacques van der Westhuyzen