Professional sport has been dramatically affected by COVID-19, few more so than rugby union. Across the globe, months of postponed matches and a fixture backlog have added to already congested schedules. Following UK government approval, the men’s English Premiership completed its postponed 2019/20 season in the late summer of 2020. The remaining fixtures were squeezed into a short period of time, with the unprecedented step of matches in August and midweek fixtures.
Following the dash to finish the 2019/20 season, the 2020/21 season started in November with less than a month’s break for players and staff. The 2020/21 season been dubbed potentially the most arduous in the sport’s history, as the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa will also fall at the end of the schedule.
Rugby’s showpiece international event in the northern hemisphere, the Six Nations tournament, kicked off on February 6. The tournament highlights the desire to continue professional sport through the pandemic to meet economic and cultural needs.
But many observers argue the current “new normal” in professional sport challenges player welfare and will bring mental and physical health consequences. The physical challenges of being a professional rugby player are well known, but it can also affect mental health and wellbeing.
Our recent two-year research programme measured the mental load players from the English Premiership faced across an entire competitive season. We identified the load faced within rugby, such as dealing with injury or not being selected, as well as the life load faced outside of the sport, such as managing finances, relationships and undertaking academic study.
While we found that players’ wellbeing levels did not differ from those in other highly demanding professions, wellbeing decreased when players experienced high levels of mental load. Importantly, mental load was at its greatest towards the end of the season – the longer the season went on, the greater wellbeing was affected. Players suggested this was down to the build-up of the mental “grind” of having to continually prepare their bodies and minds, week in, week out, over the course of the season.
Hidden side of injury
In recording the mental as well as physical toll, our research also identified groups of players “at risk” to mental health and wellbeing challenges. Those players who were injured and unable to train or play reported greater mental load, lower wellbeing and higher burnout then their healthier counterparts.
Being an injured professional sportsperson can lead to a number of threats to one’s mental health and wellbeing. This often leads to feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation. Men in particular are often poorly equipped to seek support or help. Many long-term injured players also suffer due to a loss of their identity as an athlete as they are unable to train with their teammates or play in matches.
In response to increasingly congested fixtures and extended seasons administrators have looked to offset the build up of mental load by providing regular in-season breaks. The aim being to allow players to physically and mentally recuperate. While time off is welcomed by players, this does not guarantee mental recuperation. Just because players are not playing they may still be mentally “present” at work and not able to switch off.
A week’s break from rugby is still likely to involve coming into the training ground for treatment on an injury or undertaking some form of fitness training to maintain physical condition. The key to any time off for players therefore appears to be to encourage “cognitive detachment” from the work environment. In our research the quality – what is done in the time off – appears more important than the length of time off given to players.
And, as time off is not always possible, players also need to find ways to cope with their demanding profession. Our research found that players successfully manage the mental load of a long season by seeking help and support from teammates, rugby staff, and family and friends.
Supporting player welfare
Following a review of mental health provision in the professional rugby game, a number of player welfare initiatives have been introduced in the English Premiership. These include mental health medical specialists at each club, a league-wide mental wellbeing monitoring programme and provision of peer-to-peer support for players and staff.
These initiatives are especially important given the additional challenges of operating during the pandemic. They mean that the welfare of the players in the English professional game will receive even greater attention and support at the organisation, club and individual level.
Stephen Mellalieu has received funding from Premiership Rugby, The Rugby Players Association, and The Rugby Football Union