Article explores findings of research into the player welfare managers employed at the 12 Super League clubs

PROFESSIONAL rugby league players can handle the tough stuff during games.  But off the field of play they can face mental challenges that threaten to overwhelm them.  Now, a former star of the sport is to speak at a major NHS conference, describing his battle with depression that led to thoughts of suicide.

Danny Sculthorpe – whose clubs included Wigan, Castleford, Huddersfield and Bradford – has become an Ambassador for the State of Mind sport charity and has written a frank account of his mental problems.  He speaks at schools, colleges, universities, workplaces and sports clubs about the importance of mental health and has become a qualified counsellor.

Now the ex-England captain is a keynote speaker at Health and Care Innovation Expo 2018.  Taking place in Manchester on 5th and 6th September, it is described as the biggest NHS-led event in the calendar.

The problem of mental health has been taken very seriously by the Rugby Football League, and a shift in attitudes has seen more and more players defying stigma in order to seek help by consulting the full-time welfare managers that all the top clubs must now employ.  

It is a change in culture that has been charted and influenced by researchers at the University of Huddersfield.  Their findings have relevance throughout the world of professional sport.

Rugby mental health research

Dr Kiara Lewis

Acting Head of Department of Allied Health Professions, Sport and Exercise

“We are taking very young men who often come from deprived backgrounds and we are throwing them into this world where they can be very successful for a short amount of time. They might have had a long and successful career, but they are still going to be at a working age when they leave,”

Heading the project is Dr Kiara Lewis, Acting Head of Department of Allied Health Professions, Sport and Exercise at the University’s School of Human and Health Sciences.  She is co-author of a new article that describes the findings of research into the player welfare managers (PWMs) at the 12 Super League clubs.

It was in 2011 that the Rugby Football League first made it mandatory for the full-time professional clubs to employ PWMs, whose role ranges from helping players deal with mental health issues such as depression and addiction to advising on education and training to help provide a new career path when playing days are ended.

In 2016, Dr Lewis and her co-researchers completed a series of detailed interviews with PWMs and delivered the findings to the RFL.  In the wake of that, it was decided that the welfare managers must be full-time employees – and the new article reports that they are often putting in 60-hour weeks.

The article takes its title from a comment made by one of the PWMs, who said that the job is “not mind blowing really, it’s about keeping people happy”.

The boon for the clubs is that more contented players are much likelier to perform well on the field.

“The stigma surrounding mental health can make it difficult for players to engage with support,” states the article, and this is especially the case in a heavy contact sport such as rugby league that “has traditionally been seen to embody stereotypical masculine identities”.

However, there has been a rising demand for help from PWMs, especially when high-profile, experienced players take a lead, encouraging younger team mates to follow suit.  It is also important that the coach is sympathetic to the role of the welfare managers, reports the new article.

“The welfare support of elite level athletes is still poorly understood and further investigation into how best to support the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of players is warranted,” concludes the article.

Player welfare policy

Dr Lewis is staying in touch with the RFL’s player welfare director, so that she can monitor progress.  She adds that although the emphasis on physicality – with rugby players becoming ever more powerful – it might have made it more difficult to seek help with mental and emotional problems, the topic is relevant to all professional sports, especially the issue of how to cope and what to do when playing days are over.

“We are taking very young men who often come from deprived backgrounds and we are throwing them into this world where they can be very successful for a short amount of time.  They might have had a long and successful career, but they are still going to be at a working age when they leave,” said Dr Lewis.

The new article includes the aims of the RFL’s Player Welfare Policy, which seeks to ensure that players can play to the best of their abilities, unhampered by off field concerns” and must “develop mental resilience and understand mental health and addiction”. 

  • The article, ‘It’s not mind blowing really…it’s about keeping people happy’: the perceptions of player welfare managers in Rugby Super League, appears in Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, and is authored by Kiara Lewis with Dr Susanna Kola-Palmer and Dr Nicole Sherretts, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Huddersfield, with Dr Alison Rodriguez at the School of Healthcare at the University of Leeds.