Brendan Cannon: How anxiety almost derailed my rugby career
Brendan Cannon beat the British and Irish Lions, played 42 times in the Wallabies jersey and has over 100 Super Rugby caps to his name but at one point in his career, the hooker was so anxious about throwing a line out, he felt paralysed by fear every time he saw someone kick the ball.
Cannon spoke openly about his struggles with mental health at a Rugby Business Network event in Sydney this week.
“It got to the point that every time I saw someone go to kick the ball I knew there were only two options. It was either going to be kept in play and we were going to counter attack, or it was going to go out and I was going to have to take the ball and my teammates expected me to hit the target,” Cannon told Rugby News after the event.
“From the moment the ball went out and the touch judges flag went up, the nerves just welled in my stomach and it really made me quite anxious. It was something I had created. I had really complicated something that I had been comfortable doing for most of my life and it just goes to show the power of the mind and positive or negative thinking.
“I was so uncertain about the outcome, that I paralysed myself with that uncertainty.”
Cannon said that fear grew as his rugby career progressed and by 2001, shortly after making his Wallabies debut, his line out throw had become a weakness in his game.
“Andy Friend was assistant coach at the Waratahs at the time and he had some experience with a sports psychologist so he encouraged me to go and have a chat,” Cannon recalled.
“I agreed that if it was kept confidential, I’d go and see him because I was paranoid that if any one knew I was seeing this psychologist, they would use it against me.
Over the 2001/02 off season, Cannon worked closely with a sports psychologist on deconstructing the process of a line out throw and revamped his routine during the 2002 season.
“He used a lot of tennis analogies and said when Roger Federer gets four balls tossed at him before a serve and throws two away, he isn’t doing it because there is something wrong with those balls, it’s just part of his process and routine. His routine becomes consistent and his confidence grows. When he falls out of his routine, he stops and starts again.
“From then on, every time I came to a line out, I was able to start my own process which triggered a feeling of relaxation and it allowed me to execute line out after line out in a very relaxed way with the belief that I was going to hit the target. If I didn’t, that was okay and I moved on.
“I doubt I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t of got help. It got to the point that I needed to do something about it and it made me a much better player.”
In 2003, Cannon had a breakout season and started in seven of the Wallabies eight World Cup matches before receiving RUPA’s Medal for Excellence or ‘player’s player’ award at the end of the year.
“That award is something that I am really proud of because it came from my teammates and peers,” Cannon said.
“I think seeing the psychologist allowed me to feel free again and suddenly something that I used to fear, the ball being kicked out, became something that I was genuinely excited about and I wanted to throw as many line outs as possible every game.”
Earlier this week, Cannon spoke at a mental health forum hosted by Greg Mumm alongside psychologist Tahnee Shultz and former NRL player Dan Hunt.
“I think the conversation around mental health is going to become a lot more comfortable it we start to talk more openly about it. We haven’t had that platform in the past and people still feel the need to seek help discreetly but if we can promote the conversation and talk about the highs and lows of life, then we can start to change that stigma,” Cannon said.
“Dan Hunt described it perfectly when he said that we all talk about physical fitness and physical appearance but our brain is an important part of our body so we need to look after our mental health in the same way that we look after our general health.
“The two go hand in hand and you can’t really benefit from one without the other so we need to be holistic in our approach to care, repair and maintain our existence.”