Greg Mumm: How rugby can help us better understand mental health

By Greg Mumm

For me, mental health issues always felt like being stuck on the bench in a game I desperately wanted to be involved in, pacing the sideline, living each moment of those people on the field, but having a nagging thought in my mind that for some reason I wasn’t good enough to be out there.

And no matter how much I stretched or warmed up on the sideline, there was an imaginary coach somewhere that would never allow me to join the game.

I never had the awareness, nor did those around me, to notice what was probably a mental health issue when I transitioned out of sport. It wasn’t spoken about.

There was still a stigma that there was something wrong with people who couldn’t handle it mentally.

This was the weight that pulled on your own thoughts when you entered those spaces – that there was something wrong with you for feeling the way you were feeling, so you hid it for fear that someone else would realise it too, and kick you out of the group, put you on the outside of the circle.

So I did what many young men and women do. I kept up the best facade I could during the week, and then escaped at nights or weekends in to all the high-risk behaviors I could lose myself in, trying to avoid having to deal with the thoughts I had of not being good enough – because I didn’t know how to deal with them or who I could talk to ask for help.

Things have changed now!

Mental health is a topic that can be openly spoken about, even in the toughest of change rooms, and the awareness is growing that most of us will experience a period of poor mental health in our life.

For some of us this will require medical assistance and whilst for others with good support and self-management, it is a health condition that can be treated and managed like many others.

This is the aim of the Rugby Business Network event on Monday night, to increase the awareness of this topic to empower individuals to have greater awareness of both their own mental health and the mental health of those around them.

Former Wallaby Brendon Cannon, Dan Hunt of the Mental Health Movement and past St George Illawarra player, and Tahnee Shulz of MateCheck, will all be sharing both their personal and professional experiences in this space.

This year has made abundantly it clear that we all know someone affected by mental health issues – the question is how comfortable are we about reaching out to either seek help or offer help to those in need.

For me in my own experience and also in working with others, it’s the small actions that build momentum for the biggest changes.

Just like your own on-field performance in sport or the performance of a team, one bad play or lost match doesn’t make a season, and in the same way, a bad thought or a bad day is just part of the game.

Quite often, it’s the mistakes I have made or the bad days I’ve had that provide the contrast for moments of joy and celebration.

But using the sports analogy, error after error, loss after loss, start to make you feel the pressure. Left unchecked this can start to make you feel pretty miserable.

However, as a player, it’s possible to use strategies to bring you back to performance, as a team, you often have plays or patterns to return to and regain control and momentum. My personal learnings have been that this is possible with our mental health as well.

This of course is made easier by the support of your team mates and club. It’s moments like these where the wise heads in the teams are most valuable, when their thinking perhaps compensates for their slowing pace, or their increasingly lame dad jokes.

It’s these moments where they put an arm around you and say, ‘get back to basics mate’, ‘just get your hands on the ball’ or ‘let’s just kick the corners and play down their end’.

Or it can just as easily be the youngest bloke in the team who walks off the field and win, lose or draw, reminds us ‘it’s just a game’, and seeing you’re a bit down reminds you of the play you made the week before and reminds you just how lucky you are to be out on the field.

These reminders don’t let the game get away too far, they don’t let you beat yourself up for too long before lifting you back up and getting you back on with life.

This is what we can do for each other off the field as well as on, put an arm around each other and just say ‘Mate, is everything ok…how can we get you back to playing at your best…how can we get you smiling again?.

The lasting memory for me of this year’s Super Rugby competition was of the Western Force and Rebels players standing arm in arm, acknowledging each other struggles, whilst celebrating all they had in common.

For me, managing my own mental health and those around me is nothing more than acknowledging my own struggles and theirs, and being comfortable sharing them together.

If rugby can support each other off the field as well as on, we really are stronger as one, and we don’t have to leave anyone standing on the sideline.

CLICK HERE: Tickets are available to next month’s Rugby Business Network event “Tackling Mental Health Awareness” in Sydney on August 7, featuring Brendan Cannon, Tahnee Shultz, Dan Hunt and Greg Mumm. 

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