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First study into professional rugby players’ wellbeing sheds light on mental demands of the game

​16 February, 2021

Cardiff Metropolitan University

Academics from Cardiff Metropolitan University have conducted the first ever study into the mental demands experienced by professional rugby union players over the course of a domestic season.

Working with the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby, researchers from Cardiff Met’s School of Sport and Health Sciences and the University of Bath and University of Portsmouth looked at the psychological load faced by players in the English Rugby Premiership across two seasons, the strategies they used to cope with the psychological load faced and the subsequent impact upon their wellbeing. 

The pioneering ‘Psychological load and coping in the English Rugby Premiership’ study shows how players experience demands from a range of sources from within (rugby load) and outside (life load) the sport, with the impact upon mental wellbeing greatest at the end of the season. 

To successfully cope with this load, players use strategies such as focusing on the task at hand and seeking support from family, friends or work colleagues. The nature of the rugby environment, including a club’s culture and the behaviour of the leaders within the club, was also reported to impact upon the level of mental wellbeing players experienced.

In comparison to their healthy counterparts, injured players reported experiencing the greatest threat to their mental wellbeing due to an increased psychological load faced, higher symptoms associated with burnout and lower mental wellbeing. Isolation, loneliness and loss of identity were frequently reported by injured players.

The findings from this research have contributed to the Professional Rugby Mental Health Review undertaken by the RFU, Premiership Rugby and the RPA. A number of subsequent player welfare initiatives have been adopted across the Gallagher Premiership, Greene King IPA Championship and Allianz Premier 15s. The Premiership has seen the introduction of Mental Health Medical Leads for each club, a league-wide Mental Wellbeing Monitoring programme and peer-to-peer support (such as Mental Health First Aid training) for players and staff.

The results of these initiatives are particularly salient given the current challenges of operating the professional game in the Covid-19 climate, such as dealing with compressed fixture schedules and extended periods of competition, and mean that the mental welfare of the players in the English professional game will receive even greater attention and support at the organisation, club and individual level.

Professor Stephen Mellalieu from Cardiff Metropolitan University said: “Across the 2017/18 season we conducted three extensive surveys with 691 players pre-, mid- and end-season to capture the psychological load faced, coping strategies used, and impact upon wellbeing. The following season, we conducted case studies with three Premiership clubs looking at the role of the wider work environment, and specifically the behaviour of the leaders within the club, the load players faced, how they coped and the impact upon their wellbeing.

“The findings of this research are critical because they highlight that while professional rugby is a highly demanding occupation that takes its toll mentally as well as physically over the course of a season, players are able to perform successfully provided they are given suitable rest periods and the opportunity to develop the necessary coping skills and resources within a positive workplace environment and club culture. The findings also identify groups of players at greater risk to threats to wellbeing, such as injured players. We know dealing with injury can be a traumatic experience for any professional athlete and our work highlights the importance of the immediate and wider network around the player in helping them to successfully manage their mental health and wellbeing to return to fitness.”

Richard Bryan, Player Welfare Director at the Rugby Players’ Association added: “We would like to thank all of the players and clubs who participated in this crucial research. The importance of this study cannot be underestimated for the wellbeing of RPA members. 

“The findings will help the RPA, RFU, Premiership Rugby and clubs to better understand the causes of player psychological load, those players at greater risk and the safeguards that the game needs to have in place. 

“The study could not be more timely with players and clubs facing a season with challenges like no other. In this regard, I am pleased to say that the study is already having an impact on the day to day work and focus of the RPA Development Managers, whilst also delivering Mental Health First Aid training for players and club staff, alongside the Wellbeing Monitoring programme that has been developed with Premiership Rugby and the RFU.”   

Dr Simon Kemp, RFU Medical Services Director, commented: “This is the first study of its kind in rugby and another important part of the research portfolio we are developing across the game. These findings, as with others, are critical in helping us shape our understanding and assessing the best solutions to address the mental and physical demands of rugby and provide the right support for players. We have already seen a number of important initiatives implemented as a result of this project. Agreeing that each team should have a Doctor in the Mental Health Lead role and starting standardised wellbeing monitoring across the league and the England Senior Team should help make a real difference to the care and support that is delivered to players. The RFU is committed to developing its professional game research activity alongside PRL and the RPA and we’d like to thank Cardiff Metropolitan University and all of the players involved for their important role in this project.”

Dr Matt Cross, Premiership Rugby’s Head of Science and Medical Operations said: “Mental health is one of Premiership Rugby’s key priorities. Innovative research projects such as this help us to better understand the demands placed on players from both within and outside of the sport enabling us to provide appropriate support and provision. 

“As a result of this research, alongside the RFU and RPA, we are pleased to have developed a number of new initiatives in this area which include a peer-to-peer support programme through offering Mental Health First Aid training to players and staff at each club. This will enable more people to identify, understand, and help support any individuals who may need it.

“We are committed to raising mental health awareness across the Premiership, reducing stigma around mental health and producing a positive support culture at each of our clubs. PRL is committed to supporting further research alongside the RFU and RPA and we thank our clubs and all of the players that took part in this project.