Reflections on ‘Redefining Masculinity…’ – Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being

An audio reading of this post can be found here via Spotify

Below are some reflections on the project I was working on last term with a school rugby team (U16s) I coached. An introduction to it all can be found here. My general reflections and some other details about the project can be found here. In this piece, I am focusing on how we looked at the areas of Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being alongside some of the various successes and areas I would like to develop.

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Mental Health:


Strength in Opening Up

Perhaps the most effective resource we used to explore mental health was the speech by Niall Breslin (former rugby player and current musician) on his issues with anxiety. His searing honesty is hard to stomach at times but he gives such a vivid account of what it is like to try and cope with such challenges on a daily basis. What resonated was how successful and happy Bressie appeared to be. He provided a perfect example of how we need to challenge the traditional macho stereotype and how bottling up your feelings can be so debilitating and self-destructive if left unchecked:

At this point I had just got a scholarship to play rugby in UCD [University College Dublin], I had played rugby for the Irish U21s…people were saying: “Jesus, he’s flying. It’s great.”

I was in absolute hell.


We introduced the clip to the whole group in our pre-training classroom session, then posted it to Google Classroom and allowed them to view it in their own time – if they wanted to do so. We also encouraged them to complete a questionnaire about some of the issues that it explored. I was cognisant of the fact we were opening a discussion on something that could directly or indirectly affect someone and then just move on, leaving them with no one to turn to. We wanted there to be an outlet or a person that they could talk to if they needed it.

The questions centered on some of the issues, namely anxiety, that Bressie faced as we wanted to gauge how the group had felt about it. Some chose this as a way to vent or express maybe some of their own troubles. This was so integral to the project as a whole; to allow a way for people to share if they wanted to.

Support Networks:

Another thing I perhaps only became really conscious of when I started was just how I needed to ensure that I had a proper referral system in place if I was to encounter an issue that was beyond my level of expertise. We tried to reinforce the idea of a ‘support network’ for the team by asking them questions such as:

Who are the people you can talk to about things you find difficult?

What types of problems are most suited to the different people in this network?

It was also vital that I liaise with each of the groups – friends, teachers, Senior Management, pastoral support, parents – around the team so that they too were aware of some of the things being explored and discussed.

‘Thanks for Sharing:’

This became our mantra anytime someone opened up, no matter how big or small their story appeared to be. Having a conversation with a friend who is a psychologist, she told me: “There is a reason people build up these walls within themselves. You need to give them a good enough reason to take them down.” With this in mind, I wanted us to be aware of how their sharing such concerns with us was to be marked with us thanking them. It was a small thing but reinforced the openness we wished to create among the group.

Areas to Develop:

Take the conversation outside the classroom

While some of the Lynx clips did touch on aspects of how men struggled with their mental health, I am not sure if we did enough in this area. One of my biggest regrets was not finding time to have conversations with smaller groups outside of these classroom sessions. I wanted to do more of these chats in different settings such as on the bus to or from games (I only managed this once), on the pitch side in training or just around the school when I might encounter members of the team.

Don’t Try to Do it All Yourself – Seek Out the Experts

I was only too aware of my own lack of personal experience with many of the issues around mental health that I was discussing with the group. Maybe having a professional come in to lead on a discussion who had direct experience could have brought this to life more so for the group. Dr Suzanne Brown, a clinical psychologist, was so helpful when I was trying to get this project started. She shared plenty of resources and it would have been good to check in with her during the project itself. Having her, or another professional to share their expertise would have been an invaluable way to take this area forward.

Emotional Well-being:


Sharing Your ‘Why’:

Of course there are plenty of overlaps between our emotional well-being and our mental health and we often tried to ensure there was a connection between one session and the next. We hoped to create the right environment for people to share by having a session where we reflected on our ‘why’. To do this, it was important that we as coaches modeled what this might look like and so I revealed how I was ‘coerced’ into playing rugby by my father. I also told them how he died when I was 12 and so sport and especially rugby, has always linked me in a way to him.

The rest of the group then gave accounts of how they got started in the game and some chose to delve deeper than others which was perfectly fine. The intention was to create a fairly low-stakes exercise for them to opt into should they wish. This was an invaluable experience and one I would definitely encourage other teams or organisations to try as it set the foundation for what we could go onto achieve with the group. It also allowed us as coaches to get to know the players as individuals with their own stories. I suppose I also hoped it would help forge tighter bonds between the group itself that would stand to them in the coming months.

Developing Empathy:

When trying to allow opportunities for people to open-up, we discussed the various ‘support-networks’ they might have around them. I was aware that it would be useful to try and help the group develop their own listening and empathetic behaviors if anyone wished to confide in them. To this end, the animated segment of Dr Brene Brown’s TED talk is exceptional, where she explores the difference between sympathy and empathy. If we want to encourage people to share their problems, then we need to equip people to become good listeners. In short, we need to foster empathy in the young people we teach and coach if we really want to support them in helping themselves and others.

‘The Starry-Eyed Man’

One resource we used to explore the emotional side of masculinity was through the Sam Burgess documentary. Throughout he gave such an honest account of how tragedy can affect anyone, in this case, his having to care for his father who had Motor Neuron Disease. Again, trying to model good practice, I spoke of how this documentary was emotional for me as it reminded me of losing my own father.

We showed a short clip of this documentary and then asked them to watch it in their own time. The idea here was to expose them briefly to something and discuss it as a group and to allow them to digest it individually.

Men of Letters

Finally, the end of the season meant the end of road for this team. By this I mean, many of them have played together for a few years, representing their school and for some, taking up rugby for the very first time. With many students possibly moving elsewhere after their GCSEs and the influx of new students in our Sixth Form, these players will form a very different team next year.

I wanted to mark this occasion and so invited parents to write a letter to their son and describe what they have enjoyed about seeing them play rugby for their school over the last few years. I learned of this idea from a podcast that Stuart Lancaster undertook with Michael Gervais where he asked the parents of the England team to write to the players, describing what it meant for them to see them represent their country. With us, the letters were all kept a secret from the players and only presented to them after the end of season dinner. From what I gather, these had a big impact on each of the players and hopefully allowed parents an opportunity to express how the felt seeing their sons play this sport. While there were times I wish that I had involved the parents more fully in this project, this was definitely a real high point.

Areas to Develop:

Mindful Players

One area I wished I had introduced to the group was the idea of trying to tune into what they are feeling. So much of modern life is chaotic and moving at a million miles an hour. I feel this is exacerbated for young people who are full of energy and are forced into social competition with one another.

Without knowing the best way to describe this, I suppose I wanted to draw their focus towards mindfulness. I have dabbled in using the Headspace app from time to time and find it useful when things get frantic in my own life. I especially like the exercises about ‘noting’ what feelings or thoughts you might be experiencing while not trying to do anything about them, just noting what they are. I perhaps needed to consider the best way to present the benefits of using such an app and maybe finding someone who has worked with young people in such an area might also have helped.

Sports Psychology

From a rugby perspective, I would try to delve into this area more so in future to help players develop an emotional resilience. It would be useful for them to become more aware of how they feel in training or games or how they feel when they under perform. Dan Abrahams has a great podcast (Episode 13 with Steve Johnson is a favourite) where he professes the merits of Sports Psychology and trying to prepare athletes to maximise their potential. By centering our attention on the psych-social elements of our coaching practice, we allow our players to hone these skills.

As a result of my writing up these sessions, I managed to touch base with Alex Powell, who plays with Wasps Ladies RFC who gave me plenty of insights in terms of sports psychology. Alex runs her own company, The Achieving Mind, and she would have been ideal to come do a workshop with the team had we managed to connect earlier in the season. Her ideas and background in sport make her a perfect fit for engaging players and I would hope to arrange a session next season.

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