The Brain and The Brawn: The Role of Psychology and Mental Wellbeing in Elite Level Rugby

31 Jan 2022

For rugby fans across Europe, one of the most exciting times of the year is fast approaching as February 5th marks the start of the Six Nations tournament.

Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy will do battle, with the goal of lifting Championship Trophy set firmly in their sights.

The Six Nations is one of the highest levels of rugby that any player can hope to play at, and preparations begin months in advance to ensure that each squad member is ready for the toll the month and a half long tournament will take physically.

But, while the physical condition is obviously extremely important to a player’s performance level, the role that psychology and mental wellbeing plays is becoming increasingly prevalent with each passing year.

To take a closer look at how psychology is a factor in athletic performance, we sat down with Mark Smyth, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Lead for Rugby Players Ireland (RPI).

Having first become interested in psychology through a course ran for priests in the local seminary his aunt worked at, Mark has gone on to study psychology at both an undergraduate and postgraduate level.

He initially worked in the area of psychology as it pertains to children and adolescents but, after covering in RPI for a former colleague, he added Rugby Players Ireland to his portfolio of roles in 2019. 

In relation to the recent uptake in discussions around mental wellbeing of athletes, Mark says that sport psychology has been a factor for a number of years.

“The performance aspect of sport psychology has been around quite a while.

“It’s been there for a number of years and many of the successful hurling and football teams over the years have had psychologists working with the teams and management in the background. There is more of a public awareness of that now,” he said.

Mark also said that an increasing number of sporting bodies and teams are starting to recognise the importance of supporting their athletes by hiring psychology specialists like he and his colleagues.

In his role, Mark works with rugby players across all four provinces as well as the women’s team and the Sevens team. He explains the process by which a player is referred to him.

“Teams would have a Rugby Players Ireland player development manager who works on the ground supporting the players across multiple domains.

“That can be education, finance, future planning, and part of that would be the wellbeing too.

“A PDM would facilitate a referral to the service, which is sent on to me. I make contact with the player, and we arrange a screening appointment.

“We use a psychometric screening measure of wellbeing that’s designed for athletes. They complete that before they meet with me. Then we would arrange a screening session, either in person or over Zoom or phone. We look at the reason for referral.

“We look at the factors that have been impacting on them, what kind of supports do they have, to build a profile of what their needs are and what supports they might need,” he said.

From there Mark can work directly with the player or refer them to what he describes as a ‘network of psychologists in each of the four provinces’, whose skills and experience may be better suited to the specific needs of the player.

With the Six Nations around the corner, we asked Mark whether players tend to require more support in the lead up to major tournaments.

“There’s always going to be pinch points or times of stress for players. It could be an upcoming tournament like the Six Nations or qualifiers for the women’s team or for the 7s team, they have tournaments on a regular basis.

“Even on a weekly basis, playing with the provincial teams,” he said.

It also goes on a player-by-player basis, Mark says, with each and every one being treated individually.

While major tournaments and matches, and the pressure that comes with them, can be one of the pinch points that he refers to, sometimes it can be as simple as the worry of serious injury and losing a place in the squad.

Mark points to the women’s game and how, though they play and train to a professional standard, they remain largely unpaid.

Therefore, they must balance a full training and playing schedule with a job and/or studies.

“That would take its toll on anybody trying to manage all of those things at the same time,” he said.

There has been a lot of focus on the mental well-being of young athletes breaking through.

Only recently, Liverpool FC became the first club in the Premier League to hire a mental health specialist to work specifically with their young players making the transition from the academy to the senior team and the extra attention that comes with that.

“The media pressure on players can be immense. It’s great when you’re performing well, scoring a couple of tries but what you also find is that young players get compared to previous greats.

“That puts a great burden of pressure and responsibility on that player to live up to the hype of who that player was,” he said.

It’s a problem that is only exacerbated by the age of social media, where comments can be anonymous and constant.

“There are very few jobs in the world where, as you’re working, your work is critiqued in real-time by thousands of people on social media platforms. It’s not just about being in a stadium anymore, dealing with the reaction of the crowd.

“It’s not just a boo on the field that comes and goes, these things are permanent. The players have friends and family who also see these comments. It can very much be a fishbowl environment that’s not always empowering for players.

“It’s hard because young players are naturally much more likely to use social media than some of the more senior players,” he said.

That is where Rugby Players Ireland step in, Mark explains.

“What RPI does is proactively help the players plan for how to manage when they get media attention or when there’s social media content about them to prepare for that in advance.

“It’s a really holistic support role that we provide for the players,” he said.

One positive development Mark outlines is senior players engaging in the discussion around mental health

“One of the things that has really helped over the last number of years is the number of high-profile players, both male and female, who have spoken openly about their own struggles.

“What’s worked for them, people look up to these players. There has been a perception in the past about rugby being a macho sport that’s all about the physicality.

“There’s an understanding now that the players, no matter how big and strong they are, are still human. Their feelings are still their feelings, irrespective of how strong they are,” he said.

Sports psychology is a profession in which practitioners have been advocating for the introduction of statutory regulation for a long time, Mark says, but they are still waiting.

“Our colleagues in speech and language therapy and social work and OT, they have come under the banner of CORU, which is the body responsible for the registration of protected titles.

“They’ve been working on psychology and protecting that title for a while, but we don’t have it yet.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t that protection for athletes or the public for ensuring the people working with them are qualified.

“In the interim, Sport Ireland has been providing accreditation which has been helpful. But we do need it on a statutory basis,” Mark said.

You can read more about the work that Mark and his colleagues at Rugby Players Ireland do here.

Are you interested in a career in sport psychology?

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