Leeds Rhinos are at the forefront of educating young players about mental health as the club’s head of youth development, Barrie McDermott, explains to Adam Shergold.
Barrie McDermott knows first-hand about the devastating effect of mental illness on sports professionals.
Like the rest of rugby league, he was left stunned when close friend and former team-mate Terry Newton was found hanged at his home near Wigan one Sunday morning in September, 2010.
And he vowed to ensure that the sport learnt the painful lessons from the death of the former Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls hooker, who was seven months into a two-year ban after testing positive for a banned human growth hormone.
McDermott, now head of youth development at the Rhinos, says rugby league has a “duty of care” to its players, regardless of whether they’re a young hopeful just finding their way in the game, or a seasoned professional nearing retirement.
“The demands of rugby league at the professional level vary from player to player – some embrace it, some feel burdened by it,” says McDermott.
“We need to strike a balance between the supreme mental toughness required to succeed in the game and the vulnerabilities that are natural to all men aged 16 or 17. They are still pushed to their limit, but we are all perhaps a little bit more mindful after the death of Terry Newton.
“We can push and push them in the gym or out on the training ground, but we don’t know what’s happening in their family lives, behind closed doors. You can’t talk about it in the changing room – it’s as simple as that.
“There needs to be people at every club who will guide the players right the way through their career and also after retirement.
“In their pomp, players can be household names but after they stop playing the game, they feel as if they have nowhere to go. I know some who are still lost five or 10 years after retirement.
“It’s like a solider – they are institutionalised, told all the time when to get up, when to eat, what to do. They’re always on a mission mentally and when that’s no longer there, they can run wild and loose.
“There should be a person at every club to look out for the signs of mental illnesses, whatever they may be, the things we don’t want to talk about. There is a duty of care for all clubs, we don’t want to lose any more rugby league players.”
He believes that the Rhinos are leading the way in their approach to youth development, with even the youngest players educated in mental health through presentations and workshops.
“At Leeds, we give young players a platform to test themselves. If they aren’t quite good enough, we have the contacts to signpost them to another club or another career. We can catch the player who falls out of the system.
“We make no promises, but you increase your chances by working hard. At the elite level, it is the survival of the fittest. We will keep pushing and testing them and, in the end, we will find them a home.
“I would say that my door is always open to young players, whatever their concerns. I’m not 16 or 17 any more so I might not be able to answer all the questions, but I will point them in the direction of someone who can.
“The mind is the most important muscle and tool in the body, whether you play at grass-roots or the top level.
“The power of the mind decides whether you succeed and it can be bumped and bruised as much as the body. It is the reason for a player’s energy levels and if we notice a negative change – whether it is a lack of care in their appearance, they’re turning up late to training or they smell of drink. There are all kinds of signs we need to spot to stop them falling into that spiral of depression.”
At the other end of a player’s career, some of the same doubts can surface and, while some have made all the necessary preparations for life after the game, others need guidance.
Bodies like the Rugby League Players’ Association and even trade unions can offer advice and direction, as GMB sports officer Geoff Burrow explains: “During some of the ‘one to one’ meetings we hold with players, a few shared with me their fears for the future and it was quite apparent that the majority of ‘fears’ were not so much related to future employment and financial matters, but more relating to the fact that they would not be ‘part of a team.’
“One member, several years ago, had just retired from playing but moved onto the coaching staff and he mentioned that he never expected to miss the relationship with fans – he gave the example of the previous season when he would walk out of the dressing room and fans would be all around him asking for autographs and photographs.
“He then mentioned this present season when he would walk out of the dressing room after a game and the ‘fans just ran past me and went to the players.’
“Life after playing needs to be carefully considered because some individuals could be affected more than others and if we are not careful, then serious consequences could occur.”