Weekend Interview: Leeds Rhinos' Stevie Ward so happy to get back in the right mindset

TIM FERRISS and Tony Robbins may not be the first authors that spring to mind when it comes to a rugby player's reading list.

LIFTING THE GLOOM: Leeds Rhinos' Stevie Ward at the club's training ground on Kirkstall Road, is close to a return to first-team action after helping both himself and others tackle periods of depression through his Mantality programme. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

However, the American writers – often described as life-coaches or self-help experts – are aiding Leeds Rhinos forward Stevie Ward in his battle to return to not just physical fitness but mental well-being, too.

The player, 22, is edging ever closer to his long-awaited comeback game after more than 11 months sidelined with a serious knee injury.

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He was 18th man for their match against Hull KR last Friday – as close as you can get to the match-day squad without actually playing – and is likely to perform the same duties this afternoon ahead of Leeds’ latest Qualifiers fixture versus London Broncos in Ealing.

HAPPY DAYS: Stevie Ward scores a try against Huddersfield Giants - the same night he ruptured his cruciate ligament and that Leeds Rhinos clinched the League Leaders' Shield through a late, late Ryan Hall try.

The hope is, possibly by the time they next play against Salford Red Devils back at Headingley a week on Friday, the young second-row will make the last step and take to the field to show his undoubted talent once more.

For all of the travails of his arduous recovery after rupturing his cruciate ligament at Huddersfield on the night Leeds dramatically claimed the League Leaders’ Shield last September, he has been tackling plenty of other issues as well.

It was in May that Ward revealed he had suffered depression during an earlier injury lay-off in his fledgling career.

He wanted to aid others who may need help themselves and launched Mantality, an online magazine whose niche is “acknowledgement of the state of mind.”

Stevie Ward kisses the Challenge Cup trophy at Wembley last year after beating Hull KR 50-0.

With Ward as its editor-in-chief, it is proving a success and, also, a useful tool to keep himself motivated during the long months of recovery.

Thankfully, he says he is dealing better with the bouts of anxiety that once could cripple him almost on a daily basis, the sort of battles no-one expects hardened professional sportsmen to come across.

Asked how he has been this time around compared to the lows of missing games previously after a succession of shoulder issues, Ward told The Yorkshire Post: “I am miles better for my day-to-day life, managing it, taking control of the day.

“It can seem quite far fetched but I list ways I do that.

At the League Leaders Trophy presentation, Kallum Watkins and Kevin Sinfield console Stevie Ward.

“I walk around with a smile on my face, try to help people, try to inspire people, take things and try to learn and grow.

“The attitude towards coming back and my daily life is completely reversed compared to 2014 when I was out injured and was very much a negative man.

“This time around I’m positive and have taken the opportunity to turn it to my advantage, whether that’s building something like Mantality, or learning all the time is something I’m trying to do.

“There’s a lot of people that I take a lot of notice now that I never used to, like Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins. People can say it’s ‘spiritual’ but a lot of what they say makes sense; being able to make the most of your day can affect most of your life.

HAPPY DAYS: Stevie Ward scores a try against Huddersfield Giants - the same night he ruptured his cruciate ligament and that Leeds Rhinos clinched the League Leaders' Shield through a late, late Ryan Hall try.

“I still have my bad days – I still have doubts – but there’s not that unsure feeling of anxiety that used to happen.”

Ward first surged onto the scene in 2012 when the Morley-born player not only made his Super League debut for Leeds but, just a few months later, featured in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley when still only 18 years old.

That showpiece came barely a week after receiving his A-level results and he rounded off a dream campaign by playing in the Grand Final win at Old Trafford.

Did anxiety trouble him back then?

“No,” is Ward’s reply. “As a young lad, I always knocked success and achievements to one side.

“I was always fearful of people saying I was big-headed or I was getting carried away with myself so when that happened – good A levels, a Challenge Cup final at Wembley – I said ‘Right, I’ve done that. Cool. Now the next thing.’

Stevie Ward kisses the Challenge Cup trophy at Wembley last year after beating Hull KR 50-0.

“Whereas, in fact, those achievements were massive things, really big milestones in my life and I didn’t celebrate them as much as I should have done.

“Now I’ve learnt to say it was good, be grateful, enjoy it.

“There was nothing (depression) there then but I think that built up to the fact in 2014 I wasn’t physically right and physically able to stamp my authority, make more milestones.

“I got too hung up on that and that’s where the negative mindset came in; not being able to deal with things as I should have done.”

Ward recovered from shoulder surgery to help Leeds win the Challenge Cup two years ago, the first time since 1999, and was there again last season when they vanquished Hull KR 50-0.

Soon after, of course, came the low of seeing his knee crumple on that monumental night at Huddersfield when Ryan Hall snatched Leeds the League Leaders’ Shield with a try after the final hooter.

It meant Ward missed their treble-completing Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors and, agonisingly, all of this campaign so far.

“I’m not on any medication now,” he continued.

“I look at people’s past experiences and what’s worked with them.

“It’s just me keeping above things and saying I’m going to do stuff during the day and when it happens it happens.

“I can look back and smile on it. It’s just taking control of it before something negative might happen and then things topple on each other.

“It’s very much a mindset thing. That’s where Mantality aims – making sure your mindset is the first thing you think about.

“I think we’re cheating ourselves if we don’t. Your mind is at the centre of everything you do and if you’ve got a healthy mind that thinks in good patterns you’re halfway there.”

Hearing the South Stand roar his name so much last week – “I don’t know how many times a cone boy’s had his name chanted!” – was a reminder of the high esteem the Academy product is held in by the fans at Headingley.

It proved a worthwhile exercise, too, completing the squad warm-up and reaquainting himself with the nuances of match-day.

Indeed, Ward revealed during his previous three outings as 18th man – before that Rovers game – he was remarkably called upon to actually play each time, Brett Delaney going down ill on the coach on one occasion.

So, maybe fate suggests there is a chance Ward will get his shot today after all.

If he does not, though, you know he will not be worried.

The Stevie Ward story...

1993: Born November 17, in Morley, Leeds

2009: Represents England Youth side

2010: Signs for Leeds Rhinos and establishes himself in Under 18s side. Scores for England Academy v France

2011: Faces Australian Institute of Sport with England Academy

2012: Makes Super League debut at St Helens in March. Scores his first try versus Widnes and plays 21 games including Challenge Cup final defeat to Warrington Wolves and Grand Final win over same side.

2013: Plays in World Club Challenge loss against Melbourne Storm at Elland Road but later suffers shoulder injury in April and misses rest of the year

2014: Wins at Wembley as Leeds defeat Castleford in Challenge Cup final

2015: Repeats Wembley feat against Hull KR but knee reconstruction rules him out of title run-in for treble-winners

2016: Earns new five-year deal and takes Leeds’ cherished 13 jersey, vacated by departing captain Kevin Sinfield. Invited to new England coach Wayne Bennett’s first squad get-together

At the League Leaders Trophy presentation, Kallum Watkins and Kevin Sinfield console Stevie Ward.