We had the fortune of discussing the mental health with former second row, Dan Sanderson. Dan spent time playing at Northampton Saints, Moseley, Rotheram Titans, Worcester Warriors and Yorkshire Carnegie, where he retired from professional rugby in 2018. Mental health has proven to be a huge developing issue within rugby. Kearnan Myall recently spoke out in a thought provoking interview with The Guardian and campaign groups such as LooseHeadz have been set up to raise awareness within the game.
RugbyInsideLine: Please could you tell me a little bit about how and when you realised that you may be suffering from mental health issues?
Dan Sanderson: I’m not sure if I am suffering from mental health issues at the moment. It’s really hard to define sometimes. With more information available, I think people are more aware and they can then say with more certainty if they have a problem. Looking back through my career, there have definitely been times where I have struggled and could have been suffering through a mental illness without realising, especially from 2014 to 2017. Retiring has been hard, and the adjustment has been more difficult than I expected, despite having a good job lined up.
RIL: Did you find it difficult to come out to your teammates about your mental health issues? Was this because of the masculine stereotype found in rugby?
DS: I have never heard a full-on, serious conversation about anyone suffering from mental health in any of the dressing rooms I have been in. I guess it is still seen as a taboo subject, even now. I have no doubt however, that people would feel comfortable talking to teammates about the issue though, but it would definitely be done in private. I never felt as though I could really open up, as at the time I didn’t think it was that big a deal.
RIL: Did you feel your coaches and teammates were people who you could talk to about your problems?
DS: There are certain teammates I feel I could have talked with. Funnily enough, the coaches I could speak with were always from previous teams. I never felt I could speak to a coach of the team I was playing for.
RIL: What support, if any, was offered to you once you stopped playing rugby professionally?
DS: None at all. I had an average career and yo-yo’d between Premiership and Championship teams. The difference between what the Premiership guys get compared to the Championship players in terms of support is frightening. Even when at a Premiership team, I never felt the RPA was for the average player and they didn’t actually offer that much anyway. Injuries are increasing and players are having shorter careers. I know for a fact that many players from both leagues have no idea what they are going to do after they retire. The amount of stress worrying about that alone is enough to push anybody over the edge. It also makes clinging on to their rugby career even more important, even if they are not enjoying it, as they have nowhere else to go.
RIL: Do you feel that professional clubs currently provide an environment that enables and is supportive enough for players to speak up about concerns around their mental health?
DS: To my knowledge, no, not at all. I have been retired a year but I can’t see it changing that quickly. I can only talk about the clubs I have played at though.
RIL: Do you feel that the demands around the long calendar within professional rugby has an impact on players’ mental wellbeing?
DS: I feel that this only affects the top 10% of players. If you are not playing internationally, there is plenty of rest time. Players are looked after extremely well, and the recovery sessions are excellent. I think there needs to be less pressure put on players when they are injured though. All too often players are expected to train and play when not ready.
RIL: As mentioned earlier, rugby players are often seen as ‘alpha males’ within society. Does this stereotype still have an effect on your mental health?
DS: It does. Since retiring, I have seen my body change. Being a big guy and an ex-pro, I think people expect current and recently retired players to be massive, well-built guys! I retired through injury and whilst still bigger than the average joe, I have lost a lot of weight and don’t really look like a rugby player anymore! Going from being big and strong, to not exercising much is a weird feeling. It is hard to find the motivation, and this is something that I struggle to deal with. I feel the public perception of rugby players is still the old school ‘rugger bugger’ type. It doesn’t really bother me, but I can see why it would others.
RIL: Kearnan Myall is seen as the main voice behind changing the stigma behind mental health in professional rugby. What do you think that players, coaches, supporters, competitions and governing bodies can do to alter the stance on mental health on the whole?
DS: I think it has been good that he spoke up and I know it has shocked some people. Rugby has changed drastically in the last 5-7 years yet those who are in charge remain the same. I think that until you change the coaching structures and personnel, having a mental health issue won’t be taken seriously or respected. I worry far more about players who are not in the spotlight and are on the fringes of teams in the prem and all of the players in the championship. I really feel like these two groups are a ticking time bomb.