At the best of times, the lifestyle of a professional rugby player can be highly stressful.
Many factors can affect a players’ mental health and well-being such as social media abuse, injury and worries over team selection.
However, the last few months have been uniquely challenging for professional Welsh Rugby players. Some players are currently in a position where they are playing for their club and country without the certainty of knowing whether they will be in a job in the upcoming months.
Former Ospreys lock Lloyd Ashley, who is currently the mental health and well-being lead for the WRPA [The Welsh Rugby Players Association] as well as an Ambassador for Hafal - a Welsh mental health charity - gave TRU an insight into what players will be experiencing mentally at this time.
Ashley said that, particularly as a man, it’s very easy to go into your shell and not talk about any issues you may be facing. That is an attitude he is eager to change and urges players to be open about their worries surrounding the current contract uncertainty in Wales.
He said: “From a male point of view, it’s easy to say ‘it is what it is’ but actually there’s different stress for different people. They might be in the same situation contractually, but their life outside of rugby could be completely different.
"Their reliance on where they are on their mortgage, having children, whether they have a business that stays afloat from the money from rugby. Understanding different pressures and different points of view is really important.
“What we do a lot of the time is that we keep our worries in our heads and we don’t get them out. They just build up and take a lot of our emotional energy.”
Ashley stresses the importance of the language we use surrounding the topic of mental health and the effect it has on the people around us.
He said: “You could have had a bad morning and say ‘I’m so depressed’ when you’re just having a bad day but there could be somebody in the room that could have been diagnosed with depression who is really battling daily to get to training, maybe even potentially to get out of their house.
"If you come in and say ‘I’m so depressed’ that can be really isolating and belittle what you’ve been through just because they’ve had a bad morning. It’s really important that we understand language and the impact it has on those around us.”
The former Osprey said that creating an environment that allows people to feel safe to share is vitally important too: “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where people have said to me I’m so glad you’re doing this (become a mental health ambassador) because I’ve had this going on or my family have had this going on.
"A lot of those people I was around daily and I thought why didn’t you tell me? Until people knew they were safe and you have an interest in wanting people to be well, people don’t feel like they can speak to you. That’s what I talk about all the time, trying to make environments safer.”
In his role now as well-being and mental health lead for the WRPA, Lloyd is doing vital work to help
support players who still hold significant concerns about what the future holds.
“I’m doing as much work as I possibly can to support all players across Wales. I’m finding it very impactful and powerful. The fact that people are reaching out to me is a massively positive thing for me.
"Obviously it’d be nicer if there wasn’t certain things going on behind the scenes that are causing people to have concerns. I think the hardest thing is that you’ve got to be clear from the start that you’re there to listen, you can’t make any reassurances for people and you’re not there to diagnose either.
"But being able to give that space and have those conversations is really important.”
Ashley currently runs Living Well with Lloyd Ashley to raise awareness for mental health and well-being, having previously spearheaded ‘Resilience for Rugby’ which is a mental health programme used across Welsh Rugby academies.
He said: “I did an 'introduction to counselling' course a few years ago and it led me on a trail of discovery of wanting to do more around mental health. I went on to do my lecturing qualification and married that with my personal experience of being a professional rugby player.
"I thought it was a nice balance to come at a different angle around mental health. It’s about making people feel better, making conversations safer."
Bringing it back to the players who remain 'out-of-contract', Ashley believes that the Welsh squad deserve credit for their performances in the Six Nations. Whilst the results are not what they would have wanted, playing Test match rugby with the stresses of the last few months is commendable.
“I think they deserve a huge amount of credit. I got asked the other day if its was courageous for the boys to speak up but it wasn’t courage because there was nothing else they could do.
"They were supporting all players in Wales not just themselves. It was a powerful moment [when they threatened to take strike action before their Six Nations game against England.] I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve dealt with it.”