Anthony Watson interview: People don’t see what rugby burnout really looks like

Anthony Watson in England training/Anthony Watson interview: People don't see what rugby burnout really looks like
Anthony Watson has won 56 caps for England but his career has been blighted by injury - Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Anthony Watson is standing in the living room of his Leicester home. He politely explains that as part of the rehabilitation process for the back injury that has kept him out of the Six Nations, it is best not to sit as we speak.

At times during our conversation the 30-year-old takes a deep breath and almost subconsciously begins his stretching exercises. This is not an average interview with an England international and British and Irish Lion. Players normally conduct media duties ahead of major tournaments or Tests, when they are at the peak of their physical fitness. It is rare to have this access when a player is sidelined through injury.

Watson is at pains to emphasise that this is not “a sob story” and his latest injury is “part of what he signed up for”. But he is keen to give his perspective on the specific mental challenges that come with a career in professional rugby.

“I think one issue is playing with pain,” Watson tells Telegraph Sport. “I think a scenario which people from the outside probably wouldn’t understand is going into a game knowing you’re in pain and then having to play 80 minutes. I would say the challenges of playing week in, week out, going for example from a Six Nations back to a club game can lead to burnout.”

Watson also includes the impact on some of the unseen aspects of rugby such as injury rehabilitation and contract negotiations: “The stress that it has on family life and everything is just nuts.”

The issue of wellbeing in rugby union has been discussed at length since Owen Farrell announced in November that he was stepping away from his international career to prioritise the mental health of himself and his family.

Watson gives a unique perspective by focusing on aspects that those outside the inner sanctum of the sport may miss. Despite an impressive tally of 56 England caps, his career has been blighted by injury. It is the first of two consecutive Achilles ruptures – in 2018 sustained playing against Ireland in the final match of the Six Nations – that he can pinpoint as a life-changing injury and, he explains, a major factor in mental and physical burnout and the deep psychological impact that came with it.

Before Anthony Watson snapped his Achilles playing for England against Ireland in 2018 he says he was 'knackered mentally and physically'
Before Watson snapped his Achilles playing for England against Ireland in 2018 he says he was 'knackered mentally and physically' - David Rogers/Getty Images

Watson has been seeing the acclaimed mental skills coach Don MacPherson, who has worked at the highest level across sports including tennis, Formula One, golf and athletics since his late teenage years, at Bath and that has helped him to gain clarity on links between mental and physical burnout.

“The biggest, best example I can think of burnout [in my career] is actually the week that I tore my Achilles in 2018,” explains Watson. “I should have pulled out of the game, but at 24, I didn’t have the confidence anyway to go out and, nor did I feel like it was appropriate to pull out of a game through being fatigued. But I was completely knackered physically and mentally.

“And I remember calling Don on the way – we used to drive to Twickenham and I called him and I was like, ‘mate, I’m done. I’m knackered.’ He told me, ‘you just need to get your meditation on and just switch off and don’t worry about the game until it comes.

“And I remember thinking, ‘f---, something’s going to give this game. I can just feel it.’ I was so cooked and sure enough my Achilles ruptured and it was so weird because it happened and I was almost like, ‘oh, thank f---, I get a break now.’ You know what I mean? Which is the maddest thing to think when you just tore your Achilles. But that’s exactly what went through my head.

“That period was nuts as well though, to be fair. We were getting partially prepared for the World Cup the following year. Training was really tough. I was in a lot of pain as well in my Achilles throughout that whole period. I would never put the blame on anyone else. I should have pulled myself out of that game.”

‘You’re on autopilot when you’re burnt out’

He continues with a description of sporting burnout: “It’s horrendous. It’s like you have absolutely no energy to train or play. It’s like you just want the game to be over with. You’re just basically looking forward to your next break, kind of counting [down] the days and I’d say that 95 per cent of the time, you wake up and you are good to go and you’re ready to fly into training, you’ve got a clear plan on what you want to do.

“But when you are burnt out, it’s just, in one ear out the other, and you’re kind of on autopilot.”

Almost six years later, would Watson – who recently turned 30 – pull out of a similar match if he found himself in a similar situation?

“I’d like to say yes. And I think I have learned my lesson more but it’s still, every time you’re in that scenario, it’s still really tough,” he answers. “Your brain can play tricks on you and try and suggest that you’re feeling something when you aren’t. You’ve got to constantly be checking in with how you’re feeling and whether it’s actually serious or not.”

With a rueful laugh he adds: “I would like to think I’d pull myself out now, but when you’re in the scenario, it’s very different and, you know, if it was a World Cup final, I’d probably play…”

Other major injuries Watson has endured include a cruciate anterior ligament [ACL] tear in October 2021 which kept him out of the game for nine months. Bizarrely his poor fortune with long-term injuries has in his opinion protected him from more periods of burnout. “I can say honestly that I’ve experienced burnout probably two or three times in my career because I’ve had these enforced injury breaks that protected me from that feeling,” he says. “I think you can get burnout with rehab as well. That’s also a realistic experience to have once you’ve done rehab for X amount of months and years, you do get burnout from the process.”

Watson partly blames the extreme demands on England internationals returning from Test rugby to the Premiership as a route to burnout.

“I’ll use Freddie Steward as an example. He plays a ridiculous amount of rugby every year and plays to a great standard pretty much every week. I don’t think people can appreciate how hard it is to do that and not only do that, but also finish the Six Nations and then play for your club the week after without a break,” he says.

“I think that’s one of the most psychologically challenging things in the season. You go from representing your country in front of 80,000 and find it very easy to get up for a game to then going back to what you’ve been doing for six, seven years previous.

“It’s tough if you’re playing international rugby, it’s really tough. Because you literally just go from club rugby to international rugby, back to club rugby, back to international rugby with very little break in between that you’re expected to play well because you’re an international player.”

The English system currently operates very differently to the Irish model, where Test players with centralised contracts are given strict rest periods. Watson ponders what the proposed changes ahead, with RFU contracts being introduced, will mean for players going forward.

“It’s mad, isn’t it? I think that there are changes that might take place for 20, 25 players coming in June which will make a big difference,” says Watson.

“But, you know, the model hasn’t worked for the last four or five years in terms of protecting players from burnout in my opinion.”

Watson does not wish to go into explicit details of his contract negotiations over the past two seasons which saw him being given a deal by the RFU in order to be involved in the Rugby World Cup, only for a calf injury to keep him out of England’s campaign in France.

‘Being injured can take away more from family life than when you’re fit’

Injury is never too far away given both Watson’s history and current circumstances, and this is where he raises the issue of playing with pain. He emphasises the progress made around concussion but another ongoing stress factor for players is dealing with pain. He says: “The sensation of playing in pain is more before the game. Because that’s when you are constantly conversing in your head as to whether ‘is this going to get worse? Is this serious? What’s causing this?’

“But then once the game starts, everything is so quick and it’s really hard to actually notice the pain then. The adrenaline kicks in and that masks a lot of stuff. It’s more the battle before the game when you’re in pain than it is once you’re in the game itself.”

But there is more than just the impact on professionals as players. Watson has a role at home too, as a husband to Alyse and father to three-year-old Kai. “Fatherhood does [change your outlook] because it kind of makes you question your decision making on whether you’re doing the right thing more anymore,” he says. “If anything, it makes me feel, sometimes a bit guilty, being honest about how much the rehab and stuff is so much harder than playing in terms of the time and sacrifice that you have to give to it. Sometimes it takes away more from your family life than being fit.

Watson, pictured with wife Alyse and son Kai, says his rugby career can bring added stress to his family life
Watson, pictured with wife Alyse and son Kai, says his rugby career can bring added stress to his family life - Anthony Watson Instagram

“I can’t come home from training and just, you know, go for a walk with my son because I’ve got to worry about if it’s an ankle injury, ‘oh well I need to rest my ankle now.’ And then get home and it’s like, I can’t even sit down and play with him on the floor because it’s not comfortable on my back. Or you then get home and you put on ice or you’ve got to get in a sauna and all that. My wife has to take up a massive amount of slack when I’m injured and I feel guilty the whole time.”

‘Guys are paid well but their bodies are dust at the end’

Watson realises he is in a privileged position in terms of representing his country and the financial benefits that brings, and feels he is well prepared for life after rugby having recently completed a Master of Business Administration at the University of Bath, but he further highlights the strain on family life and the worry of the physical shape he and others will find themselves in at the end of their careers. Therefore, he raises one final worry most players must address – are the sacrifices that come with playing at the top of the international game and the financial riches on offer worth it?

“We’ve seen some of the stuff with concussion and how guys are forgetting things that they’ve been through, but also, you know, there is the physical side of it,” he says.

“And I’m just like, ‘the money’s great and being able to do X or Y with it and send your kids to [a good school], go on nice holidays, that’s great. But you know, your kids want to play with you, don’t they?’

“Your wife wants to be able to just go for a walk with you and stuff like that. So people don’t appreciate that there’s some guys who have been paid very well, but their bodies are dust at the end of it. So it’s like, ‘would you take that money for that?’ I don’t know.”

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