‘I never thought I would need a psychologist’: The mental toll of being a professional rugby player

Zach Mercer - 'I never thought I would need a psychologist': The mental toll of being a professional rugby player
Gloucester back-row Zach Mercer has opened up to Telegraph Sport about his struggles - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

Zach Mercer has endured many highs and lows. From leaving his boyhood club Bath in 2021 to join Montpellier, winning the Top 14 in his first year in France and the league’s Player of the Year award the following season, then returning home to fight for a Rugby World Cup spot only to not make the England squad.

The Gloucester back-row remains out of the Test picture but as part of a special report by Telegraph Sport into the mental challenges associated with playing rugby union the 26-year-old has spoken out about the psychological difficulties he has endured, along with many other professional players, to highlight the importance of obtaining help and outline the specific difficulties of his sport.

With the news last November that Owen Farrell had made the decision to step back from international rugby for his and his family’s mental well-being, the question must be asked: what makes rugby so psychologically demanding?

‘I look back now, if I could hold off my first caps I would’

On one hand Mercer knows he is extremely fortunate to be playing the sport he loves for a living and is proud of the two seasons he spent injury-free in France, but there have been issues along the way. Namely milestone events early in his career – including his first two England caps coming at age 21 in 2018 – and injury this season, along with the current situation around international selection.

Joe Marler and Zach Mercer - 'I never thought I would need a psychologist': The mental toll of being a professional rugby player
Mercer has taken inspiration from Joe Marler (left) who has spoken openly about his struggles - Getty Images/David Rogers

Mercer has sought professional help and hopes that with his intervention, which was in part inspired by Joe Marler’s openness regarding his mental health, it may encourage more players to seek help.

“There’s no point in being quiet about how you’re feeling. You’ve got to be open; you’ve got to tell people how you feel, and I’m not saying you must go to the media and tell everyone,” he says.

“There are people in your environment at the club or there are sport psychologists, there are certain people that will help you. By me speaking out now after Joe Marler, and others like Anthony Watson now having also spoken to you and the [other] players you are speaking to, people will see that and go, ‘It is normal to have these doubts and these feelings’.

“Then I might get a young guy at Gloucester come and speak to me… it’s that knock-on effect that we’re having throughout the rugby environment.”

Forget speaking about his struggles, simply the idea of Mercer speaking to a psychologist when he was breaking through the Bath ranks as an 18-year-old was anathema to him. “I was very young. I never thought I’d ever use a sports psychologist. I never thought I’d ever need one,” he says.

“Everyone wants to play internationally. But I did it at such a young age. Was I ready to take that jersey? Probably not. I look back now, if I could have held my caps off [I would]. I don’t think I was ready to take that opportunity.”

‘Repeatedly proving yourself can get draining’

It was not until his final season at Bath that Mercer, struggling for motivation ahead of his move to France and with limited game time, decided to speak to renowned mind coach Don Macpherson. He has an impressive client list across sports from Formula One drivers, Ryder Cup golfers, a Wimbledon tennis champion and many more across professional football and Olympic sports.

Don MacPherson - 'I never thought I would need a psychologist': The mental toll of being a professional rugby player
Don MacPherson has worked across a number of sports and has helper Mercer - Heathcliff O'Malley

Macpherson had worked at Bath from 2014-15 under Mike Ford and was still a popular confidante with players and Mercer made the decision to seek his help. He has also written the best-selling How to Master Your Monkey Mind, a book that deals with overcoming anxiety. It is popular with athletes but can be read by anybody and draws on Macpherson’s experience in working at the highest level of sport.

During Mercer’s first successful season in Montpellier, the player admits he did not call on the services of Macpherson but in his second season they reunited and since negotiating what he describes as “the biggest challenge of my career” in not getting selected for the 2023 World Cup squad, sessions have become weekly.

Mercer is candid that the birth of his daughter Iris, weeks after he learnt of his omission from the squad, was a “wonderful gift” as fatherhood gave him “perspective”. However, life has not been easy with the No 8 omitted again from the Six Nations squad. He wishes not to be drawn on the politics of selection but rather the psychological impact, something many players will empathise with at this time of the rugby calendar.

How does he deal with the issue? “It’s very tough. I don’t think I’ve dealt with it too well. That’s why I speak to Don quite a bit,” he says. “It’s been hard to deal with because you know what you can bring, but you’re just not getting the opportunity to do it. You’ve got to flip on it and go, ‘I’ve just got to keep trying to prove myself again’. But I’ve had to keep doing that my whole career, and at times it gets draining.”

‘Old-school rugby is not a place to share emotions – everyone needs to be Arnie’

Several possible explanations for Mercer’s struggles are repeated by others. One aspect is the traditionally macho culture of rugby. Former Italy international Michele Campagnaro points to this as a major psychological stressor.

Michele Campagnaro
Michele Campagnaro (right), the retired Italy international, believes rugby's macho image does not help players - Getty Images/Andreas Solaro

“I think especially that the old-school rugby is mentally tough, you know,” says the 30-year-old Campagnaro, who spent stints at Exeter, Wasps and Harlequins yet retired at the end of last season from Colomiers in the French second tier.

“I think maybe now it is changing in some ways. But it’ll definitely keep the roots. It has always felt like a very manly sport, so it feels you must behave that way.

“It’s not an environment where you can share your emotions or your problems. That’s something that you do with a couple friends if you are really close, but then there’s probably, you know, 50 of us in the changing room…”

Macpherson sees the difference between rugby and football environments. “I think that to me it seems visibly obvious that there is more pressure on the players to appear in rugby to be absolutely hunky dory. ‘Nothing wrong with me. I’m as hard as nails. I don’t need any mind coach’,” he says.

“I’m not saying all people react like that, but I think rugby union players feel there is a need to be a bit Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

‌‘Farrell can do what Stokes did for cricket’

Brett Herron, who has had something of a journeyman career starting out at Bath before serious injuries caused him to seek fresh starts at Ulster, Harlequins and Biarritz upon their return to the Top 14, has finally found happiness also at Colomiers. He echoes Campagnaro regarding the tough image of rugby and ponders if Farrell’s decision to step away can make an impact similar to what England Test cricket captain Ben Stokes did for opening up the dialogue around mental health in his sport.

Ben Stokes
Ben Stokes helped start the conversation in cricket - Getty Images/Tauseef Mustafa

The 28-year-old Heron says: “In cricket [compared with rugby], they always have mental skills coaches there and obviously Ben Stokes had a big impact on the shift in perception with the mental side of things. It is strange, I think there’s some catching up to do from the rugby world.

“Rugby is a tough environment and a very macho environment. Maybe people don’t feel as if they can express how they’re feeling mentally like they should.

“Now, with Owen Farrell missing out on England to focus on his mental side and his family, that’s hopefully going to be a bit of a catalyst like Stokes was for cricket.”

Mercer agrees with the sport’s machismo image but feels his generation are looking at how they communicate differently. “When I first started playing at 18, I feel like there’s that bravado, a kind of character where you must show how tough you are. But I feel like the game is changing, players are starting to say how they feel more,” he says.

‘Rugby must be honest about what it is prepared to admit – or do’

Unprompted, both Campagnaro and Mercer raise social media abuse as another pressure rugby players today have to face. “It’s so easy to make judgments and especially with social media and all these platforms, I find it kind of silly to judge a player just for what you see,” Campagnaro says. “It’s the negative side with so much judgment of players on social media that is causing a lot of stress. Why can’t we be more kind as human beings?”

Mercer takes it further: “Social media nowadays, it’s brutal. Players say they don’t look at it, but they do, people do see it. They do see the comments about you personally. I just want people to understand that it does hurt when we lose and people do read the comments.

“I do look at some comments but I back myself to be mentally strong enough now to forget about it. But some younger players when breaking onto the scene, comments do knock them. We all must obviously just try to watch out for them. I don’t think all people understand that it does really affect the players.”

Macpherson has worked with more than 100 players across all Premiership clubs and believes the sport still has a long way to go picking up from the concerns the players have raised: “Formula One was a bit like rugby in 1994. The difference is it and other sports have got on with it a bit more than virtue signalling.

“Rugby union needs to be more proactive rather than reactive. And a bit more honest about what it’s really doing to acknowledge there are more mental pressures, mental issues in rugby union than either they know, or they’re prepared to admit or prepared to do something about it.”

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