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#MENTalHealth: Rugby player Grayson Hart on how we can tackle mental health issues in sport

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Rugby player Grayson Hart is working with the Resilient Young Minds, a conference discussing mental health in young people, to encourage a more open and honest discussion about the issue in sports.

Image Courtesy of Grayson Hart via Kazoo PR

Image credit: Resilient Young Minds Conference

The New Zealand-born professional now plays for Scottish Rugby Union, but his path to sporting success has not been without its struggles - both physically and mentally.

Now experiencing a strong sense of mental wellbeing, Hart strongly advocates the Diamond Philosophy - the idea that wellbeing is innate and unchanging, yet we forget our own worth because of society’s definitions of what love, happiness, and success should be.

Hart outlines the effects of these external pressures: “You get a cognitive belief, drummed into you: what your values are, what you need to do to be ok, and perhaps those situations and factors, and that you were once happy and free and once getting along with life; they seem to define you.

"This belief builds up and the more we fall into it, the more we believe we need certain things to be certain ways, or that we’re not good enough as we are – we need to achieve things to be happy or of value.”

Hart believes that this pressure is at often at its highest in schools, where “there’s an urgency to figure out what you want to do.” Hart struggled academically, and subsequently a self-fulfilling prophecy arose where he felt he was labelled as “the naughty kid.” This led him on a downward spiral psychologically, seeking unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as “hanging out with similar ‘bad kids', drinking alcohol and getting up to no good.”

Rugby was something was Hart was naturally good at and enjoyed; on the sports field, the label of ‘the naughty kid’ began to disappear. Hart’s sense of self-worth, like many sportsmen, was then placed upon becoming a professional rugby player, fitting society’s ideals of being ‘successful’. However, achieving a professional contract with his hometown club didn’t bring any mental serenity at all.

He says: “I was being paid money, on TV and all these things, yet I didn’t experience this happiness, peace or contentment."

Failing to achieve self-contentment by society’s definition led to psychological suffering: feeling lost and confused. Hart admits that failure to find this happiness in rugby led him to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms, again including drinking - and things continued to become darker.

Admitting to yourself that you’re not okay and that you need to seek professional help is a pivotal moment in many people’s mental health journeys. Hart tells us that he experienced a wake-up call when he lost his contract due to this self-destructive behaviour. He says: “I was getting into fights, heavy drinking; I got a few warnings and things carried on that way.” 

His team, of course, didn’t know how much he was suffering psychologically. On his brother’s advice, Hart was put in touch with “someone who especially helps athletes who are struggling – there’s a lot of psychological suffering in sport.” He was pointed in the direction of the Diamond Philosophy, “something I knew to be true in my heart”.

Hart explains why the philosophy resonated with him so deeply: “This man taught me that you have always been enough – your happiness, your love, your values, your peace. The only time that you’ve struggled is because you’ve been caught up in the concept that you’re not enough as you are, and that all these thoughts and beliefs that have been super-imposed into your mind, that because of your past you’re not good enough. But beyond all those beliefs, those labels, those concepts, you can see who you are - and that who you are is enough.”

The idea is that society’s imposed definitions and limitations create misunderstood identities, and that the key to mental wellbeing is really seeing beyond these things, to see an innate sense of well-being (our ‘diamond’), that we know to be true.

The stigma surrounding men opening up in general, particularly on the “cut-throat” sports field,  undoubtedly exists - and it is something Hart was clearly affected by. He explains exactly why it exists, and how it is perpetuated: “If you’re perceived to be struggling psychologically - although they might care about your wellbeing - you might not get your spot on or be taken off a team”. It’s understood as a weakness, he says: “You’re not going to do the job on the field if you are struggling mentally. There’s a lot of bravado in professional sport, and we’re not as encouraged to speak about our feelings”.

These problems aren’t exclusive to the sporting arena, though. Hart believes that "There’s not enough understanding, in sport or just in the general world, about what it is to struggle with mental health.”

For him, one of the biggest perpetrators of poor mental health is the labels that we are so quick to impose upon people, and even diagnose them with. Consequently, people don’t want to open up, for fear of being labelled as having something ‘wrong’ with them. Hart believes that “We’d say ‘there’s something wrong with you’, rather than looking at that person in the very moment and thinking ‘yes you’re struggling right now’ but you are not essentially broken.

"We’re so quick to say ‘you’re depressed’, ‘you have anxiety’, and it’s labelled as an inherent problem with you. And to me that’s an issue, because I don’t think that’s the truth – no one is broken. We’re all ok. 

Arguably, the labels and negative connotations surrounding a mental health diagnosis retain their power because they are so ingrained in our vocabulary. They are often used as throwaway phrases on social media - for example, someone may tweet ‘I’m so depressed today’, or ‘I nearly had a panic attack’, when they haven’t actually experienced such emotions. Culturally, then, we are in danger of over-generalising real mental health problems, leading to a misunderstanding of what it really is to experience them. Using them as part of throw-away vocabulary can only maintain negative stereotypes, stigmas, and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Hart speaks about the label of ADHD, which was a particularly damaging diagnosis for him. He says: “A few years ago we didn’t have ADHD. Now, all these kids are being labelled with it; they’re just diagnosing kids who are struggling to focus.

“I just wasn’t that keen on what they were teaching me at school – some kids are arty, sporty, or even both – others are intellectual. But to say ‘you’re struggling with what we’re teaching you or you’re not interested in it’ and then diagnose someone with ADHD – it’s wrong, people take that language and start to believe that they’re broken."

He tells a story about a child who’d been diagnosed with ADHD as he was “always tapping on his desk with his hands, so he kept getting told off and kicked out.” One teacher, however, saw the potential in this child outside of the classroom and took him to a music room to try playing the drums. That child is now a professional musician, and all it took was “opening possibilities for someone, rather than viewing them through these labels and limiting their capabilities.”

Hart adopts the view of Dr. Bora, a psychiatrist who spoke at the Resilient Young Minds Conference, that medication should be the last resort. He says: “There are so many medicated people that shouldn’t be; it’s constituting a reality that’s wrong - they are living a reality based on that diagnosis and that medication.”

The root of our suffering, for Hart, is social conditioning: “People are judging, comparing, over-striving, feeling worthless and they try to cope with that psychological struggle. We just believe we’re not good enough, and we then adopt unhealthy coping strategies. Our culture has a misunderstanding of who we all are – we are just our own minds and bodies.” 

From struggling to open up about mental health to now setting up talks and workshops with schools, academies, and coaches, Hart is actively encouraging young people, particularly those on the sports field, to be more honest with their discussions of mental health. Whilst in an improved mental place, he noticed that many of his team were “showing signs of struggling”, he says.

“When I was happier and more free, guys on my team would start talking to me. I felt really passionate about talking to these guys and pointing in the direction that helped me," he continues. 

The real lesson here is that we need to normalise men opening up about mental health, and we need to provide adequate support for wellbeing in schools - not, as Hart calls it, “that shitty old way of coping strategies or techniques – just actually black and white pointing out to people how it really works.”

Hart believes that we’re too caught up on imposing academic pressure to teach students that they are in fact good enough in themselves. He is enthusiastic about working with young people, because they don’t have “decades and decades of deep conditioning.”

Grayson Hart speaks passionately about mental health, but as well as talking is using his own experiences to make a real, positive difference to other people’s perceptions - particularly for boys in sport. This just shows the true power of self-understanding; there is so much positivity that can arise from realising your own worth and subsequent well-being, defying labels that are imposed upon us.

To learn more about the Resilient Young Minds project visit http://coachingconnect.co.uk/rym/ and for the bigger picture https://www.wisdomandwellbeing.co.uk/

For more information on the programme and how to get involved, please contact info@wisdomandwellbeing.co.uk

This article is part of The National Student’s MENtal Health series. You can see more from the content series here.




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