Over the past five years, player welfare in rugby league has become a massive priority for clubs, leading to the prominence of Player Welfare Managers.
Each Super League club has a PWM who looks after welfare provision, which includes lifestyle and financial advice, educating players in other fields and also looking after their mental health and wellbeing.
Since the tragic turn of events which led to the death of Terry Newton, who took his own life while suffering from depression, most clubs have been working hard to provide their players with the best service possible to ensure they don’t go down the same path.
Karl Fitzpatrick was Warrington Wolves’ Player Welfare Manager until the beginning of the current season, before passing the baton on to current Bradford Bulls fullback Richie Mathers.
Just like his successor, he was also a professional rugby league player and appeared for Salford Red Devils over 100 times, also representing Ireland on five occasions.
He believes that the Wolves’ ‘open door policy’ helps players speak about their problems without worrying about showing weakness.
“One thing that this club is quite good at is having a policy where it is okay to speak about mental health issues,” Karl explained.
“We don’t see it as a taboo or we don’t see it as a weakness that you have mental health issues, we see it as a strength if you come forward and speak about it and get help.”
And, he also pointed out the importance of the role Tony Smith plays in looking after his player’s welfare.
“The head coach is very influential in our player welfare programme,” he continued.
“I probably would say in each club the most influential welfare manager is the coach, if he is pro player welfare and encourages the players to come forward then that creates the culture were players are happy to do that.
“We’ve had a number of players who have gone public and spoke about their own issues and how they were helped, and the benefit of getting help, I think that has helped massively.
“And again, as I spoke about, it goes back to a cultural thing at this club where we encourage players to speak from the head coach right the way down.
“I think that’s one way of helping players.”
Karl is now head of rugby operations, but during his time as player welfare manager he felt that the relationship the current Super League leaders had with Sporting Chance was hugely important.
Sporting Chance Clinic was founded by former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams MBE, to provide a service for professional sportsmen and women so that they could receive support for addictions and mental health problems.
“I would say that the Sporting Chance relationship that we have here is probably the best tool that I had as a welfare manager, knowing that you can get a player in front of an expert and that they would have the right support service given to them.
“As a player welfare manager, I wasn’t qualified to give expert advice on mental health issues, however what I did do with players was I would listen.
“Then I would guarantee him I would put him in front of an expert who could help with that issue.
“I think having a great relationship with them helps with our welfare provision towards mental health issues.
“They come on site once every two or three weeks, and their presence is once again breaking that taboo down that it is okay to speak about your problems.”
The welfare manager’s job is not only to help those suffering from mental health issues, but to also prepare them for life outside of the sport so that they don’t suffer in later life.
In a recent study carried out by Huddersfield University into Player Welfare in Super League, it emerged that professionals with a higher athlete identity were more likely to suffer from depression.
Someone with a high athlete identity is a player who considers themselves as nothing more than a rugby league player, whereas those with a lower athlete identity consider the sport as just a part of their life among other hobbies and interests.
To combat that, Warrington are preparing their players for life after league by offering a plethora of courses to their squad so that they will be able cope financially once they retire.
“There are issues on lifestyle and preparing a player for when he exits the sport which are massive,” Karl explained.
“If you’ve got a player who’s been full-time for 10 years and been paid a relatively good salary, if he’s not prepared for life outside the sport and drops out with no formal qualifications with a massive drop in salary he loses the esteem and the adulation.
“We believe that if you prepare a player for that exit strategy that he will be better prepared for life after rugby, but also while he is playing his mind will be at peace knowing that if he gets a career ending injury he has something to fall back on to support his family.”
In recent years, he feels that most clubs have improved the way they offer support for players and their ability to identify mental health issues.
However, there are some who still need to improve so that members of their squad are not affected by depression during and after their professional career.
“It’s been a massive change over the recent years and a big part of that has been Emma Rosewarne, the RFL’s Welfare Director, she has driven this.
“I’d still say there is a long way to go yet.
“The quality of support across Super League clubs is a massive spectrum, some clubs are doing really well and really support it and provide a really good service.
“Then you have other clubs who just tick boxes and don’t really take it seriously, so there is a long way to go but it has taken massive strides in recent years.”
Emma Rosewarne’s main focus as Welfare Director is the welfare of full-time professionals, which covers mental health and wellbeing, including addiction and lifestyle issues, career advice, education and training and financial advice.
She believes that the sport of rugby league has made huge improvements in this department over recent years.
“We are slow to come to this compared to other sports,” she admitted, “we have been playing catch up over the last four or five years.
“It pre-dates Terry Newton’s death, although a lot of people think it happened at the same time.
“We were doing some stuff on mental health before then, however it wasn’t as good as the stuff we are doing now.”
She attributes some of this to the work of player welfare managers across the top flight, and is particularly impressed with the work going on at Warrington Wolves.
Their policy of encouraging players to speak about their problems and helping players when they exit the sport is vital in eradicating mental health problems within their squad.
“The most common period when professional players become depressed is when they leave the sport.
“There are some things you can’t control when you leave professional sport, you can’t control how you are going to feel emotionally, but you can control your ability to generate income and pay the mortgage.
“You can control having a job to go to and that in itself can be helpful.
“As far as mental health is concerned, control the things you can control.
“If you leave the game in a good state mentally then it is much easier to stay in that position.”
Emma was involved in the recent two year Huddersfield University study, and is hoping to be granted an extra year to continue their findings.
She highlighted the role of player welfare managers in the initial results of the survey, in which Super League players took part in.
“Players were asked what they think is the most important thing about player welfare, and 45% of them said having someone confidential to talk to,” revealed Emma.
“Having a player welfare manager you can trust, that can give you advice – whether it be a shoulder to cry on or somebody to sit and talk to about how you’re feeling, that seems to be among the most important things.”
Rugby league players have an image of being tough competitors, physically and mentally, so their willingness to come forward with mental health issues has been a problem in the past.
Emma is confident that they are chipping away at that problem now, and encourages players to treat their mental health the same way they would an injury by seeking help before it is too late.
“We try and position it with players, that if you tweak your hamstring you wouldn’t dream of not getting physio for it, you wouldn’t just wait for it to turn into a complete breakdown.
“You would be straight to the physio and you should treat your mind the same way.
“If things aren’t feeling right, get help.
“It’s confidential and it is available, don’t wait until it spirals out of control.”