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From macho to mindfulness: How rugby has changed

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Media captionWe follow Harlequins as they try and win the league during a season of rugby scandal

When you think of professional rugby union, it might not be mindfulness and meditation that come to mind.

But playing top level sport can be an emotional rollercoaster.

There are the highs and lows of winning and losing, the pressure to perform and if you end up injured, that can take its toll too.

As the conversation around mental health in sport opens up, one top rugby club is leading the way.

Radio 1 Newsbeat has spent six months behind the scenes with Harlequins, one of the Premiership’s top clubs, for our latest documentary Tries, Tackles and Title Dreams.

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Nathan (left) was injured while playing for Harlequins in April 2019

Few rugby players make it to the top of the game but even for those who do, it’s far from easy once you get there.

Your performance is constantly scrutinised, there’s the battle for selection and dealing with an injury is another matter altogether.

Nathan Earle, 25, is a winger for Harlequins, who was badly injured during a match against Northampton Saints back in April 2019.

“It was the worst pain I’ve ever been in,” he says. “When Elliott [the physio] came onto the pitch I was begging for gas to help.

“That was the only time in my life I could have done without my lower leg and been alright with it.”

Nathan tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) – a ligament that helps stabilise the knee.

After having surgery, he’s had months of physiotherapy and hopes to return to the pitch this spring.

Newsbeat followed Nathan as he went about his recovery.

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After tearing his ACL, Nathan is focused on getting back on the pitch

“Getting back out on the pitch is probably the only thing keeping me going at the moment.

“If I didn’t have that end goal, I’d be way worse off than I am now.”

Nathan and I are chatting over a game of pool in the Harlequins players’ lounge.

Breakfast is being served. I bet him a sausage and egg muffin on the game but, smiling, he reminds me that the food here is actually free.

Despite the frustrations of his recovery, Nathan seems really positive.

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Nathan says that time out from playing rugby is essential

Injury is a reality in all professional sport, but rugby is particularly known for its physicality. Often, players are forced to retire through injury, long before they’d like to.

“It’s tough. You need to take time away from it,” he says. “Whether it’s seeing the guys here away from this environment or visiting your family and friends – you just need time off.”

Nathan thinks it’s definitely more acceptable to open up about your mental health these days.

“It’s incredibly important,” he says. “We’ve got a mindfulness coach, which helps a bit. We do a bit of meditation and we have this guy called Andy who is basically everyone’s confidant. If you want to talk, he’s always ready to listen.

“He’s not a therapist, he’s an ex-Army man but I think he’s seen a lot of it in the Army.”

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Paul Gustard brought mindfulness to the club

At Harlequins, they’re trying to create a space where mental health is taken as seriously as physical health.

Someone who knows all about the unforgiving nature of the sport is the club’s head of rugby, Paul Gustard.

While he now coaches the side, he used to play for Leicester Tigers and Saracens.

He tells Newsbeat things have changed a lot since he was a player.

“When I started playing rugby, it was very alpha-male dominated,” he says. “You’d try to deal with [mental health issues] yourself, and that’s not conducive to being happy and healthy in mind or body.”

When Paul took over running the club in 2018, he set about introducing the players to the practice of mindfulness.

Now, players can choose to take part in weekly sessions either as a group or on their own. The aim is to stop worrying about the past or imagining the future, but instead focus on the present moment.

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Yoga and pilates are incorporated into the players’ training schedule

Paul says: “Mindfulness was something I really wanted to bring into the club.

“I think mental health has become more prevalent across society and people are more aware of it.”

He thinks it’s possible that some people at the club – be it players or staff members – could suffer from mental health issues during their time there.

But he hopes it’s an environment where people can start to talk about their issues, share their experiences and even seek help.

It definitely seemed that way during our time with the club. While there was all the usual joking around, there was also a strong sense of friendship and support.

“It’s pleasing that society is moving in a direction where we want to talk about these issues and there is help out there,” says Paul.

“As a rugby club we’re embracing that.”

Tries, Tackles and Title Dreams is now available on BBC iPlayer.

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Listen to Newsbeat live at 12:45 and 17:45 weekdays – or listen back here.

Article courtesy of BBC Sport
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