What can solve rugby’s mental health crisis? Ask mind coach Don Macpherson

What can solve rugby's mental health crisis? Interview with mind coach Don Macpherson

“Controlling your monkey mind” may seem like a bizarre goal. No doubt, it would seem strange to burly rugby players, sitting on a couch next to a cuddly stuffed monkey named Mike. And yet – when considering rugby’s mental health crisis – this is exactly what has helped dozens of international rugby players and Formula 1 stars. 

The analogy stems from Chinese Buddhism, describing anxiety as a restless monkey in the jungle, swinging chaotically from tree to tree, branch to branch, totally unmanaged. This kind of simple imagery is often used by mind coach Don Macpherson. He claims that “psycho-babble”, or over-complicating mental health, is his kryptonite.

Don has been one of the leading mind coaches in various sports for decades now. He feels much more can be done to improve mental health in the game of rugby. In fact, he goes as far as saying the sport is miles behind others.

Interview with mind coach Don Macpherson discussing rugby’s mental health

Concerns about rugby’s mental health were highlighted last year when Durham University spoke with 83 former professional rugby players who had suffered multiple concussions. Not only did one-out-of-ten believe that “life is hardly worth living”, but one in five stated, “they would not seek help from anyone if they had a problem or were upset”. Macpherson suggests there are barriers for players to go and get help: “I think everybody needs one person they can go to and ask ‘Why do I feel like this?’.

Those are never easy conversations to talk about; things that some people still perceive as mental weaknesses, particularly in macho sports like rugby union”. 

“In Formula 1, it’s easier for any member of a team to talk to somebody…. there are more people like me in Formula 1”. 

“If players have problems… they’re not going to tell the coaches”

Macpherson has worked with players from the majority of Premiership clubs, extensively assisting between 30-50 players. He has asked players about head injuries and concussions, but surprisingly, players haven’t expressed much concern to him. Despite these injuries being linked to horrible consequences, such as early-onset dementia, it’s more selfless concerns that trouble players: “the main thing players worry about naturally is, is letting their teammates down”.  

Don believes that every Premiership club needs an experienced mind coach. He has met numerous Directors of Rugby, praising them as compassionate people who care about mental health. But he explains how a player could be conflicted confiding in them, because they also pick the team: “I very much doubt anyone who desperately wants to be picked for the team is going to risk not getting picked because they’re anxious. 

“I don’t point fingers at any of the coaches. They have their hands full with technical skills and tactics for the next game… The players are only there for a few hours per day”.  

England Rugby
Cian Healy of Ireland checks on Kyle Sinckler of England after picking up an injury at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

One reason mind coaches can help players with mental health is that they are outside of the rugby environment: “The coaches don’t know what the players do (away from training). If players have problems and they’re drinking them away, or worse, gambling them away… they’re not going to tell the coaches”. 

“Whereas with a mind coach…it was still my responsibility to make sure they were ok away from the club. That doesn’t mean being in your face at 3pm like ‘Hey! What are you doing?’, but my brief was extended to being available to players out of club hours. Ex-players are probably good coaches because that is the way their characters are formed. They need to be good communicators. But the world’s full of good talkers. There aren’t enough good listeners”.

“I give massive thanks to Mike Ford for having the courage, the balls, and the vision to let me loose in Farleigh House” 

Mind coaches don’t just help with mental health in rugby. They can help win games: “Clearly if you bring on an extra coach it brings an extra dimension. As long as they’re reasonably good at what they do and don’t upset the dynamics of the coaching…. it’s got to be an asset”.

For an interesting case study, look no further than Macpherson himself. Mike Ford appointed him as Mind Coach for his Bath squad ahead of their 2014/2015 season. Don felt the opportunity was too good to turn down: 

“It was about giving something back to the city I’ve lived in since 1973. I’ve been connected to the club in various forms for years. I used to have beers with the players in the mid-70s. I’d have probably done it for nothing. I learned so much from the year. It made me a much better mind coach”.  

He praises the Bath coaches for their vigilant approach to rugby’s mental health in the squad: “All these brilliant coaches were able to spot things, and hand the situation over to me”. Mike Ford even had a code-word with Don: “There’s a magician trick of spinning plates on bamboo canes. One starts to wobble on the far end, and he’ll dramatically rush to give it a spin before another starts going”. ‘Spinning plate’ became the signal from Ford that a player didn’t seem quite right. The player wasn’t obliged to chat with Macpherson:

“I never said ‘I need a word’. It was up to the player.”

“There’d be a little facility in Farleigh House (Bath’s training ground) where I could have a private 10-minutes minimum with the player. If we couldn’t resolve the issue in that session, then I’d invite them back here to have as long as they like to express what’s going on. That’s where things like gambling habits come out. Relationship problems, worries over contracts, family, money, you name it”. 

Embed from Getty Images

Bath in fact, had a wonderful season that year. Not just for Bathonians, but also for the neutral. They played with so much expressive flair; with the likes of George Ford, Anthony Watson, Matt Banahan, Kyle Eastmond, and Jonathan Joseph having exceptional seasons: “It was calypso rugby, like the old 1970s Brazilian football team”. 

Don is adamant to not take much credit for the team’s successes that year. But they expressed themselves with a risqué style of play that required confidence across the team. Certainly, a style that required the monkey mind kept in check. 

Don aimed to help the players enjoy the experience more, re-framing big games from pressure moments into joyous occasions. England rugby back Anthony Watson’s favourite speech of Don’s came before their historic semi-final against Leicester. He recalls his final words to the team beforehand being: “You don’t need to hear any more from me. You got this far by playing your wonderful brand of rugby. What is important is you realize that you got here on merit. This is your reward. Accept it, and go and have fun”.

Bath would win that game 47-10, before eventually losing to Saracens at the Twickenham final (watch the match here).

“Most the players I’ve met would eat alive a sports psychologist fresh from a sports degree who is young, enthusiastic, but full of psycho-babble”.

Macpherson believes all Premiership clubs should have taken notice of the mental health structures Mike Ford developed. But Don believes these mind coaches need solid experience: “I don’t think someone walking into Saracens, Wasps, Bath, or Leicester straight out of a course aged 21 or 22 will have much of a chance with rugby players. Someone with the qualifications would massively benefit working under an ‘old fart like me’ who can make sure things are at least done to the best practice level, that all clubs and players expect. 

“I do think they need to tick certain boxes or it won’t work. And I do think certain clubs know it won’t work, or don’t know because they haven’t bothered to do their research on the right type of person. Then, to me, it smacks of virtue-signaling. I’m not privy to every club. I don’t go into each club regularly. But the RFU could, and say ‘Have you got a mind coach? Have you got a psychologist? Who are they, how long have they been doing it?’, some research like that would be interesting”. 

As for Don, he continues to work with elite athletes. But now, his goal is to educate as many as possible on helpful mental techniques. He wrote a book during lockdown, How to Master Your Monkey Mind, which breaks down these techniques into simple steps. He recently joined Bath legend Matt Banahan at the Glasshouse academy, teaching a group of 10-year-old kids about Zen breathing; the message being, “the sooner you teach them good mental skills, the better”. 

Hopefully, these skills will become more widespread. Both in rugby, and beyond.


“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images