The tragic deaths of two up-and-coming players this year comes as a stark and painful reminder of one of the biggest issues facing our young rugby league stars in the modern era.
I was devastated to hear of the death of North Queensland’s Alex Elisala this week just a few months after Wests Tigers rookie Mosese Fotuaika passed away in what we believe are similar circumstances.
I know that the NRL and all 16 clubs have worked hard over the years to provide adequate support and counselling for players in need but I think this serves as a wake-up call to all of us that more work needs to be done.
It’s time we got the message across that it’s okay to ask for help.
We play a game that is based on toughness and for a lot of young guys it is seen as a sign of weakness to open up and seek assistance from someone. That’s a shame because in my opinion it is actually the exact opposite – being able to ask for help or guidance is the real sign of toughness. To be able to put yourself out of your comfort zone and admit that there is a problem. It’s not easy to do but if we can educate players that asking for help is the right thing to do, then we will make some progress.
It’s hard to explain the pressures that come with being an NRL player but, having been there myself, I understand how tough it can be at times. For starters, it’s extremely confronting for a young player to go from school football and junior club football to an NRL environment where the pressure and demands are magnified tenfold. For some guys it can be a real struggle to be able to handle those pressures.
The key for me was always to surround myself with a good support network of friends and family and to be able to have people to talk to when things weren’t going my way. In our game an injury can be a big setback. Missing out on team selection or having to move from one club to another can all be stressful situations. We’ve even seen Canterbury fullback Ben Barba go through a tough time because of how quickly he shot to stardom following his amazing 2012 season. There are a whole lot of issues in our game that we are confronted with daily.
To address them we need a concerted effort from all levels of the game to push and to communicate that there is help out there. In Benny Barba’s case, it’s great to see him open in talking about his own battles and stressing the importance of being able to seek advice or counselling. He is such an influential player in our game that other players look up to so hopefully his story can help switch on some young people’s minds to knowing that that’s a viable option rather than considering other options and keeping it to yourself.
It’s also up to senior players to try to support young guys coming through. When I was at both Brisbane and Penrith, as senior players we always tried to keep an eye out for players who were struggling a bit and I’m sure that’s the same at every club. It was our role to help and mentor our young guys when there were issues that did arise that affected their performance or their life away from football. In many ways we were in the best place to recognise that. But again, it’s hard to know the full story if players aren’t sure about coming forward.
As it stands, NRL clubs already have people in place that are there to help. There is much more education given to players about counselling services that are available than there was when I first started playing. It’s tragic that we’ve seemingly had two cases this year where young players didn’t talk to people that could help about issues weighing heavily on their mind. It’s vital that players learn to talk to someone they can trust about any issues they are facing so they can help them overcome what no doubt feels like a heavy burden but that, in the grand scheme of things, might be able to be solved just by knowing that it’s okay to talk about it.
If you feel you need someone to talk to please call Lifeline on 131 114.