Inside the crucial role played by wellbeing managers at rugby league clubs

RL Cares is supporting a dedicated team of highly skilled wellbeing managers to keep players and club staff at the top of their game.

RUGBY LEAGUE fans are some of the most passionate people in the sporting world.  

Their hero worship of the sport’s most important stakeholders often has few bounds, not just on the terraces and stands on matchdays but in all aspects of their lives. 

The high regard in which they are held is rarely lost on players, whose standing is largely forged by their exploits on the field of play and their demeanour in their communities. 

The ‘secret’ of the success of these talented young men and women lies in the army of support they have behind the scenes, from family members, partners, sponsors and the coaches, physios, conditioners, doctors and trainers whose skills and hard work keep them in peak physical condition. 

At most professional clubs, players also benefit from the support provided by dedicated wellbeing managers whose multi-faceted roles have advanced considerably in recent years, largely with guidance from Rugby League Cares.

As the independent charity charged with delivering wellbeing support to the game, RL Cares ensures wellbeing managers are constantly learning new skills to be able to deliver a level of support that is widely regarded as world class. 

RL Cares hosts regular get-together meetings with the wellbeing staff where best practise is shared, and new ideas and techniques are discussed.

Their most recent meeting took place at UCEN, a branch of Manchester College which has a close relationship with RL Cares, delivering counselling and other workshops to club staff throughout the year.

The event was an opportunity for the wellbeing managers to chat about their own roles and throw some light on how important their work is on the ground.

One of the most experienced experts in this crucial field is Stuart Dickens, the former Featherstone and Salford prop who is the long serving wellbeing manager at Wakefield Trinity. That’s wellbeing, and not welfare…

“I don’t like the term player welfare: welfare is often deemed to be negative and reactive but in the last six or seven years the role has changed quite a lot,” said Dickens.

“Players now perceive what we do in a very different way. Initially, it was a case of ‘if I have an issue I’ll go and see the welfare manager’ but now things are a lot more proactive.

“We work together with players to foresee any issues before they arise to make sure they don’t have a negative impact, either now or in the future.”

The wellbeing managers work with, but alongside the club coaching staff, having little, if any direct involvement in preparing players for gameday.

“It’s been really important getting the staff to buy in to what we do, by getting them to understand the positive benefits to performance,” added Dickens. “If players come to training every day with a smile on their face because their families are happy then they’ll train and play better. 

“Although we’re not part of the performance staff, they understand and appreciate the link between performance and wellbeing.

“If there is a major issue which could have a long-lasting impact, I would encourage the player to speak to the head coach. If the player is struggling and it’s something sensitive, our role is to get him as much support as we can. 

“The coaches now know to ask questions beyond ‘Is so-and-so, ok?’ and occasionally suggest to me I should speak to a player they feel is out of sorts. 

“We spend less time with players than the other staff because they’re coaching and doing things like one-on-one reviews and gym work so it’s good that coaches let us know when something might be wrong.”

Wellbeing managers also provide the same comprehensive and confidential levels of support to their off-field club colleagues, including coaches and administration staff.

St Helens wellbeing manager Paul Johnson feels his role goes even wider still.

“We don’t just deal with players. We talk about wellbeing rather than welfare, and how we can encourage our players, our staff and members of the wider community to have a plan for life,” explained Johnson.

“We want everyone to recognise that when they walk into the stadium they are the same person as when you leave. If you are in a good space when you go home then you are going to be a better partner, a better dad or a better mum. It’s a much bigger picture than just how you perform on the pitch.”

For Johnson, like all wellbeing managers, the key to success rests in the level of trust they build with players and staff.

“When I am working with a player for the first time at the beginning of their journey with us, I explain what we mean by confidentiality so they know that what they say isn’t going to get fed back to the coaching staff,” he said.

“But equally, if they want you to speak to the coaches on their behalf, you can be that mediator as well. I would always ask for consent from a player before speaking to a coach about an issue they have. 

“It’s important to know your players and what their stories are. If I know, for example, that a player has an anniversary of a bereavement coming up then just tipping the coaching staff off that he might be a little bit wobbly this week could be helpful.”

A stable and happy life away from the club is the bedrock on which the success of all players is built, as Leigh Leopards’ Steve Maden and Guillaume Costard of Toulouse Olympique acknowledge.

“Supporting families is an important aspect of what we do. When players come here from overseas we do what we can to support their partners and children with things like housing and schools,” said Maden.

“It’s a big responsibility for us because we want to make sure everyone is happy.  

“It used to be the case that players didn’t want to speak to the welfare manager because people would see and ask ‘What’s up with him?’ Nowadays we speak to players about all kinds of things, many of them trivial like what kind of car they should buy, and it’s become a normal part of working life at the club. 

“The stigma has gone away because we try and help them in absolutely anything.”

Overcoming the language barrier is an important function for Costard, whose enthusiasm to help players and their families settle in France is infectious. 

“We have a lot of foreign players who come over with their families – I am here to help them to get to know the French culture and about life in France, which can be a little different to what they are used to,” said Costard. 

“I do a lot of work at the club as a mental health first aider and working with players to help them transition towards the end of their career. 

“It’s important that players find the right courses for what they want to do and know how to access any grants that are available.”

Looking after the mental wellbeing of players was one of the big attractions of the role for former Hull, Leeds, Castleford and Great Britain prop Lee Crooks when he stepped into the role at Hull FC earlier this year following the departure of Feka Palea’aesina.

“Having done a lot of education work with Rugby League Cares, especially around mental wellbeing, I’ve been able to change my perception of what mental health is and how players behave,” said Crooks.

“Once Feka decided he was stepping down, I jumped at the chance of taking over. 

“I’m enjoying the role very much, it’s good to be back around the first team players, as well as with the younger players.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 496 (May 2024)

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