Rugby league’s recent appearance at New York event

RL Cares has stepped up its player wellbeing delivery by joining PAADS, the Professional Association of Athlete Development Specialists.

NEW YORK will not be the first location that springs to mind in any discussion about the role Rugby League Cares plays in providing wellbeing and welfare support to professional rugby league players.  

The city that never sleeps might have an occasional link with the sport through its presence in the North American RL competition (and have been the destination for RL Cares’s fundraising bike ride in 2022), but it’s fair to say the Big Apple is hardly the rugby league heartland. 

Yet in early May, Manhattan marked the start of an important new chapter for RL Cares when the charity’s director of wellbeing Steve McCormack attended the annual conference of PAADS, an event that brings together wellbeing professionals from the world’s biggest sports.

These include the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, the Premier League, National Football League, Nascar, the Ladies Professional Golf Association and Australia’s National Rugby League, all of whom meet to share best practise and discuss recent developments in this increasingly important field. 

“We have been members of the Professional Players Federation here in the UK for some time and were made aware of the benefits of becoming members of PAADS through our relationship with the NRL and their senior wellbeing manager Paul Heptonstall,” explained McCormack. 

“PAADS is similar to the PPF in what it sets out to achieve but is bigger in that it takes on wellbeing and athlete welfare from a global standpoint.  

“The calibre of the other member organisations speaks for itself and we took the view that by working alongside the likes of the NBA, NFL and Major League Soccer we can achieve our objective of gold standard wellbeing provision. 

“Membership of PAADS was not straightforward: we had to apply to become members and demonstrate what we do. Thankfully our application was accepted and I am now a board member which means we can share information with all the other sports involved and have access to all the organisation’s research papers.”

The conference in New York featured a research symposium on the theme of athlete wellbeing, workshops, seminars and a series of meetings, both formal and informal. There were also visits to the worldwide HQ of LinkedIn within the Empire State Building, a tour of the National Basketball Players Association and the offices of Major League Soccer on 5th Avenue. 

Cutting edge topics over the course of the five days included enhancing athlete performance and mental focus through virtual reality; the psychological impact of social media; understanding the neuro psychiatry of addiction; strategies and tools for fostering and sustain an inclusive organisation; and humanising mental health. 

“There was a real wealth of useful information that is going to take us some weeks to process as we look to share learning points with all our stakeholders, including the club CEOs and wellbeing staff and the Rugby Football League,” added McCormack. 

“In the months ahead we’ll be taking part in webinars and arranging visits with other PAADS members, including hosting other sports who have expressed a desire to come and see what we do. 

“This move will put RL Cares at the forefront of any major research that can help out athletes. My involvement in the conference also validated a lot of things that rugby league is doing here in the UK and France. 

“Considering the resources we have, it made me feel very proud to sit in a room alongside representatives of some of the wealthiest sports on the planet knowing how much good work takes place here, both by ourselves and the clubs. 

“There a lot of common issues that affect athletes across the sporting world, and many different challenges to overcome, but the overriding feeling from being part of PAADS is that by working together we can get our players to a better place.”

One shared area of concern for many sports is that of brain health: American sport, in particular, has led the way in the field of research, athlete education and health provision in recent years.

RL Cares has also been very proactive and last year launched a dedicated Brain Health Fund which is delivering an education programme to current players and offering dementia support to retired professional players, and family members who care for them. 

“We spoke a lot about scientific developments around improving brain health and there is clearly a lot of data and research that is available for all PAADS members to utilise,” said McCormack. 

“The main focus across the five days of the conference was positive brain health and the benefits of physical activity, both to the brain and wider physical, mental and social wellbeing.”

So what, for McCormack, was the highlight of his time in New York? “Simply put, it’s the fact that all these major sports now know who RL Cares are and what we do. We’re now up there on the big stage standing shoulder to shoulder with organisations such as the NBA, NFL and LPGA as equals,” said McCormack. 

“I would like to think that people came away from the conference impressed by the work of RL Cares and the charity’s staff. 

“It became clear as the week went on that we are in a good place as a sport. There’s still a lot of work to do around athlete wellbeing, as there is for all sports, but our learning is accelerating like never before and with more opportunities to network and learn from the best in the world, we can rightly feel proud.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

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