Implexus Gym, situated on an industrial site in Armley, was the setting for my interview with Leeds Rhinos loose forward Stevie Ward. It is a far cry from the bright lights of Headingley Carnegie Stadium, where the Rhinos currently ply their trade. He is currently on the home straight of a lay-off which has kept him out of the game since September 25 last year, when the Rhinos scored a last-gasp try through Ryan Hall to see off Huddersfield Giants and win the League Leaders’ Shield. That day however was tinged with bitterness for Ward, who ruptured his ACL, while his meniscus and cartilage also split. The scar on his right knee is a reminder of the pain that day holds. Such an injury would have consigned someone to retirement not too long ago, but thankfully players can now make a full, albeit painstaking recovery. He is now firmly back on the path to returning to the first-team fold, and has earmarked 10 July as his comeback game, against Wigan Warriors.
This time away from the game has allowed him to pour his energies into Mantality, an online magazine which predominantly looks at mental health and draws on Ward’s own struggles in the competitive cauldron of rugby league, with the main demographic being the ‘‘millennial male.’’ His passion for the subject is clear, and he talks animatedly about the fact that in an age when many people are intensely preoccupied with how they are perceived by other people, it is in fact our opinion about ourselves which is most important. What will mark out the magazine from others is the honesty and grittiness of the content, which is fuelled by the vast gamut of emotions he has experienced in a relatively short career. Despite having been on the sidelines for a combined total of two years at the age of 22, the Leeds native has also picked up the Super League crown in 2012 and the Challenge Cup in 2014 for his hometown club, as well as being part of the all-conquering treble-winning side last season. This places Ward in an ideal position to deliver what he terms a ‘‘realist approach.’’
The former England youth player is acutely aware of the pitfalls of your work shaping your entire identity and is very open about his struggles with depression two years ago, which surfaced during recovery from a debilitating shoulder injury. ‘‘I came back fit to play, but I couldn’t physically get to where I needed to be. I couldn’t do stuff in the gym that I needed to do and I couldn’t do stuff on the field that I needed to do to be as good as I can be, and I think I really struggled to cope with that, because as a rugby league player that’s my identity.’’ This intensely personal struggle was a driving force behind his decision to set up the magazine and help those going through similar feelings, in whatever field. Having already achieved many of his on-field dreams, he felt it was time to set himself a challenge ‘‘which is taking a risk, it’s out there, it’s a bit different.’’
Ward has also talked movingly about how his nana’s battle with cancer altered his outlook on life. Clearly emotional, he says that following that harrowing experience, he ‘‘found a more resilient way to cope with things.’’ Despite ‘‘two six-week spells on crutches,’’ he acknowledges that he has a fresh perspective on his situation.
However, this is not to belittle the depression and anxiety that Ward has experienced during his career. He is able to pinpoint the fact that his symptoms cropped up as a result of his injuries and his tough battle back to form, but astutely points out that it is not always easy to identify the cause of depression, underlining the complexity of the condition. Depression robs you of your self-worth, and you find yourself ‘‘on a constant stream of low moods.’’ It is crucial that people ‘‘speak to a doctor and find the best way [forward] specifically for them.’’ Ward has found that being productive and having a creative outlet has been the best medicine for him. ‘‘For me, you’ve got to grab hold of something you can do and invest your time in, a lot of time in, and positively use that.’’
At the forefront of Ward’s thinking was opening up the conversation about mental health in rugby league and society more generally. ‘‘I’ve had lots of people emailing me from different countries, different sports, just saying that they were happy that I put that out there, just because it breaks down the door that’s hiding the realistic side of life, very much the realistic side of life – whether we like it or not.’’ There is a focused anger to his words when he says that we should not simply gloss over a topic that will affect one in three people directly during their lifetime, while many more will be impacted as a consequence. ‘‘Why are we hiding it, why are we going about it as if it’s not there? Let’s address it as if it’s a physical injury. Let’s speak about it. There’s certainly a slow-burning appetite for people to start talking about it, for males to start talking about it, and just trying to get either a resolution or to find confidence in their friends.’’ Unfortunately, the suicides of several professional sportspeople in recent years have demonstrated that work still needs to be done to make people feel comfortable about speaking out.
The importance of having supportive friends and family around you then came into the discussion, with Ward noting that ‘‘sometimes you can’t listen to anyone and sometimes you’ve got something in your head and you just go with that.’’ The fear of judgement may be a reason that people don’t speak up, but he insists that friends and family will give constructive advice. The response online to the magazine has been immense, clearly demonstrating how this issue resonates with so many people, irrespective of profession or age. Ward’s article on the website, entitled ‘‘The Dark Side of Sport,’’ received phenomenal feedback, with many people, in sport or outside, identifying similar feelings at various points in their own life, and thanking him for openly discussing his own struggles. ‘‘It’s a hard thing to put your finger on for who’s suffering and where but it’s something that needs addressing, and this magazine’s a platform for it, and just a realistic approach to life as it is, rather than dressing everything up.’’
This desire to put on a front is something that Ward acknowledges he is still guilty of to an extent, pointing out that his Instagram snaps only contain photos of him when he seems happy and positive. The darker moments are hidden from view. This shouldn’t stop people from celebrating their victories or joys, but it is dangerous to project constant positivity if the truth is not so rosy. He also urges fans to think twice before they post something critical on social media. ‘‘You just have to have a second thought, and think ‘what’s the background, how long is he injured for?’ because there is a perception of injuries that fans will say casually, ‘oh, he’s injured again,’ as if the player wants to be injured. It is a bizarre thing, but that’s something I am going to look at changing, and hopefully people can see different.’’
Ward is clearly very ambitious and has aspirations to continue to promote the magazine, which has just shy of 1,000 followers on Twitter since its launch last month. Having a high-profile sportsman be open about these issues can only be a good thing, and the magazine gives him an ideal platform to help people and hopefully save some lives in the process.
Featured image: Alex Whitehead/swpix.com