Mind coach Don Macpherson: ‘Rugby players are treated like lepers and cast aside when most in need of support’

Mind coach Don Macpherson and his stuffed monkey 'Mike'

Credit: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

Don Macpherson’s office is on the top floor of a converted barn which offers views of the gorgeous chocolate box village of Bathampton, a few miles outside Bath. Formula 1 drivers, Ryder Cup golfers, Wimbledon champions and dozens of professional rugby players, including multiple internationals, have slid themselves into his guest seat next to ‘Mike’, a stuffed monkey.

Their conversations, while individually confidential, have given Macpherson a unique insight as a mind coach into the strains of professional rugby and the efficacy of its safeguards. Sadly, the picture that Macpherson paints is not a flattering one. At 72, he is past the point of caring about relationships with Premiership clubs and feels the need to speak out on behalf of many clients who have to bite their tongues.

Mental health is certainly a big buzzword within rugby but Macpherson says much of this is “virtue signalling” designed to make the clubs look good rather than support the players. The litmus test comes when a player suffers a serious injury and can no longer perform their primary purpose for a club. Macpherson gives an example of a current England international who was ordered to keep away from the rest of his club’s squad when he was injured because his presence was deemed depressing for the others.

“They might as well have leprosy and be placed on a leper colony,” Macpherson told Telegraph Sport. “When a player is fit and well, it is also sunshine and rainbows. But when they are injured and are in most need of support they are cast aside. They go from being treated like a human being to a racehorse with a broken leg.”

This is particularly dangerous as injured players, in Macpherson’s experience, are already at risk of developing depression. Suddenly they are not just prevented from performing their job but their social circle is cut off as well. Their brain chemical balance can also be skewed as the happy hormones produced by playing – serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins – are turned off. In their place, adrenalin is pumped out but with no outlet for it to be burned off. This is where ‘Mike’ comes in.

“When you’re sitting there, not able to move, you start to ruminate on things,” Macpherson said. “And that’s when you are a sitting target for what I call a monkey hijack. And the monkey chatter you’re now hearing is ‘I can’t stand this. How long will I be out? Will I ever get back in the team? What does this mean for my future?’

“You can get overwhelmed by these negative emotions because the brain is not able to produce the brain chemicals it does when you are playing. The main cause of depression is ongoing, unresolved anxiety. If any individual has anxiety that is unresolved or doesn’t appear to be an it and these brain chemicals continue to be out of balance then there is significant potential for anxiety to be a tipping point into depression. And once it’s tipped into depression, it’s far more difficult to bring it back.”

‘My worry is there are other Gary Speeds walking around lost’

Macpherson’s job in his private consultations with players is to provide them with the mental tools to stop it ever reaching this point.

Yet while his client list extends across the Premiership – seven directors of rugby have also sat next to Mike at various points – he regularly hears of sad cases of players tumbling down rabbit holes of addiction having been left to their own devices by clubs.

“I am more concerned now than ever that rugby union players will finish their rehab and worry about going home,” Macpherson said.

“Particularly if they are by themselves and they are not feeling well mentally they can turn to drink or gambling. Then you are sliding down a very slippery slope. It is imperative that more people are trained and supported to deal with these situations and aren’t just lucky.

“It’s the bewilderment and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Even Gary Speed’s (the former Wales manager who took his own life) wife didn’t know how depressed he was. And that’s my worry. They’re out there, the Gary Speeds walking around lost and bewildered.”

Leicester fly-half George Ford is one of the players Macpherson works with

Credit: AFP

Macpherson’s first introduction to rugby union came through a meeting with Bath fly half and fellow Mancunian John Horton in the mid 1970s. Professionally, Macpherson had started working as a mind coach in Formula One and it was through Tom Walkinshaw, the former racing team owner who bought Gloucester Rugby, that he moved into the game. While he was briefly employed as a mind coach directly by Bath Rugby under Mike Ford – back when they used to win games – Macpherson mainly works with individuals such as Leicester fly half George Ford for whom he compiles weekly MP3 voice recordings.

Whether it is performing at the top of your game through visualisation or coping with adversity, Macpherson is providing a player with the tools to help himself as he outlines in his book How to Master Your Monkey Mind. The difference with sports psychologists is that they will identify the problem rather than helping you to fix it. “It is like a mechanic understanding why an engine is misfiring rather than saying the car won’t start.”

Coming from a Formula One background, Macpherson was still surprised by just how much strain rugby players are under without the requisite support available to drivers. “You would think coming from Formula One, I know all about the pressures of sport,” Macpherson said. “And there are common denominators, particularly the dangerous ones where the monkey mind is going to be more concerned about safety. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the amount of mental pressure these guys were under not just on the sport but in training. It can be all-consuming and there’s not enough help.

“There’s still too much virtue signalling about mental health. I want to see rugby union walk the walk because they are lagging a long way behind other sports and putting players at risk.”

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