Wellbeing at the forefront for Rhinos Academy during second lockdown

Leeds Rhinos Academy vs Newcastle Thunder Academy at Kingston Park Stadium, Newcastle.

As the country experiences its second national lockdown of the year, Leeds Rhinos are continuing to provide wellbeing support for all its players.

This year has provided many challenges for people around the world and the Coronavirus pandemic has had its effect on the Rhinos Academy and Scholarship too, with the future generation of Leeds players having missed out on nearly a year of training and playing.

Over this period, thanks to the support of staff from Leeds Beckett University, the players have been given strength and conditioning sessions and nutritional challenges to make sure both squads were able to return in the best shape in October. The announcement of a second lockdown until December, two weeks after the scholarship players had returned led to the Academy organising weekly Zoom call sessions for both Academy and Scholarship squads. The planned sessions will rotate between learning nutritional values with Academy Nutritionist Lucy Chesson and having the opportunity to focus on their mental health and wellbeing with Academy Sports Psychologist Ross Shand. 

Shand had his first session with both teams last week and praised the players’ attitudes towards talking about how they manage their wellbeing. 

“It went really well, there was some great engagement from the lads,” he said. “Obviously with it being online, it can be slightly more difficult to engage players and recognise that we’re talking about sensitive subjects, our thoughts, feelings and emotions which can be difficult for people, especially as teenagers. It can be challenging so all credit to them all for buying in.”

Shand, who started working with the Rhinos in December 2019, is a chartered Sports and Exercise psychologist by the British Psychological Society and is registered with the Health Cares Professions Council. After seven years of training and working with athletes on the mental side of sport, he emphasised the increased role of sports psychology and how getting the players to talk is really important in both their daily lives and while they are at the academy.

“These sessions start those conversations and normalise some of these topics that they usually wouldn’t talk about,” Shand said. “I think we can all agree there has been a bit of a stigma especially with young men talking about these things – just look at the work of Andy’s Man Club and the State of Mind charity. The earlier we can start supporting players to feel comfortable about having these conversations and how our thoughts, feelings and emotions impact us is really important.

“During last week’s sessions, we used a programme called Menti so the players could text answers in which takes away some of those interpersonal risks. It comes up on the presentation so everyone can see it but is  anonymous so it allows the players to be open and honest and engage in a meaningful way without feeling any potential risks or concerns about having to speak out or any worries about how they verbalise what they are thinking. They were really open and really honest and shared some personal experiences which was great to see.”

Thanks to the work of Player Welfare Manager Nigel ‘Fats’ O’Flaherty-Johnston, the players across the club have received support while they have been both at the Kirkstall training ground and at home during the lockdowns; Brad Dwyer’s popular lockdown podcast ‘Dogcast’ being a great example of Dwyer and other figures in the Leeds club opening up about mental health and leadership.

Shand said that with the continued help from himself and O’Flaherty-Johnston, the club’s young talent can develop skills and characteristics that are going to help them achieve in sport or any life domain.

Brad Dwyer has been a big advocate for mental health throughout 2020. Along with his popular ‘Dogcast’ podcast, the hooker announced he is also supporting Leeds Rhinos Foundation’s new Offload programme.

“We can’t detach the personal from the athlete,” Shand said. “I’ve only done a tiny bit so far but we are really lucky to have someone like Nigel as the player welfare officer. To have someone of his experience and expertise in the group and support staff is amazing. He’s been someone that I’ve gone to, ran ideas past, asked questions of and got his perspective on things. I know he has supported a lot of the players from the senior squad down into the age groups as well. 

“I’ll be hopefully be picking these bi-weekly sessions up more as we come out of lockdown so we’ll be looking to come back in and talk about the things that we want to get out of this period between returning to training and Christmas. I will start getting the lads to think about what they want to get out of the sessions, get them to put some goals in place and also think about how they can start to work towards those. We’ve got a supportive group who are looking out for each other and that is going to help facilitate more of these types of conversations in the future I think.”