The Culture of Conversation

2017 proved to be a significant year for me and my involvement in rugby. In preparing for my wedding my wife gave me two options, lose weight your way or lose weight my way. I didn’t bother trying to find out what her way was, I knew that I would need to start pre-season rugby training. I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t play again, I just wanted to train as hard as I could train and I knew that pre-season rugby training in Durban, in February was going to give me this opportunity. So I showed up to training on a mid-February Monday evening and just like that I was back, part of a fraternity that I have loved and cherished all my life.

I was bonded with a group of guys, who shared a common belief to me, that we are champions. A group of guys that were willing to put in hard work towards a common goal. I found it strange that when I entered the pre-season my goal was selfishly mine, but as we ran, and bled, and threw up, I realised that my goals were soon aligned to their goals. I promised myself that I wouldn’t play a game, I was only there for the training, but as the weeks flew by, the fitter I got, the more bonded with the teammates I became, the more I realised that I couldn’t walk away. I wanted to share the rewards of the hard work on the playing field. And just like that I was in, and it felt good to be back. I was hungry to be part of all rugby had to offer.

One evening on my way home from training, the news reader on the radio shared a story about an Australian Rugby Player, Dan Vickerman, who had committed suicide. In the weeks that followed the back pages of newspapers and front covers of sports magazines ran the Dan Vickerman story.  The crux of the message was that Dan, like so many other sports stars, had found it difficult to walk away from a sport that had given him so much. What was more significant about Dan’s story was that he used some behavioural tools that he had acquired in rugby, to navigate life. If it’s broken, just put it back in place and go play, don’t complain about your niggles, man up and get back on the field. Emotions are words your wives and girlfriends have, we have GRIT.

Too many of our rugby players, and perhaps professional sportsmen, are suffering in silence following their retirement from the sport. And the reason, in part, is that this behaviour is learnt from the time on the field. I had a conversation with a recently retired player and he confidently said to me ‘no one prepares you for this.’ Another former player shared that ‘it feels like I have lost my identity but no one wants to hear about it.’

The last 13 months have challenged me greatly. I have felt challenged to create a culture of conversation around retirement from rugby and to get rid of the culture of silence. People are wired for connection. People connect with people who share a ‘me too’ experience. I have felt an utmost responsibility to connect these people. Rugby is close to home because what we share is not just friendship, it’s a brotherhood. As my contemporaries enter into the stage of their lives where they have to consider retirement, the one thought that lingers at the back of mind is simple. I don’t want to lose any of my brothers because of the culture of silence that exists in our fraternity.

And the only way to make sure that we don’t lose them is by creating a culture of conversation.

The Appletree Group has developed a process for professional rugby players called Man in The Arena, the intent of which is to tackle what Abonga has outlined in his story. For more information, contact us.

Written by Abonga Nkwelo

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