The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant restrictions have pushed professional athletes to the limit over the past two years. Many have highlighted the challenges, with some opting out of big tournaments staged in stringent bio-bubble conditions for the sake of their mental wellbeing.
Even now, as restrictions ease and fans return to stadiums around South Africa, there is good reason to acknowledge the challenges these athletes have faced in recent times, as well as the broader issues with which some continue to wrestle.
Those who have juggled their studies as well as a burgeoning rugby career, for example, present an interesting case study.
The Varsity Cup recently launched its SpeakUp campaign. The tournament will run from 14 February to 25 April, and the organisers are looking to use it to raise awareness around mental health.
The winner of each Player of the Match award will wear a pair of pink shorts in the following fixture to draw attention to this cause. Every time a home team scores a try during the designated power play, Varsity Cup will donate R1,srcsrcsrc to the iThemba Foundation, an organisation tasked with raising awareness around mental health in South Africa.
The coaches and players at universities are doing their part to tackle the issues – and indeed the stigma – around mental health. Attitudes are changing, as is rugby culture at large.
The extraordinary demands of the 2src21 tournament, where the players had to spend up to two weeks at a time in a bio-bubble and play up to three matches in a seven-day window, will not be repeated.
The 2src22 season will witness a return to more traditional home and away fixtures, as well as a limited number of fans at the grounds on match days. The challenges around mental health continue, however.
Jonathan Mokuena, the former South Africa sevens captain who now coaches at the University of Johannesburg, speaks passionately about the subject.
“As a nation, we should be focusing on mental health a lot more,” Mokuena says. “The Varsity Cup has been responsible for some great campaigns in the past, but this could be their most important campaign yet. I don’t think a lot of people realise how much this feeds into performance in pro sport.”
Tom Dawson-Squibb is a qualified psychologist, and serves as the University of Cape Town head coach as well as the Stormers de facto mental coach. Dawson-Squibb is also one of the local game’s biggest advocates for mental wellbeing.
“It’s something you have to monitor constantly,” he says, when asked about the challenges facing the Varsity Cup players.
“These guys are managing degrees
…. to be continued
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