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How waking up became a nightmare for Tom Court

By David Kelly

Published 06/07/2015

Stressed: former Ulster star Tom Court has revealed how he struggled to sleep because of the pressure of the international game
Stressed: former Ulster star Tom Court has revealed how he struggled to sleep because of the pressure of the international game

Tom Court wouldn't swap his old life but that doesn't mean he misses it either. He certainly doesn't miss the sleepless nights. The anxieties that accompanied the too regular waking hours in the dead of night.

The short fuse that ignited an otherwise blissful domestic scene. The nagging self-doubt.

Am I good enough? If I am good enough, do they think I'm good enough? Will I be good enough next week?

A Grand Slam win during a six-year career amassing 32 caps while also playing 104 times for Ulster may indicate that others thought more of him than sometimes he did himself.

Nevertheless, having admitted to growing "stale" at Ulster, from where he joined London Irish for a fresh challenge last summer, the 34-year-old Brisbane-born loose-head is still happy to have discovered a renewed ease in his daily life.

His was a pressurised existence few professionals publicly voice. But a recent survey from the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association (IRUPA) would suggest most privately struggle with the levels of stress to which Court had become accustomed.

Their survey revealed 67% of respondents admitting to regularly/always spending time worrying about playing performance while 74% of players have admitted suffering from excessive lack of sleep; four in 10 agree that performance worries affect relationships outside the sport.

Court candidly attests to a phenomenon that, largely, remains undiscussed. Stress attacks sleep which itself arouses stress; it's an unforgiving cycle.

Court's introspection was magnified by his sense of being an interloper who, rightly or wrongly, felt he had to over-reach himself to make an impression in the land of his Limerick-born grandfather, Patrick.

"I suffered massively from it, especially when involved in the Irish set-up," he reveals. "I always felt like I was the first guy they were trying to get out of the team whereas it seemed like others, even if they had a nightmare game, couldn't get dropped if they tried.

"I joked once that when I had a shocker from the bench I never got promoted to start a game!

"But yeah, I suffered terribly from stress and all that because I always felt I had to perform a lot better than some of the local, born and bred guys in order to maintain my place on the team.

"It always felt to me like form was something where reputations weren't really matched up with form all the time. It's one of those things where you always felt under pressure to perform because your position was always under threat.

"My wife deserves more credit than I do because the amount of my sleep I lost, and the amount of stress I caused her and the kids over the years, it's probably hard to quantify it all.

"Add in young kids, that piles on the pressure. That's why the move over here was a watershed moment. I had to clean my hands of it, tell myself it's all over and start fresh.

"Now I can focus purely on the club and day-to-day, not to have to switch camps. It's very tricky to handle. People joke about Joe Schmidt and how intense he is. I only had a taste of it but I can only imagine what it is like now. Some players can deal with it better than others."

Court's warning signs had consequences for the harmony of home life. He was bringing his stress home as, he suspects, most do. Few speak about it, though.

"Definitely, I don't know many players who it wouldn't affect. The top guys obviously manage it well and have relationships outside the game that can help. It was an enormous strain on my marriage.

"You're away for weeks on end. But then when you're home, you're totally occupied with your Ireland form or your form leading into tournaments. You're playing well to get into the team but always second-guessing yourself, have you done well enough to get in or will they look for someone else?

"Even in the Province, the guys who are conscientious and give a damn, they'll take it home.

"The older I get, the better I am with sleep hygiene, winding down by reading books or listening to something. You need that routine or else you'll never get out of your head what you should have done or what might have been.

"This year, I dealt with all that and made peace with it all. I've been like a spectator, being happy for them. It's been great watching Jack McGrath in my position, probably Ireland's most consistent performer.

"And being happy for Robbie Henshaw and older guys like Paul O'Connell. It's great to wish them well and feel part of it that way."

It will help knowing that, whatever happens Ireland or himself, he won't be losing that much sleep.

Belfast Telegraph

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