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Court has something big on his mind

Former Ulster and Ireland prop has put sleepless nights behind him and hopes to help others do the same through mental health charity

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster and Ireland's Tom Court lies awake. He listens to the ticking clock and senses the valuable minutes of much-needed rest ebb away into the night.

He pores over every tackle, every scrum, every minute of every game and thinks about what could have been done differently.

He's played over 100 times for Ulster, won 32 caps for Ireland and can point to a 2009 Grand Slam win as one of the highlights of an impressive career.

He also can't sleep.

Such a scenario played out countless times for Court over the course of his rugby career in Ireland and, while thankfully he has developed better ways of dealing with the stress and strain of professional rugby since his 2014 move to London Irish, it's a large part of why he has become involved with the rugby union charity 'State of Mind' started by Belfast-based Mick Finnegan.

Candid in his recollections, Court is sure that, as Mental Health Awareness week comes to an end, the work of such organisations is invaluable to those at every level of the game.

"There were a lot of times that I thought I was probably on the verge of feeling depressed," said the Brisbane native who arrived in Ulster in 2006.

"I really struggled with sleeping for a long time. It got to a point where I couldn't think of anything apart from rugby, I just couldn't switch off. You'd be watching games over, playing them through in your head, going through the what-ifs.

"Especially the guys who play international rugby, in that camp environment, you're around rugby guys, coaches, video analysts 24/7, it's non-stop.

"You see guys come out of camp after the Six Nations and they do need almost to let the valves off and to de-stress.

"Some people deal with the stress and anxiety better than others. I never really dealt with it that well.

"My wife and family have been extremely supportive throughout the whole time but I struggled. I didn't have a lot of coping mechanisms, I didn't have a lot of ways to let off steam. It's come with maturity and experience, I've learned that there are so many things more important than rugby."

It's a message that Court hopes to spread in his role as a State of Mind ambassador but the service is not just for those dealing with the rigours of life as a professional.

Offering free talks on mental well-being to sports clubs and schools, Court is joined as an ambassador by the likes of Nigel Owens, Alan Quinlan and Lee Byrne, spreading the idea that "it's okay not to be okay".

"You can be the best international player in the world or a guy togging out just to be social, mental health is important for everyone," Court said.

"Guys who are prominent in the media through sport or anything, speaking up can show that everyone suffers the same. It can make people a bit more comfortable talking these things through.

"The way the sport is going, I think it's becoming more and more prominent. There was that idea that you were just expected to get on with it. Seeing things like State of Mind, they weren't around early in my career and it's something that Mick Finnegan has done a brilliant job of promoting and getting the word out there about services available."

Finnegan himself has had his own struggles with his mental health and wants to use State of Mind to ensure that those with similar difficulties know there is always somewhere to turn.

Born in Dublin, it was in London during 2009 that he was talked down from a bridge having been ready to take his own life.

The incident left him with a criminal record, as well as the threat of legal action for disrupting the running of London Transport, leaving it difficult to find employment.

But it was then that a chance occurrence left him reflecting that rugby had saved his life.

Having ended up on the Sky Sports show 'School of Hard Knocks' with Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell (left with Mick Finnegan) despite having little prior experience of the sport, he ultimately took to coaching and has held positions with Saracens and London Irish.

It was during his time with the latter that, having noted their work with Rugby League, he decided to establish the Union version of State of Mind.

Now, he wants to ensure he can offer others the help to effect the same change.

He estimates that the charity has reached 20,000 people in the last four years but would dearly love to see a greater uptake of the service in Northern Ireland.

"I think it's one of these things that everyone always assumes there's a catch or something," he said.

"People think that you don't get anything for free but that's not the case with us.

"It doesn't cost a penny, we'll come in, do a talk and just share our stories.

"Any school, any sport, we'll go anywhere because it's something we believe is so important.

"You look at the suicide rate in Belfast - anything that can make a difference would be huge."

For more information on State of Mind Rugby Union and the services they offer, simply visit stateofmind.org.uk

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