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Watch: Here's how Ulster Rugby's star men deal with stress

Opening up: Craig Gilroy is backing ‘Tackle Your Feelings’, a mental wellbeing campaign aimed at helping people to talk about their problems
Opening up: Craig Gilroy is backing ‘Tackle Your Feelings’, a mental wellbeing campaign aimed at helping people to talk about their problems

By Jonathan Bradley

Whether it be a trip to the cinema to see Stephen King’s latest horror flick, or taking the chance to meet up with Glenn Irwin and racing round Kirkistown on a Ducati, Ulster’s Craig Gilroy has been doing all he can to replace the thrill of playing rugby lately.

Currently laid up with a stress fracture of the back, the speedy winger is hoping to be gracing the Kingspan Stadium turf ahead of schedule in a few weeks but, despite his ever cheery demeanour, there’s no denying that prolonged spells on the sidelines are among the toughest things any pro player has to deal with.

“I’m one of these people who is always thinking that things could be much worse because I’m really grateful for the position I’m in,” he said while lending his support to Rugby Players Ireland’s ‘Tackle Your Feelings’ mental wellbeing campaign delivered in partnership with Zurich.

“But injuries are what get you down, the odd selection too, even if in the grand scheme of what’s happening in the world you know they’re nothing major.”

Having spent the summer of 2016 in Sierra Leone, carrying out charity work to help Ebola sufferers, Gilroy’s mention of struggles the world over are no empty words, but he is not out to trivialise the strains of life at home and is especially thankful for a strong support group at times like these.

“It’s difficult when, as a rugby player, you can’t play, but for me I find sitting down and working out what to do works best. Once I knew I was going to be out for a while, you have to think of the best way of dealing with it,” he said.

Opening up: Craig Gilroy is backing ‘Tackle Your Feelings’, a mental wellbeing campaign aimed at helping people to talk about their problems

“But those first weeks are always the toughest. With the back, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run or anything. I never thought it was something I’d miss, but there you go.

“I’ve got a good family and friend group around me. If I’m feeling the pressures or stresses I can talk to them. That’s why I think it’s something I deal with quite well.

“Whether that’s you running out at Kingspan or going into work in a bank on a Monday morning, there are some guys in our environment who don’t deal with it quite so well and it’s just to say it is good to talk.

“You don’t want to be seen as weak but it’s not like that. The strongest guy in the world still has those stresses.”

Rather than dealing with injuries, it is coping with the vagaries of form that Gilroy’s team-mate Stuart McCloskey finds can weigh on his mind more.

“For me it’s not really injuries, because it’s tough at the start but after those first few weeks you’re just worried about yourself,” he said. “Form though, sometimes it seems like you’re on a run that can last six months.

“Not overly playing badly but it’s just not quite there like it has been before. You don’t have people coming up and saying the same things, you’re hearing people saying that you’ve maybe dropped off.

Stuart McCloskey says he's still working out how to tell when stress is mounting up.

“You’re there thinking, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ You’re working hard, doing the same things that worked before, but it’s not happening.

“Last year I felt like I was working really hard but it just wasn’t there. It wasn’t as if I was playing really badly, but it wasn’t the same. And then you come in and it turns around, nothing much has changed but you’re playing well again.”

Still a young player in terms of rugby — even if he jokes that the likes of the precocious Jacob Stockdale can make him feel middle-aged now — McCloskey knows that he is still learning to recognise signs that it is time to take stock of his mental wellbeing.

A naturally upbeat and chatty individual, the 25-year-old admits he can find his disposition shift ever so slightly when, whether he knows it or not, stresses are starting to mount.

“I suppose I’m quite a chatty guy, same as Craig, always chatting, making jokes,” he said. “But then there’s days when you’re in the gym, maybe just with one other guy and not really chatting too much.

“It’s maybe nothing big that’s bothering me, I’m just maybe a bit run down, but that could be a sign that it is time to sit down and really have a think about what it is. That can bring you round again as much as anything else.

“In the grand scheme of things I’m still a young man, it could be years before I work all these things out. I think I’m still trying to find out myself what it is, what the signs are.

“It’s something I’ve to work on, identifying those tells. But it’s like anything, try and make progress that wee bit every day and you’ll get to where you need to be.”

And since becoming involved in the 'Tackle Your Feelings' campaign, McCloskey has already learnt one thing — the value of a good cup of coffee.

Along with himself and Gilroy, initiative has also been backed by Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave, with the stars decamping to the latter’s east Belfast coffee shop Guilt Trip to talk through what the concept means to them.

“You have that stereotype that rugby players are hard macho lads, but the amount of times we go out for coffee in a week would well exceed any group of women in their 50s,” joked McCloskey. “There’s not much time in our schedules I guess. You play a game, you’re broken the whole day or two days after and then it’s Monday and into a new week.

“You don’t get the time to sit and think about anything that’s getting to you, whether that’s rugby or not.

“That’s why it’s good to sit and chat sometimes. It’s something we discovered the other day talking about the campaign. It was nothing major, but we’d all been bottling up these wee things so it was good to get that out. Chat with each other. Your wife, your girlfriend, a best mate... even the smallest thing if it’s left alone can sort of snowball.

“It’s something that’s come more to light in recent years. The stuff Rugby Players Ireland have put out in the past has been a bit more hard hitting, but general well-being is good to talk about.”

  • Zebre v Ulster, Guinness PRO14 Championship:  Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Saturday, 2.35pm

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