Infotainment Factory: The brutal reality of life after NRL footy

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Saturday, 13 April 2019

The brutal reality of life after NRL footy


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The NRL does more now for players’ mental health and wellbeing than ever before, but according to one former player, there’s still work to be done to step up their support for those involved in the game.

There’s a long list of off-field issues that rugby league players face in today’s game. It used to just be about playing tough footy on the weekend, and putting the work in through the week to make it happen.

But that’s been steadily changing, and in recent years those who run rugby league at every level have had to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of the players who dedicate themselves to the sport.

“I think the NRL are doing what they need to do, so it looks like they’re doing enough. Me personally, I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” ex-NRL star, turned mental health advocate and fitness guru, Daniel Conn told Wide World of Sports.

“I wish I could do more of it. There is some organisations and people out there who are doing a great job but some of it needs a bit more work.”

Conn played in the NRL with the Canterbury Bulldogs, Gold Coast Titans and Sydney Roosters. He was forced into retirement at the age of just 25 after suffering a serious neck injury which led to spinal fusion surgery.

It was a fork in the road. He could continue playing, but his doctors said it was in his best interests to hang up the boots.

It was the beginning of a new chapter for Conn, but it raised an uncomfortable, yet all too common question for athletes when they finish their sporting careers – what comes next?

“Life after footy, it’s really quite hard. It’s a really tough transition and people talk about how hard it is, but until you’re in that you don’t really know,” Conn said.

“You perform at a high level and then when you go into normal society, it’s a bit of a shock.”

Conn said it’s more than just the physical adjustments athletes must confront after they lose the structure of professional sports, there’s also the mental hurdles.

That led Conn to battle through some “dark times”.

“I’ve suffered a type of depression for about 10 years,” he said.

“I had some pretty yucky times when I was playing football and then after I left, I think most people when they leave their sporting careers, have a bit of an identity crisis, so I struggled a fair bit.

“I’m a suicide survivor and it’s something I’ve got to work at everyday. But I’ve got a good team around me, people I can lean on, but I always find the best thing for me is talking to people.”

Conn found his passion and a healthy pressure-valve release in working in fitness after his rugby league career, and soon began elite training and coaching. That led to an opportunity at F45, the Australian franchise he helped grow into a global sensation, and when he moved on from there after a few years, he became a Wellness Director with the Collective Wellness Group driving the expansion of Anytime Fitness, Orangetheory Fitness and Massage Envy.

But his mental health was a constant hurdle, and the turning point came when he lost someone close to him.

“I was going through a bit of a tough time when I lost one of my mates who was on the same sort of path. I was probably the fortunate one to still be here, but my mate took his own life,” Conn said.

“So that encouraged me to think about it. I don’t want to go there and inflict that on my family and friends.

“I started doing a few talks, just small stuff and then started to get bigger and did a few talks for mining companies, banks, young footy players that are from 12 years old, female tennis groups ... everyone who could benefit from hearing my experience.”

Conn, who started his own business and for the last six months has been working in fitness, wellness and mental health, said the NRL has come a long way in providing necessary support for players, but there can always be more done, and it starts at the grassroots level, throughout their careers and all the way to post-retirement.

“I see what the NRL does but I also see what some people externally in psychology do. I think everyone plays it pretty safe. You have to step outside the box to understand what needs to be done,” Conn said.

“Until you talk about it, they’re not going to talk back.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BvlhFoygCH2/?utm_source=ig_embed&

When Conn does his talks, he speaks with immense experience of the good and the bad, of all the issues professional sportspeople face, but a positive sign is that the subject matter is slowly becoming less taboo.

In the NRL Greg Inglis, and in the AFL Buddy Franklin, are among the high-profile sports names that have been outspoken on the wellbeing of players beyond the footy field.

However, Conn says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s sad that it has to come down to such big name like Buddy or Greg putting their hand up when it’s about mental health or physically hiding their issues to try and push through,” Conn said.

“It’s something that needs to be policed from the top.

“There’s so many stories you don’t hear about. There’s probably hundreds if not thousands of athletes that have pushed through that pain barrier with prescription medication, whatever it is, to try and perform.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BvfLnlAgHJ2/?utm_source=ig_embed&

Conn is one of those guilty of trying to mask deeper issues during his NRL career.

In 2008, he pleaded guilty to forging painkiller prescriptions and was fined $5000 and ordered to do 60 hours of community service.

It was the result of the overwhelming pressure he felt internally, and from within the environment of being a professional athlete.

“All professional sports, male or female, people look up to the tough guys that get things done. But that’s also scary for young kids coming up who think they have to do whatever it takes. There’s a very fine line there that isn’t communicated very well. You just see the accolades that comes with pushing through the pain,” Conn said.

“You hear a lot of stories in the AFL, NRL and union when they start playing up, it’s usually because they’re pushing things too far and things become uncontrollable, which is not a word you use when you’re playing sport.

“It’s really taboo to go in and talk about going too far. It’s the elephant in the room, especially when you’re talking to junior athletes. All they’re thinking about it pushing through, whatever it takes, they want to play through a grand final with a broken shoulder like Cooper Cronk.

“The guys that push so hard but aren’t quite that good though, they’re fighting a battle by themselves and they don’t want anyone to know. That’s the stigma, but as tough as you are, you can still be broken, and things that aren’t physical can break us.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BwEo_JAAVdq/?utm_source=ig_embed&

Today, Conn shares his story in an effort to bring these taboo topics out in the open, and confront them head on, in healthy ways.

It’s taken him around the world, meeting people from a variety of industries, from high powered executives, to junior athletes.

Because if there’s one thing Conn has learned it’s this;

“Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” he said.

“It comes in all walks of life.”

The NRL does more now for players’ mental health and wellbeing than ever before, but according to one former player, there’s still work to be done to step up their support for those involved in the game.

There’s a long list of off-field issues that rugby league players face in today’s game. It used to just be about playing tough footy on the weekend, and putting the work in through the week to make it happen.

But that’s been steadily changing, and in recent years those who run rugby league at every level have had to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of the players who dedicate themselves to the sport.

“I think the NRL are doing what they need to do, so it looks like they’re doing enough. Me personally, I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” ex-NRL star, turned mental health advocate and fitness guru, Daniel Conn told Wide World of Sports.

“I wish I could do more of it. There is some organisations and people out there who are doing a great job but some of it needs a bit more work.”

Conn played in the NRL with the Canterbury Bulldogs, Gold Coast Titans and Sydney Roosters. He was forced into retirement at the age of just 25 after suffering a serious neck injury which led to spinal fusion surgery.

It was a fork in the road. He could continue playing, but his doctors said it was in his best interests to hang up the boots.

It was the beginning of a new chapter for Conn, but it raised an uncomfortable, yet all too common question for athletes when they finish their sporting careers – what comes next?

“Life after footy, it’s really quite hard. It’s a really tough transition and people talk about how hard it is, but until you’re in that you don’t really know,” Conn said.

“You perform at a high level and then when you go into normal society, it’s a bit of a shock.”

Conn said it’s more than just the physical adjustments athletes must confront after they lose the structure of professional sports, there’s also the mental hurdles.

That led Conn to battle through some “dark times”.

“I’ve suffered a type of depression for about 10 years,” he said.

“I had some pretty yucky times when I was playing football and then after I left, I think most people when they leave their sporting careers, have a bit of an identity crisis, so I struggled a fair bit.

“I’m a suicide survivor and it’s something I’ve got to work at everyday. But I’ve got a good team around me, people I can lean on, but I always find the best thing for me is talking to people.”

Conn found his passion and a healthy pressure-valve release in working in fitness after his rugby league career, and soon began elite training and coaching. That led to an opportunity at F45, the Australian franchise he helped grow into a global sensation, and when he moved on from there after a few years, he became a Wellness Director with the Collective Wellness Group driving the expansion of Anytime Fitness, Orangetheory Fitness and Massage Envy.

But his mental health was a constant hurdle, and the turning point came when he lost someone close to him.

“I was going through a bit of a tough time when I lost one of my mates who was on the same sort of path. I was probably the fortunate one to still be here, but my mate took his own life,” Conn said.

“So that encouraged me to think about it. I don’t want to go there and inflict that on my family and friends.

“I started doing a few talks, just small stuff and then started to get bigger and did a few talks for mining companies, banks, young footy players that are from 12 years old, female tennis groups ... everyone who could benefit from hearing my experience.”

Conn, who started his own business and for the last six months has been working in fitness, wellness and mental health, said the NRL has come a long way in providing necessary support for players, but there can always be more done, and it starts at the grassroots level, throughout their careers and all the way to post-retirement.

“I see what the NRL does but I also see what some people externally in psychology do. I think everyone plays it pretty safe. You have to step outside the box to understand what needs to be done,” Conn said.

“Until you talk about it, they’re not going to talk back.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BvlhFoygCH2/?utm_source=ig_embed&

When Conn does his talks, he speaks with immense experience of the good and the bad, of all the issues professional sportspeople face, but a positive sign is that the subject matter is slowly becoming less taboo.

In the NRL Greg Inglis, and in the AFL Buddy Franklin, are among the high-profile sports names that have been outspoken on the wellbeing of players beyond the footy field.

However, Conn says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s sad that it has to come down to such big name like Buddy or Greg putting their hand up when it’s about mental health or physically hiding their issues to try and push through,” Conn said.

“It’s something that needs to be policed from the top.

“There’s so many stories you don’t hear about. There’s probably hundreds if not thousands of athletes that have pushed through that pain barrier with prescription medication, whatever it is, to try and perform.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BvfLnlAgHJ2/?utm_source=ig_embed&

Conn is one of those guilty of trying to mask deeper issues during his NRL career.

In 2008, he pleaded guilty to forging painkiller prescriptions and was fined $5000 and ordered to do 60 hours of community service.

It was the result of the overwhelming pressure he felt internally, and from within the environment of being a professional athlete.

“All professional sports, male or female, people look up to the tough guys that get things done. But that’s also scary for young kids coming up who think they have to do whatever it takes. There’s a very fine line there that isn’t communicated very well. You just see the accolades that comes with pushing through the pain,” Conn said.

“You hear a lot of stories in the AFL, NRL and union when they start playing up, it’s usually because they’re pushing things too far and things become uncontrollable, which is not a word you use when you’re playing sport.

“It’s really taboo to go in and talk about going too far. It’s the elephant in the room, especially when you’re talking to junior athletes. All they’re thinking about it pushing through, whatever it takes, they want to play through a grand final with a broken shoulder like Cooper Cronk.

“The guys that push so hard but aren’t quite that good though, they’re fighting a battle by themselves and they don’t want anyone to know. That’s the stigma, but as tough as you are, you can still be broken, and things that aren’t physical can break us.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BwEo_JAAVdq/?utm_source=ig_embed&

Today, Conn shares his story in an effort to bring these taboo topics out in the open, and confront them head on, in healthy ways.

It’s taken him around the world, meeting people from a variety of industries, from high powered executives, to junior athletes.

Because if there’s one thing Conn has learned it’s this;

“Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” he said.

“It comes in all walks of life.”

http://bit.ly/2KzRCrB
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