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Could counselling for footballers change off-field behaviour?

10 November 2021
New paper outlines counselling methods
Chair of Social Work Professor Jioji Ravulo has spent eight years counselling rugby league players about their off-field behaviours. In a new paper, he shares insights into supporting the mental health of elite athletes under pressure.

A new paper has outlined the benefits of mandatory counselling for National Rugby League (NRL) players with problematic off-field behaviours such as illicit drug use, sexual misconduct or inappropriate post-match celebrations.

The NRL has recently faced poor behaviour from players but remains committed to a mental health strategy, including mandatory counselling. They have pioneered proactive mental health programs as a professional sporting code in Australia.

photo of Professor Jioji Ravulo sitting in football stadium seats

Professor Jioji Ravulo has worked with athletes for eight years.

Professor Jioji Ravulo, chair of Social Work and Policy Studies, who has conducted one-on-one mandatory counselling sessions with more than 100 professional NRL players over eight years shared his observations in an article published in the international journal Social Work in Mental Health.

Many of the players were referred by the NRL’s Integrity Unit, which mandates six counselling sessions after problematic off-field behaviours, such as returning a positive illicit drug test. The goal of the counselling sessions was to promote behavioural change ranging from alcohol and drug use, mental health issues, anger management and family issues.

“The players are often reluctant to attend the counselling sessions and sometimes don’t even turn up to the first one,” said Professor Ravulo.

“But when they understand the counselling can help them change their behaviour, improve their performance and their relationships with their peers and loved ones, they start to change their minds and they open up.”

“NRL players may believe that talking about their feelings is a sign of weakness. However, as they start to become more aware of the importance of understanding how their emotions have an impact on their interactions with others, they see this as a strength.”

NRL and wellbeing

The NRL has a program to support the mental health of its players called State of Mind. The program has added routine mental health checks to its physical health checks, where players are invited to review their emotional state.

The NRL also has several mental health ambassadors who work within the NRL Clubs with the representative players as well as throughout the community in schools and Junior Clubs. Former NRL players like Preston Campbell, Clinton Toopi and Alan Tongue have helped destigmatise the issue of asking for mental health or wellbeing support. 

Supporting elite athletes

Professor Ravulo has called for all sporting organisations to introduce or maintain an ongoing commitment to providing counselling as a measure to promote strong mental health for elite athletes under high performance pressure.

“Elite athletes experience the high highs of winning within a competitive workplace environment. At the same time, they can also experience the very low lows of not performing to expectations which can have a flow on effect to their social and emotional wellbeing.”

Players who were initially reluctant to attend mandatory counselling, soon started to see the benefits. Some players even ask for additional sessions, beyond the mandatory six, required by the NRL’s Integrity Unit.

Mandatory counselling

In the paper, Professor Ravulo outlines the structure of the counselling sessions:

The counselling sessions were generally conducted away from the clubhouse or the training ground for privacy reasons. Some sessions were in the players’ homes or via video or phone when they were travelling for games. All sessions were confidential.

The counselling first addressed any underlying culture issues. This included

  • any male gender expectations to appear strong and to not share personal struggles in order to maintain a “tough exterior”,
  • family or cultural backgrounds where a player may have grown up with problematic alcohol or drug use, long term unemployment or low education outcomes in the family or a recent move away from family, perhaps from a rural area to the city with little support.

Three key counselling techniques were used by Professor Ravulo during the sessions:

  1. Cognitive behavioural therapy was offered to help a player understand how their thoughts have an impact on their feelings and the subsequent flow on effect to their behaviours. Similarly, the way a player behaves or feels can influence thoughts.
  2. A narrative approach helps a player understand how their life experiences may have contributed to their current issues and how to change their current and future path.
  3. Motivational interviewing techniques were used to assist players to find a deeper drive to succeed in their sport other than simply “be better”. For instance, young players who were encouraged to think of establishing an NRL career that expanded well into their 20s rather than an NRL experience of just one or two seasons, found the method a “game changer”.

Professor Ravulo said many NRL players gained vital communication skills after completing the counselling sessions. “Sometimes men don’t feel safe talking about their feelings and that may lead to problematic thinking, emotional responses and behaviour,” he said.

“Counselling helps the players create sustainable relationships with their fellow team mates, coaches, their partners, other family members and wider community. Better relationships lead to better outcomes and better athletes.”

Recommendations

Sporting organisations need to continue their work in  

  • meeting the needs of their athletes based on their personal, social and welfare needs 
  • implementing targeted campaigns to create club cultures that promote access to support services and 
  • enabling players to formally review and assess their mental health and wellbeing like they do with their physical health on a regular basis.

Declaration: Professor Jioji Ravulo is an external, contracted counsellor for the NRL. Professor Ravulo does not formally report to anyone in the NRL. There was no funding for this paper. Top photo: Shutterstock

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