October 09, 2020 7 min read
To mark World Mental Health Day this year, we were honoured to chat with Ben Atiga, former All Blacks player and current Scottish Rugby Union Player Liaison about his own journey with mental health, his inspirations and what it’s like being a Kiwi in the capital of Scotland.
You grew up in New Zealand and have Samoan and Tongan heritage, has rugby always been in your blood?
Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport and, like many Kiwi kids, I grew up throwing a rugby ball around the backyard with my neighbours and cousins. I'm fortunate to come from a rich rugby bloodline - my Samoan Grandfather played in the first Samoan international team and others in my family have also played international rugby for Tonga and New Zealand.
How did it feel to get called up to the All Blacks?
It's every Kiwi kid's dream to become an All Black. It happened very quickly for me. It was my second year in pro rugby and I don't think one would even expect to have their name in the same sentence as "All Black" so early in their career back in those days, especially in a Rugby World Cup (RWC) year. I was completely blindsided. Nevertheless, it was a dream come true and a moment I'll never forget. To be able to sing the anthem, perform the haka and play in that jersey, it was pretty special.
You’ve spoken candidly in the past about your own experiences with injuries and mental health - can you talk a bit about times you’ve perhaps struggled and how you’ve overcome this?
I had a fairly rapid rise in my pro career. At 20, I was an All Black and I put a lot of pressure on myself following that campaign. There's a huge expectation that comes with the "AB" label and I didn't handle it so well back then. In the following years, I had a bad knee injury that was becoming chronic and by my mid-20s I began to lose confidence. At the height of my career at 25, although having been part in some successful seasons, I wasn't happy where I was as an individual at that point in my life. I expected more from myself considering my earlier trajectory. It got to a point where I was no longer thinking of what was best for the team and was mentally exhausted, so I decided to step away from the game. The worst thing I did was keep it to myself. I was too embarrassed to admit that I wasn't happy. Only when I returned to play after two years away did I realise the sole reason I played rugby in the first place - to simply enjoy playing with my mates. Reminding myself of that made it easier to handle the ups and downs of pro sport. I came back to the game determined to play my best but to also support the next generation coming through.
How did you find moving from New Zealand across the world to Edinburgh? How did you cope with these challenges?
I was fine with the move. Rugby has given me the opportunity to travel the world over since I was a teenager. I guess I knew what to expect being so far from home and I had got used to travelling with rugby. My wife and daughter had never been past Australia or travelled as extensively so it was always going to be more challenging for them. We come from big Pacific Island families and we're used to living with extended relatives under one roof so it was a challenge for us to be on our own without that support. There are always cultural differences going to new countries and it has been challenging at times but we've adjusted over time and we love this city. You definitely know that you're not in NZ when you're surrounded by this amazing landscape. It's a fantastic experience for us to live abroad.
How did you end up working for the Scottish Rugby Union and what does your role entail?
I was at the end of my rugby career and my family and I were planning to return to NZ when I decided to apply for a role at Scottish Rugby as an international resettlement advisor. The role was to relocate players and their families from overseas or around the country to one of our two pro clubs at Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors. Scottish Rugby then began plans to build a player support program and I was really keen to be a part of it. Considering I had come through a good support program in NZ, I thought it best to use those learnings and experience to help shape a national program here.
Can you tell us a bit aboutScotland Rugby’s ‘Rugby for Life’ initiative?
"Rugby for Life" is our player program designed to support the holistic development of our players at Scottish Rugby. We assist with support relevant to the different ages and stages of the player's career by focusing on key areas in education and career planning, vocational learning, financial management, and mental wellbeing. There is a strong belief that a better person makes a better player so it's about supporting the whole person, not just the player. The program is growing arms and legs every season since we launched in 2018 and we are starting to see more players reach out to their communities to progress with their own learning and upskilling in interests outside of rugby.
What is the best part of your job / what do you enjoy most about your role?
The cool part of my job is engaging daily with our pro players within such a highly intense and competitive environment. I'm glad I've been able to slowly transition out of pro rugby from the pitch to the clubhouse. I do miss the camaraderie so at least I get a dose of interaction with players each day without having to get annihilated at training! The most testing part is managing how to challenge individuals appropriately in finding that intrinsic motivation to explore other interests. "Why on Earth would I want to look for interests outside the sport I love" right? That's the challenge I have to tackle daily with players. As any pro athlete would tell you, it's the challenges that you revel in so that's what I enjoy most about my role. Every player has a different story so no one day is really the same for me.
How do you think your own personal experience helps how you deal with the players you work with/mentor?
The average pro rugby career today spans only 7 years and fortunately, I had a career spanning 13 years going from the highest highs to the lowest lows with everything in between. In my rugby journey, players are able to resonate with different parts of that story and I can empathise with the demands and pressures they go through. That has helped me to build trustful relationships and allows me to challenge them on a professional and, at times, a personal level. It's important to me to maintain complete integrity and work with them in strict confidence to maintain that trust. Even my wife knows not to pry. She has seen me at my worst so she understands the complete confidence needed in working with players.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
I asked myself that recently because I'm so passionate about this role as much as the first day on the job. I love supporting our players as much as I can and I never thought I was that type of person to work in this space. I did a questionnaire once that presented results of my personal characteristics and the one trait that stood out far beyond the rest was that I was a "supportive" person. I believe the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and we are the product of how we're raised. My Mother has tirelessly worked as a careers advisor for Pacific Island students and Dad has been a police officer working with troubled youth for over 30 years. My grandfathers were both presidents and ministers within the church and dedicated their lives to service. It wasn't hard to figure out where my inspiration came from after that questionnaire.
How have you kept yourself sane during lockdown? Any habits/hobbies/tips for keeping positive mental health?
Just before lockdown I tried out yoga and have since been hooked on it. I'm still a novice but I try and do 3-4 Youtube classes a week. I have more mobility in my hip than I did six months ago. Who knows, I might be able to get out on the pitch for a runaround at the rate things are going! I'm learning how to build a mobile app too. It's been something that has interested me for a while and since I have a bit more time working remotely from home with COVID restrictions, it may just be useful to create a central hub for the players to engage the program from their own smartphones.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given with regards to mental health?
I try not to give advice when players are "doing it tough". Quite often I've experienced or witnessed similar challenges they encounter. I like to tell those stories because it's relatable and they have another perspective to consider. I'm someone that players can springboard off most of the time, they solve their own issues or find solutions when they talk it out. One guy hadn't slept for almost a week once and after chatting an hour he felt much better. He realised he was worried about something that hadn't even happened and he knew what he had to do to take back control of the situation. He ended with, "You know what Benny, I think I just had a bad week". We were in hysterics in the middle of a cafe. Problems are only as big as we make them out in our heads. If players need professional help we can signpost them to our mental health provider as well.
At Meander, we’re all about enjoying everyday adventures, both big and small. Can you tell us what a favourite day out looks like for you, exploring Edinburgh or Scotland?
My family and I are well overdue to tour the Highlands so we'll need to stock up on Meander apparel before we do that early next year. We lived in Bruntsfield for a few years and we loved it around there. We like to go for strolls around the Meadows. It reminds us of a similar reserve back in our hometown in Auckland. That along with the many selections of restaurants to dine for the evening and that's a perfect day for me. Edinburgh is such a beautiful city and I'm grateful I get to experience it with my family every day
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