Connacht supporters would remember Pat Lam’s tenure as head coach quite fondly. A rollercoaster ride which yielded a historic PRO12 title in 2016 all the while playing an exhilarating brand of rugby. For Jack Carty, memories of the early days of the Kiwi’s tenure are a little bit different.
The charismatic New Zealander gave Carty his senior debut in the 2013/14 season while he was still in the Academy. He would start four games for the western province that season before featuring heavily in the 2014/15 campaign.
That season, Carty would amass 1,254 minutes of senior rugby with Connacht. From the outside looking in, one would expect this to be a dream for a young aspiring rugby player playing for his native province. Yet the phrase, ‘appearances can be deceiving’, couldn’t be truer or more applicable to Carty during this time.
Because during that period, Carty was the subject of online abuse and trolling.
We often view professional athletes and rugby players as invincible but no one is immune to this sort of treatment, especially when you are young and lacking in experience in how to deal with these situations in the best possible way.
“It would have started when I was starting off with Connacht,” Tackle Your Feelings Ambassador Jack Carty tells Pundit Arena.
“After that period of time when you’re a new player and when you’re consistently playing in the team, there’s a blanket for a period of time when you don’t get it (abuse). I suppose, to give you a broad sense of what happened. My consistency was up and down and the validation in my performance after a game didn’t come from players or from staff, it came from Twitter or online forums. I used to type my name in to read to see how I went. If I played poorly, that affected how I felt for the next three or four days. It affected my mental wellbeing.”
One particular troll had such an impact on Carty that he would carry the weight of that person’s words on his shoulders for long periods. That heavy burden lived with him. It travelled and impacted him in all situations. Even when he went away on holidays for some much-needed downtime it would get him down. Until that is, in a bizarre twist of fate, Carty would come face-to-face with this individual.
“There was a scenario where there was a particular person or persons who did it over a sustained period of time. I was taking screenshots of this person’s Facebook status, I had it on my phone and eventually managed to bump into this person at a function.
“I built up this thing where I said once if I ever met them, I’d have an idea of what I was going to say to them because the anxiety or distress that this person has caused me. There was a period of time where I would be on holidays and I would be looking at the Facebook statuses of what this person was putting up.
“I had this big plan in my head of whenever I met them, I’d give them a piece of my mind. I literally met them and they were like, “Hi, Jack, how are you?’ I’d kind of said to them, ‘Oh, you’re not writing anything about me anymore.’ And they said, ‘That’s because you’re playing well.’ He walked off and that was it.”
This moment proved to be an enlightening one for Carty. He soon realised that the amount of emotional energy he was putting into worrying about what people were saying to him was futile.
It wasn’t worth it.
“The amount of time and energy that I put into this thing that I had built up to be so big. You know, there was probably no need for it. If I had coping mechanisms and tools that I have now back then, it would have been such an easier experience for me and I would have been able to go through it so much more seamlessly.
“As I said, the fact that I have a support network that are there, I have friends who I probably wouldn’t have reached out to before, I would have kept everything to myself and wouldn’t have told a lot of fellas. Obviously, I have the Tackle Your Feelings app which I find is really beneficial to me.”
Carty would then go on a journey of discovering and developing coping mechanisms in order to deal, in a healthy way, with similar situations like the one he experienced which may occur in the future. Carty explains that it wasn’t a “click of the fingers” eureka moment. It took time for him to understand and apply the tools for this not to impact him negatively.
As he describes, his toolkit consists of reaching out to people who are close to him, ultimately overcoming what is now a diminishing stigma – that speaking about one’s mental health is a sign of weakness.
“Initially I would use the Tackle Your Feelings app and that highlights your support network, who they are. That helped me formulate who my support network were. I have two younger brother and two older sisters. I’m fortunate enough to have both my parents. It’s good to have family members but I’ve also people outside of my family who I can reach out to, teammates.
“You can see that it’s a sort of thing that has been eroded away, this sort of thing where speaking about your mental health is seen as a weakness but it’s actually a strength. If you’re able to go to speak to someone, you never know what that person who you’re speaking to is feeling the same way. It opens up a dialogue for the two of ye.”
Although Carty was making great strides in overcoming this, he was brave enough to seek out additional help.
The 27-year-old sought out the services of a sports psychologist because ultimately, he was thinking of walking away from the sport. It’s appalling to think that the impact of online abuse and internet trolls could lead a talented professional athlete to consider departing a career which he worked so tirelessly for.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.
“I went to see a lady called Niamh Fitzpatrick up in Dublin. She’s a psychologist and sports psychologist. So I went to her. Initially, when I went to her, I really didn’t know whether I wanted to play rugby anymore. I was kind of at a crossroads in my career. We just kind of said the three things that I’d look at would be my application in training to help me improve, my mental health, mental facets and mental training. So that kind of whole spectrum. And then just try to find fun in rugby again.”
“Basically, I had made my first appearance with Connacht. So it would have been after Pat Lam’s first year. So that following year, I would have went on to play in most of the games that season. So it was that season, I could have quit. But if I had, I wouldn’t have played the amount of games. It was eye-opening to think how close I was that I thought I was so far away from it as well.”
Carty’s courage in opening up on this difficult period of his life can provide a valuable lesson to everyone, not just rugby players, that it’s okay to seek help, advice or open up to someone close to you. It can be a healing experience and ultimately, it makes you stronger.
“I’m not going to say it was a click of the fingers and it all changed overnight but I could see the gradual improvements that were put in place then to get me to where I am today and get me capped last year and go to a World Cup. It was definitely just a gradual stepping stone.
“People say success isn’t a straight line, it’s ups and downs. Looking back on it now, I suppose in one sense I’m fortunate that I went through that whole experience that I could kind of express it now and people could take some of the lessons I’ve had and use some of the tools that I used to help them.”
Today, Ireland and Connacht Rugby Player & Tackle Your Feelings ambassador, Jack Carty is encouraging people to be supportive and avoid trolling or scaremongering when using social media, especially now following the outbreak of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Tackle Your Feelings was launched by Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich in 2016 and is funded by the Z Zurich Foundation. Today Jack was on hand to lend his support to the #ImTakingControl campaign which encourages people to ‘Take Control’ of their mental wellbeing using principles from both sport and positive psychology.