“Over the next hours and days, spare a thought for the players.”
These were the initial thoughts of Mike Ross in the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s 2019 Rugby World Cup exit at the hands of New Zealand. Social media on that Saturday in October and the days which followed were awash with criticism, disappointment and unfortunately, at times, abuse.
Ross’ tweet stood out alone amongst much commentary which could only be described as personal and vitriolic.
Over the next hours and days, spare a thought for the players. As fans, we’ll get over it eventually, but for them it will linger for months. They’ll be the ones staring at the ceiling in the small hours, running through what went wrong.
— Mike Ross (@MikeRoss03) October 19, 2019
The rise in prominence and popularity of the Irish rugby team has had some negative consequences. Expectations are higher and with that comes fair criticism.
However, combine this with the advent of social media and the anonymity which it offers and what often remains is a breeding ground of unjust, personal, vindictive and unwarranted abuse.
As someone who has experienced this before and is aware of its negative impacts, Ross decided to speak out.
“It’s not nice criticism either, it’s not like ‘well, you need to work on your handling’, it’s stuff like, ‘Oh, he doesn’t deserve to wear the jersey’,” Ross tells Pundit Arena.
“It’s not measured. It’s not thought through. It’s infective to a certain degree. My tweet was basically, I know you’re upset but for those lads, this is something that some of them have built their entire lives up to for the last four years and for some lads it will be their last chance at it.
“Having experienced that disappointment and having been on that side of the fence, whatever you’re feeling as a fan, those guys are feeling ten-fold. Don’t add to it, please.”
Ross knows better than most the vulnerable state a player can find themselves in when things go wrong. The Cork native played a prominent role at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He started in the pool wins over Canada, Italy and France before being on the starting team who were ripped apart by Argentina in the quarter-final.
It was his last chance to create history at a World Cup and it’s something that some of Ireland’s 2019 squad will have to come to terms with.
“It was a little bit like mourning because I knew it was gone and that’s that. There’s nothing you could do about it. At the same time, you feel silly over it. It’s just a game. Nobody died or anything.
“If you think about the amount of effort, those guys would have trained extremely hard being away from their families for the guts of six months. And to have nothing to show for it. Again, for a lot of guys, it was their second or third World Cup.”
To make matters worse, as a tighthead prop, Ross’ mistakes or errors on the pitch were more obvious and they can often lead to the winning or losing of a match, such is the importance of the scrum in the modern game.
“Where I played, often, if I got things wrong, it cost the team points because there would be a penalty kick from a scrum or something. On those occasions, those are hard to take. As I said in the tweet, those are things that keep you awake at night when you try to go to sleep because your brain is very, it’s very thoughtful, it’s like, ‘I know you’re trying to go to sleep but have you thought about this?’”
It’s not just the international stage that can negatively impact a player as Ross reveals the Pro12 final loss to Leinster at Murrayfield in 2016 affected him for months afterwards.
“The other thing is, I remember a couple of seasons where, say Connacht in 2016, we lost to Connacht in a Pro12 final, and that hung around like a bad smell the whole entire summer for me. A lot of players, they’re going into Champions Cup now, they’re getting ready for that.
“Yeah, it’s a distraction and they’ll be putting all their effort into that but it’s the thoughts that sneak in when you’re unguarded. Everyone has a flashback when something didn’t go right for you and it’s just the odd moments. That will happen.”
Professional rugby players operate in such a high-pressure and high-stakes environment that losses, injuries and setbacks are going to have some sort of negative impact on one’s well-being. Initiatives, such as Tackle Your Feelings, have been helping players alleviate the pressures which are associated with modern life in addition to promoting a proactive attitude to mental health.
While players can also obtain the services of sports psychologists, Rugby Players Ireland, in partnership with Zurich, have also been equipping them and the public with the skills to cope through the Tackle Your Feelings app and website.
However, it’s the personal and poisonous comments which are posted on social media which have the potential to do the most damage.
Most players do their best to decrease their awareness of criticism but some, like Ulster and Ireland international Jacob Stockdale, often seek it out to use as motivation going forward.
“I kind of liked it whenever people slagged me off because then I get to prove them wrong,” Stockdale said after Ireland’s win over Scotland in Yokohama.
“That’s kind of my mantra. Proving wrong and proving right is what I try to live by.”
Ross believes this isn’t “a useful exercise” but admits that players are only human and it’s often difficult to resist seeking out opinions on your own performance.
“I don’t think it’s a useful exercise. All these people who are saying negative comments haven’t played a game in their lives. It’s clueless commentary. What counts most at the end of the day is your coaches and peers. I suppose we’re all human. It’s like having a burn at the roof of your mouth, you can’t stop poking it with your tongue. Or picking a scab. You just can’t help yourself, it’s only hurting you.”
Staying off social media, in theory, is the easiest solution to all of this but most players generally need to have a presence online in order to maximise their earning potential and develop commercial opportunities.
Unfortunately what comes with that is the ease at which people can direct abuse towards you and as Ross describes it, “it’s like everyone has your phone number and they can text you.”
So what is the solution?
Ross believes that the various social media platforms need to take more responsibility in how anonymous trolls can post and distribute various forms of damaging content.
And this is not a conversation which is solely related to sport. The use of social media is having profound negative impacts on all walks of life, especially young people, who are often deeply embedded into the use of various platforms and are ill-equipped to deal with the adverse impacts.
A potential answer, in Ross’ opinion, is that there should be a verification system involved when setting up a social media profile.
“Well, I think there are steps the social media platforms themselves can take. It’s not just players that are being affected by this, the whole public discourse is being affected. I think a good idea is to have a verification system if you want to use a platform, so it’s your real name and face being put to it. If you’re having an anonymous account, it’s a very limited one. Maybe you can follow and not engage.
“If you put your name and your face to it, then it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to say nasty stuff. I’ve seen some vile stuff on social media from anonymous accounts and I think if that links back to you, it really changes the tone of things. From a players’ point of view, it’s difficult to block everyone because you still have to read the content to figure out that I have to block this person.”
Whether it’s social media or pressure that a professional rugby player puts on him or herself, coming out of the bubble, as Ross describes, is like a weight being lifted off one’s shoulders and this offers a strong insight into the many difficulties that players face in the game.
“The pressure is fairly relentless. Having been in it and stepped out of it, it’s almost like a weight goes off your shoulders because you’re not under the microscope week in, week out the same way you are in rugby.”
“It made up for the fact that I was missing that dressing room. I had been in that environment for 12 years and made some really good friends. I think the very nature of professional rugby is that you make friends for life in it. It’s that shared suffering model that you’re going through. The highs and the lows, it’s a very close bond and then it’s a violent ejection from that into the real world.
“That can be tough to deal with. The group of friends that you had, they’ve moved on. You can still keep in touch with them but it’s not going to be the same again.”
Former Irish Rugby Player and Tackle Your Feelings Campaign ambassador, Mike Ross was speaking about the disappointment of an early Rugby World Cup exit and the affect it can have on a player’s mental wellbeing as they readjust back into their normal lives. Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich recently relaunched the Tackle Your Feelings mental wellbeing app and website as part of a new phase of the campaign: #ImTakingControl. Tackle Your Feelings aims to promote a proactive attitude towards mental health and provide people with the tools to ‘Take Control’ of their mental wellbeing. The TYF app is free to download through Apple and Google Play Stores and you can find more information on the campaign at www.tackleyourfeelings.com