Are rugby players masochists or simply addicted to the endorphins that yet another pre-season brings.
I sit here, a 35-year-old man contemplating the somewhat familiar pain crippling my ageing body. A pain that sears through me from head to toe like wildfire tearing into the Baratheon fleet at the Battle of the Blackwater. From the intense headache (for once not alcohol induced) to the pulsing black toenail, this pain is disquieting, somewhat comforting and essential to me in so many ways.

The headache is almost certainly a result of a sore neck and a shoulder that was made to carry 60kg sandbags for what seemed like forever and the toenail, almost definitely a result of my size 8 and a half boots (I’m a size 9) are undeniably and intrinsically linked to a particularly hectic 2 weeks of pre-season rugby training that I have once again decided to drag myself through. Pre-season training…an ordeal that most mere mortals may consider masochistic and maybe even somewhat peculiar.

Yet…although I embark on my 31st season of rugby and despite my current state of disrepair, I’m uncomfortably excited with the concept of once again pushing my body beyond what I expect from it on any ‘normal’ day. The rigours of everyday existence, although not insignificant, fail to compare to the efforts required to cope with yet another ‘pre-season’.

On this occasion I’m attempting to prepare myself for Midlands 1, a challenging semi-professional environment that lies 5 echelons below the top professionals. The effort required is significant for both the games elite and a team from Stoke. Both sets of players know they embark on a journey to prepare their bodies for another 8 months of car crashes, collisions, concussions and carnage. The risk of injury is always there.

Some people might say that they just couldn’t put the body through the rigours of such a task and would consider that the pain is just not worth it. As an overweight parent of two who’s enjoyed the ‘off season’ considerably, I could momentarily be tempted to agree… yet ultimately, I don’t and realistically, never will. Why?

The body is not a machine that is easily broken. It’s a living and breathing organism that is constantly evolving and changing. We can not wear it out or break it. We can, look after it, strengthen it, feed it, heal it and treat it right by loading it with appropriate exercise. It’s never too late to look after the body and if we stop using it, we will start to reduce its effectiveness to function in everyday life. We will seize up and shorten and stiffen and weaken and be more susceptible to injury and illness than ever before. So… isn’t a little bit of pain is essential in the long run?

Believe it or not, the physical benefits are not the main reason that the aches and pains of pre-season are so reassuring to me. These benefits are clear, but it is the mental health gains that scream at me every time July comes along. This is what keeps me SYFting through the wreckage.

Physical activity for health has become a high priority for several governments and agencies and in a recent study by Busch et al. (2016) a positive relationship between activity and positive mental health was found to be significant. Dore, O Loughlin, Beachump, & Martineau (2016) also indicated that physical activity was positively associated with increased mental health in young people. Another reason that we should be encouraging our young players to shift sandbags and not shoot people on screens.

It is widely accepted that physical activity is consistently associated with positive mood and in an age where depression and mental health hits one in three people, physical activity interventions, that have suggested to have a clinically meaningful improvement in depressive symptoms in young people (Parker et al, 2016), are essential to our society.

Pre-season is exactly that, it’s an eight-week intervention. An intervention that if structured properly can be fun, cathartic, social and in my eyes essential to overall health and wellbeing. Way better than the pills we turn to so often! As a coach it’s my job to acknowledge this. Feed the body with what it needs and the brain with happy endorphins, all at the same time.

So… pre-season becomes familiar, comforting and vital. Not only does it become so important for the physical and mental benefits, but it also prepares us for the game that we love. That excites me more than any synthetic substance and engages me more than any reality tv show or x box game. It makes me believe that anything Is possible at any time or at any age. For some, pre-season is just about feeling better, for me it’s still about wanting to drag my 35-year-old body around a pitch with some much fitter, younger and stronger players in the belief that I can still compete in the game I love. In terms of the pain… it gets easier the more you do… hopefully.

Tom Hughes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.