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“We had an under-15s player who had only been with us for two months,” the St Helens Welfare & Education Manager begins. “Then at 9:30 one evening I received a message from a staff member saying he’s a person we need to speak to because he’s struggling.
“By 5pm the following day we had him and his family sat in front of a counsellor – that’s less than 24 hours later.
“He’s still accessing that support and he’s not frightened of coming in and speaking to the counsellor on a training night when all the other lads are here – he’s not bothered about them seeing him talking.”
Kilshaw, who has been with St Helens in various capacities since 2002, tells the Leaders Performance Institute that English rugby league in general is well ahead of the curve. To place these developments in their proper context, he explains that the Rugby Football League developed a more formalised approach in 2011 following the tragic death of rugby league player Terry Newton, who had taken his own life a year earlier. Kilshaw and St Helens soon began to implement a more systematic approach to wellbeing that touches all areas of the club in 2019.
“If you’re providing these services at a younger age then you’re beginning to develop that culture of wellbeing and the idea that you are more than what you do on the field.” We take a look at those services and what his role requires of Kilshaw.
Neil, where does wellbeing begin and end at St Helens?
NK: “Wellbeing begins the first day kids come into your programme at 13 or 14. I think that’s where you can have an influence right away and you’re starting to develop a culture where you are more than what you do on the field – there’s a lot more to being a rugby player. I’ll make sure I am at every welcome meeting when a new kid joins us and it gives me an opportunity to know the player and their family straight away. I can also make sure we’re not giving the kids false hope from a young age. Beyond that, we want players to be active and to connect with people around them, friends and family, and not just become insular with sport, rugby and St Helens. Our academy lads come in on an evening having gone that morning to study a trade or take their A-Levels or whatever it might be. We have lads dotted around a lot of different colleges and sixth-forms; straight away you’re encouraging those lads to have other circles of friends that keep them grounded and they’re used to going into a classroom with other people. That culture stays with them as they mature into senior players.”
How important are connections and interest beyond the sport?
NK: “Wellbeing begins with being connected to the world beyond sport. We want players to be active instead of sedentary. We want people to connect with people around them, friends and family. In our wellbeing conversations we try to steer them away from rugby by asking ‘how’s the family? How’s the kids? How’s the wife? How are your mates? What did you do at the weekend?’ It’s making them think that rugby is work and to consider what they like doing outside of work.”
What are some of your systems and processes?
NK: “Our lads come into the academy on an evening having spent the daytime at college, work or doing an apprenticeship. Straight away you’re encouraging the lads to have other connections. We want our lads to have different circles of friends where they’re in contact with other people who will help to keep them grounded. If we can do that while the lads are at sixth form, it’s the type of culture that goes through them as they progress through academy players into first-team players. They’re used to being in a world where they go into a classroom with other people – it’s not just all rugby. I oversee what goes on with the welfare delivery and I make sure that there’s four formalised welfare conversations per player per season; and that’s a minimum – the reality is that there’s a lot more than that going on because there’s lots of informal chats that go on along the way. Our chaplain might be walking off the field after training and he walks alongside somebody with a rack of water bottles and he’s just gauging what they’re up to in their life just by general conversation. It might be me placing myself with the injured players in their rehab group, conversations with them about how they’re doing and where they are. The chaplain and I speak several times weekly and we’ll each flag up to each other if we think a particular player is somebody of concern and we’ll give them a rating of red, amber or green if we think there’s someone we need to keep an eye on and that triggers a few more conversations.”
How important is it to be visible?
NK: “I will attend team lunches on a Monday. It started as a wellbeing clinic on a Monday lunchtime but now I’m always around the players’ lunch that day. A lot of players will come and check-in but I’ll go and check-in on them as well.”
How might you or the chaplain make an intervention?
NK: “The ones that engage in conversation with you, they’re the ones you’ll say are ‘green’ and will engage in conversation with you. It’s those other players who are like, ‘yeah, everything’s great, everything’s fantastic’; they want to move on and they want to run away from you. If somebody is like that with us then straight away that will trigger either myself or the chaplain that we need to put that player on an amber because he’s avoiding engaging in a conversation with us. That becomes one of the triggers but it might be that everything is fine and they just weren’t in a position where they could talk. At amber we’ll take players to one side and tell them we need to have a formal sit down. It might be that we have to text them because we don’t actually see them on site; they know if they get us saying that they need to have an hour then they know that they have to. They still might run and they still might dodge it and they still might take a while in coming to you but then we just become quite persistent.
When did your welfare role become more formalised at St Helens?
NK: “It became a formalised welfare role around 2011. In the early days I had these fluffy ideas of I’ve got an ‘open door’ policy and anyone can come in and see me about anything they want. Then I thought everything must be brilliant around the place because no one wanted to come and see me; ‘it’s great and I can put my feet up and not have to do anything’; but the reality is that they’re young men and they won’t come and talk to you – you have to go to them instead. We changed things completely with the idea that I go out to them or we go to them. That became the formalised, minimum of so many conversations per season. After going to them for a two, three, four-year period of constantly being visible and going to speak to them, they actually come into us a lot more because of that actual cultural thing. It’s more acceptable to be seen talking to the ‘welfare bloke’ while the rest of the players are having lunch. It’s taken a while to get there.”
What tends to be the focus of those conversations?
NK: “You’re trying to talk beyond rugby but you have to use rugby as the tool to talk around other issues. With our younger players, rugby is generally the issue because they’re waiting for an opportunity and they’re frustrated because they think they should be playing in the first team and they’re not yet. With the older players, the underlying theme is transition; they don’t always recognise that transition is the issue that they’ve got. So you try your best not to talk about rugby but sometimes you have to use rugby as the way in and then you might kind of flit into rugby at various points of the conversation; it’s very much a conversation and you see how it goes, see where it takes you. I’ve had some bizarre conversations with players in the past. There was one particular player a few years ago and he was talking about buying a fishing lake. He was looking at fish farming courses and linking with people who run fish farms and then it comes out that he wants to buy a fishing lake in the south of France and he started talking so passionately about the depth the lake needs to be at and if it’s too deep then you can’t find the fish. I thought: ‘where did my life go to talk about fish farming?’ and that’s where the conversations go.
Do you need to be mindful of the language you use?
NK: “However they see the world, you’ve got to be able to talk to them in the same terms. I try and mirror their language; that’s how you try to get in and it’s difficult to try and get to know how 30 players operate and then it’s difficult and challenging for new players coming in. To have the conversations that you want to have you need to develop a level of trust and rapport with the player, and that can take time to build in itself. Equally, not everybody is here that long and maybe that’s why we try to start at a really young age; 20 of our 30-man squad this year have come through our academy, so there’s a significant number there where you’ve been able to develop a level of trust and rapport with them from a young age. With those academy boys and under-19s we avoid using ‘back-up plan’ or using ‘plan B’ with the players and their parents. We’ll say, ‘have an education plan, have a career plan and hopefully rugby is successful and you can delay that career plan for 15 years and you can start your career plan a little bit later on down the line’.”
You have previously mentioned the term ‘welfare by stealth’ – what does it mean?
NK: “You can throw in a lot of concepts without using the framework or the terminology and you can tell these players at some stage that ‘you are strong and mentally stable because you’re connecting with friends and family in the outside world – you’ve not just got this sole identity’. We’re making people realise that for protecting their mental health and wellbeing it’s actually the stuff we’re encouraging you to do – welfare by stealth – is helping you to self-care, which in turn, will help with your career transition.”
What are some of the pressure points during a season?
NK: “We don’t have pressure points as such but we have areas of the season where we do less with the players and where we do more with the players; we might have fewer workshops around certain periods of the year where we’re around cup quarter-finals or semi-finals. Around Easter weekend we’d back off from having people in and around the players’ lunch, for example.”
How do you decide what to wear at the club?
NK: “If I’m having a welfare day I’ll try and not wear tracksuit bottoms and a polo shirt with my initials on it so that I look like a member of staff – I’ll just wear a pair of jeans and a polo shirt because that’s what the players recognise. You talked before about framing things and being in their world, they’re a little more open just if you have another t-shirt on – it’s amazing the difference, honestly. It’s those little things that you learn along the way.”
What does the future hold for welfare in rugby league?
NK: “The next phase for us is to really embed the idea of mental health by self-care; by being active, connecting with people, and learning and getting involved in other activities. We also want to see the players looking out for each other a little bit more; they’re with each other day in and day out so if one of the players thinks ‘he’s been quiet or he’s got something going on’ we’d like the players to flag things up a little bit more or coming to tell me if someone has been quiet. We want the players doing it as much as the staff because players generally know before the staff that something is going on. We have also had a real drive in the last 18 months on that preparation for transition and career planning. At the end of last year 75% were actively involved in education or career transition; that’s 75% of a 30-man squad between the ages of 19 and 34. That’s quite significant.”
Looking for more strategic insight?
Neil Kilshaw featured in our previous Special Report – want the latest insight into data and industry trends? Download our most recent Special Report: Navigating the Data Maze featuring Texas Rangers, Orlando Magic and Australian Institute of Sport