In the past few weeks, the New Zealand rugby fraternity has modelled some inspiring attitudes and behaviours that demonstrate how we can look after each other and how we can reduce division and intolerance.
They were attitudes and behaviours that could help to build a much-needed barrier at the top of the cliff during our ongoing mental health crisis.
A caring phone call from a coach to a referee after a loss. A captain expressing disapproval of his team’s supporters. Blokes apologising. Players walking away from potential on-field fights. These things give me hope.
I don’t think enough has been said about Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan in the wake of his team’s recent Super Rugby Pacific final loss to the Crusaders. He’s my new hero, and I’m not a Chiefs supporter.
After the game, referee Ben O’Keeffe received considerable online abuse. It has been reported that McMillan called him to see if he was okay.
What a compassionate and generous thing that was. Especially because he reached out to someone who perhaps contributed to his frustration and disappointment.
McMillan put himself in the shoes of another person. He showed empathy, which can make a meaningful difference to someone’s psychological wellbeing. That’s a powerful thing in a world that seems to be increasingly oppositional.
Research suggests that empathy can promote altruistic and prosocial behaviour, and that it leads to a decline in prejudice and bullying. I think everyone in this country could benefit from that.
Referees are people. Like all of us, they get it wrong sometimes. And when they do, our words can have a negative impact. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names can send some people into dark and dangerous places. Anyone. Mental and emotional distress do not discriminate.
Chiefs captain Sam Cane labelled the social media response to O’Keeffe as “unacceptable”. He rebuked his own supporters while he was no doubt still pretty raw from the loss and for being sent off towards the end of the game.
It’s possible he was thinking about how the abuse might have affected O’Keeffe personally. Again, that’s generous and compassionate. Because treating other people with cruelty is not okay in rugby, just as it’s not okay in general.
I’m not saying that rugby has got everything right, and I’m also not saying that kindness and support have not been part of its culture before now. I love the game, but compassion and empathy are not words I have traditionally associated with a sport that, for me, still has a lot of “hard man”, “suck it up” masculinity surrounding it. So to see things like empathy within the context of the men’s game is noteworthy and very welcome.
I often work with men, including professional sportsmen, who have found it challenging to live up to mainstream socio-cultural ideals of masculinity and who find it shameful to experience mental ill-health. The stigma is real, and so things like McMillan’s phone call and Cane’s support could go some way toward addressing it.
After that Chiefs-Crusaders final, O’Keeffe also did something important: he acknowledged that he missed a forward pass, one that arguably contributed to the game’s outcome. It isn’t easy to admit when we get something wrong. Especially publicly.
I think it shows courage and integrity. It models the kind of behaviour that can make a difference in a divided world.
Cane did a similar thing after the All Blacks’ victory over Argentina.
He tripped/kicked a pitch invader and then admitted that he’d got it wrong. Cane - also the New Zealand captain - apologised and sought out the person to “make it right”, in his own words.
This sets a healthy example for people who perhaps think these things show weakness. What they actually show is the strength to be vulnerable, which can bring us closer together and, again, has a positive effect on mental health.
A lot of people on social media believe Cane did nothing wrong and that there’s no need for an apology. I’m not quite sure where I stand on that, but what I can say is that his response could be a valuable thing.
If a child did something “wrong” and then apologised and made up for it, we would celebrate that, surely. Maybe Cane was protecting himself from any fallout by owning up to what he did, but I see his apology and subsequent behaviour as genuine.
New Zealand’s Rugby Championship game against South Africa in Auckland provided another inspiring example of positive role modelling.
All Blacks Samisoni Taukei’aho and Tupou Vaa’i both somehow managed to turn away from what looked to me like potential fights during moments of escalating emotion.
That’s not an easy thing to do and it doesn’t always end like that in a situation of heated conflict, in rugby or anywhere else. Life offers plenty of conflict, but even if we’re on different sides there are healthy ways of dealing with it. Which we aren’t doing enough on social media.
What we’ve seen from McMillan, O’Keeffe, Cane, Taukei’aho and Vaa’i could go some way towards improving this country’s collective mental health. It’s possible that what they’ve shown will have a small but significant impact on how we treat each other. And we need barriers like these at the top of the cliff.
- Chris Lorigan is an Auckland-based psychotherapist.