Ahead of the Game: Rugby league stars aim to help next generation with mental health awareness
Former Super League players Kevin Larroyer, Keith Senior and Paul Wood are among those to share their stories in the battle to help the next generation become better equipped to deal with mental health issues
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 18/10/21 3:03pm
For over a decade, rugby league has been a trailblazing sport as far as opening conversations around mental health goes. Now, some of the game's biggest names are setting out to prevent the next generation from suffering the same issues they did.
Being delivered by Rugby League Cares in partnership with the 2021 Rugby League World Cup and Movember UK, the 'Ahead of the Game' programme is seeing 15 players from across the men's, women's and wheelchair competitions giving talks in the community with players and coaches.
Among them is Kevin Larroyer, the former France international who has been dealing with mental health issues since childhood, having been placed in social service housing aged six after suffering abuse at the hands of his mother.
📺ICYMI "Ahead of the game" On Demand NOW— Sky Sports Rugby League (@SkySportsRL) October 15, 2021
This must-watch documentary is available to download right now as a team of #RugbyLeague stars share stories and educate the next generation on the importance of mental wellbeing pic.twitter.com/tYlL02gLgZ
His story, along with those of several other former Super League players, is told in the 'Ahead of the Game' documentary available via Sky On Demand, and the 32-year-old opened up on how those struggles growing up in Toulouse affected him.
"I felt abandoned because I had loads of questions like 'why am I being taken away and my sister can stay with mum and dad?'" Larroyer said.
"There were 12 of us on bunk beds and no bedtime stories and at nights was the time I was crying. I started playing rugby and that was my happy place.
"Rugby has always been my exit door, so I put my heart into rugby and it's a place I feel valued."
Even his rugby career has seen him face challenges though, suffering a long-term injury and then having his three-year contract at Hull Kingston Rovers end early following the club's relegation from Super League in 2016 just days after buying a house and with a newborn child to care for.
Then, soon after securing a move to Castleford Tigers, Larroyer received the devastating news his sister had committed suicide, and that along with his desire to help children avoid the problems he suffered with are a motivating factor in joining the campaign to improve mental fitness.
"My sister has been a big factor, but it is also when I have been in a hole, people had been reaching out to me," Larroyer said. "Now I'm feeling a lot better, I feel like it is my duty to give back.
"Now, being a dad, I don't want my son to experience one per cent of what I felt as a child, but I don't want any child to experience feelings of being unloved, useless, and not acknowledged, and I want those kids to build up their self-belief.
Thank you for your kind words. This is what this program is all about raising awareness and opening discussions mental health. I thought the kids were brilliant and really engaging which help us to deliver a quality workshop. https://t.co/F2gq68vQSr— Kevin Larroyer (@KevinLarroyer) September 28, 2021
"If you know your quality and how good you are, when you have a setback you think 'I can do it'."
Then there is Keith Senior, the Sheffield Eagles and Leeds Rhinos great who enjoyed a trophy-laden career, earned international caps for Great Britain and was one of the fiercest competitors of his generation. However, he struggled to come to terms with his career ending abruptly aged 35 after suffering an ACL injury.
Senior recalls how his life spiralled out of control, including him walking out on his marriage, with the point he realised he needed help coming when he ended up head-butting a wall in anger after a night out while staying with a former team-mate.
"I woke up not understanding what had gone on, ended up sitting on the sofa bursting into tears and thinking I'd wasted my life," Senior, who works full-time for Rugby League Cares, said. "I've had a career some of these kids aspire to and dream of, but my state of mental fitness was terrible.
I woke up not understanding what had gone on, ended up sitting on the sofa bursting into tears and thinking I'd wasted my life.
Keith Senior on his mental health struggles
"Now, it's a case of managing it a lot better, understanding it a lot better and controlling the controllables.
"I couldn't control what happened to my knee, and it's how you deal with that. There's a trauma, there's managing and then it's the acceptance that things happen in your life.
"I'm very grateful and appreciative of the career I've had now, which is something I've had to come to terms with and appreciate."
Those mental health issues can crop up at any time during a player's career though, as former Warrington Wolves forward Paul Wood found out.
Wood had developed obsessive-compulsive disorder in his early teens and those invasive thoughts nearly led to him taking his own life when he was forced to spend a long time on the sidelines in 2014 while recovering from injury, although fate intervened and the support of his family has helped too.
"I was contemplating it and some guy drove up to me in a layby, and virtually talked me out of it," Wood, who is now training to become a counsellor alongside his work with Rugby League Cares, said.
"He gave me a good telling-off because somebody he knew had done the same thing and it was a massive realisation about how your head can play tricks on me and tell me life is not worth living, but it actually is.
"Being in that place of not wanting to die but also wanting to die is a difficult place to be, but I've got a really supportive family who love me and want to see the best for me."
If you are affected by issues related to mental wellbeing or want to talk, please contact the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or visit the website
'Ahead of the Game', the story of a team of former rugby league professionals opening up on their battles with mental health and their mission to educate the next generation on the importance of the issue, is available via Sky On Demand.