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News | Published October 12 2018

Jonny Wilkinson tells business leaders about the importance of mental health

Former England captain and Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson spoke at The Parliamentary Review gala on World Mental Health Day, discussing how his life has been changed by success and injury and the subsequent effect on his mental health. Speaking in the House of Lords, Wilkinson began by saying “I haven’t done many of these speeches and especially not in a venue like this.”

“I grew up with a list of goals as a seven or eight year old. I drew them all up on a page and wrote them down. By the time I arrived in Australia for the 2003 World Cup aged 24 I had ticked all but one.”

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  • Jonny Wilkinson discusses mental health at The Parliamentary Review gala
  • Wilkinson reflects on how he dealt with mental health issues during his career

This final goal for Wilkinson was winning a world cup. England had been on a yearlong unbeaten run, which included defeating both Australia and New Zealand and were soon in the final against Australia. Wilkinson kicked a drop goal to win the game in the final seconds of extra time, winning England their first World Cup in the process. He explained: “I looked at my goals I had completed everything and that moment was phenomenal."

I got there, and I was the last guy to kick the drop goal in the last seconds. It was stupid what had happened but for me nothing was there. I thought how has life changed, and in fact it hadn’t and I just felt more empty.

Wilkinson thought he had completed everything and that he was now waiting for the Hollywood ending, but it didn’t play out like that. “Bit by bit the joy of it all began to ebb away quite quickly. The following morning, I woke up and I think I expected to be carried down to breakfast, a cheering parade and breakfast to be perfect.”

Wilkinson described going down to breakfast the following day. He was disappointed that they didn’t have what he wanted, he was surrounded by people asking for his autograph and there were papers everywhere that he didn’t want to read. “Suddenly I just realised that I spent my entire life up to that point, the sacrifice I thought I made, the suffering, the stress all on the promise that this was going to be it. Yet I got there, and I was the last guy to kick the drop goal in the last seconds. It was stupid what had happened but for me nothing was there. I thought how has life changed, and in fact it hadn’t and I just felt more empty.”

Wilkinson realised that there can’t be any meaning or in built power in objects or status. “I wanted to be the best in the world and every newspaper was saying it out right, why can’t I feel awesome all the time? I started to realise that who I am is just assumptions, conclusions, beliefs and definitions I have made and none of them held any more weight than the idea that there was happiness and the end of the rainbow I was chasing. I thought this is an absolute joke, what have I been doing this for if there is nothing there?”

Wilkinson began to feel that he wasn’t in control and instead his life was the result of outside influences. He questioned how he can lead when his whole life was being influenced. He continued “When I say watch me lead, I am actually saying whatever happens to me is totally out of my control.”

The power is there, you can respond to anything and all you have to do is let go of how well you think you know yourself. The only way to lead is to get to know yourself

During a four year period of injury following the World Cup, Wilkinson continued to work on his mental health. In order to take hold of his own happiness, he said that he needed to understand what makes him feel good. "It’s when I feel absolutely effortless and completely connected, I feel at one with everything. Glimpses on weekends when I was playing, you just are the game, and this is an amazing feeling.”

“I designed myself to be a rugby player, so when I wore that shirt it just aligned in some way and I dissolved and the shirt became like an invisible cloak and I became gracefully effortless in my own world. The problem was that I couldn’t take that shirt off. Half of me is thinking about training and half of me is thinking about the game coming up and the only thing you want to be is in the moment but you are all over the place."

In response to these issues, Wilkinson decided to try and become more mindful. He explained that “the opportunity to engage in each moment is always there." Before he was desperate to be part of a fixed identity. Many rugby players are told to fit into a strict values system and to Wilkinson, it is no coincidence that a number of former rugby players come out of the sport with mental health problems.

Wilkinson then described how he rejected this mind set: “The power is there, you can respond to anything and all you have to do is let go of how well you think you know yourself. The only way to lead is to get to know yourself.”

To finish the speech Wilkinson summed up his approach with a simple analogy. “I was looking at my sat nav the other day and I realised it’s amazing that my sat nav is always correct. Whenever I arrive it always has the perfect time and I couldn’t work it out until I realised that what it does at the beginning of the journey is say that you’ll be there at 5pm and halfway through it sees what’s coming and it says you’ll be there at 5:20pm. Then, just before you arrive it suddenly sneaks one in and goes 5:10pm, you got there. Keep updating your expectations every moment, not just every year, not just every day, but every moment."