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Offload: Building ‘mental fitness’ through rugby league

ConnectSport is official media partner for the European Healthy Stadia Conference at the Emirates Stadium on April 27. Click here to book your place.

At the Conference, the charity Rugby League Cares will present their new programme dedicated to building ‘mental fitness’ in men, The Offload Project. ConnectSport spoke to Emma Goldsmith, from Rugby League Cares.

Please could you provide a short overview of Rugby League Cares?

Rugby League Cares is the sport’s independent charity which works with stakeholders from across the game to provide current and former players with practical and financial assistance in areas such as education, training and welfare. Working with club foundations, the charity also provides targeted health and wellbeing support to the sport’s community, protects and nurtures the game’s rich heritage and, through the RFL Benevolent Fund, supports players who have experienced life-changing injuries.

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Tell us about the Offload Project. How many clubs are running it, who is it funded by, what are the objectives, when and how will you report back on the outcomes?

Offload is a male-focussed, mental fitness programme that uses the power of rugby league clubs and players to break down barriers, remove stigma and offer support to men who want to build a stronger mindset. It is run by Rugby League Cares, funded by the Big Lottery and is being supported by State of Mind and OddBalls Foundation. Initial pilot programmes are being run by club foundations at Salford Red Devils, Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings.

Over 10 x 80minute fixtures, men join forces with past and current players to find out what challenges they face on and off the pitch, for example bouncing back from injury, handling criticism, or managing life in the public eye. Local men are then supported to use the same mental fitness techniques our elite athletes use in to manage their own challenges, eg mindfulness, five ways to wellbeing, resilience, and challenging negative thinking. In the second half of each fixture, men participate in a range of diverse, fun activities including stadium tours, player meet-and-greets, physical activity and team competitions. Through this, men are given the space to ‘offload’, develop strong social support networks, learn new skills, meet their rugby league heroes and feel a part of the club’s community.

Over two years, Offload is aiming to support 1,800 men. Expected outcomes for the male participants include:

– improved coping strategies

– feeling less lonely and isolated

– being able to better understand their own behaviours and more able to handle crises

– improved relationships with family members

– access to additional community and volunteering activities

– an increased desire for change and increased interest in education, training and employment

We are delighted that we are being supported by Professor Alan White and his team at Leeds Beckett University who will also be conducting a thorough independent analysis of Offload.

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What is ‘mental fitness’ and why did you feel this was a good fit for your target audience?

Mental fitness is a proactive, positive term for mental health. We believe mental fitness is having a strong, healthy mindset which allows you to handle the challenges and opportunities that life puts in front of you. Having mental fitness is about being on top of your game and getting the most out of life.

We use this language to help men speak out and to encourage them to access Offload. There is a wealth of evidence which has been undertaken by the Centre for Men’s Health and other experts such as the Men’s Health Forum, which highlights how the language we use and the way in which we deliver healthcare is not engaging, exciting or supportive for men. This has led to men being portrayed as reluctant to access healthcare and only present at services when they reach a crisis point.

Therefore we aim to break down these barriers and use positive terminology such as ‘making ground’ and ‘building a winning mindset’. By delivering the programmes within stadia, including men in the design of the programme and building interventions around physical activity and interactive games, this is also increases its popularity with our target audience. Furthermore players talk proactively about the programme and encourage fans to ‘sign up’. Before starting Offload, we tested this with approach with our fans. Overwhelmingly men stated that they were interested in attending the sessions; the majority wanted to access sessions at their own club stadium and they were very interested in the idea of using sports club personnel for health promotion.  We will continue to use fans and our communities to continually improve the programme.

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Rugby league seems to be leading the way with regards to dealing with difficult issues amongst middle-aged men. Why do you think that is?

As the charitable arm of The Rugby Football League, our mission is to enhance and enrich people’s lives through the power and positive influence of Rugby League. As a sport we have  access to over two million fans who attend matches annually, strong partnerships with leading broadcasters (BBC and Sky) which can boast over 16.5million TV viewers for the Challenge Cup and Super League. We also know that rugby league is most prominent in lower socio-economic communities and that a large majority of our fanbase is male and middle-aged. For example, in Warrington, 84% of attendees at games last year were male, while 76% of Salford’s Facebook followers are male and 67% of Widnes’ Twitter followers are male.

Across the sport our clubs, our foundations and our players have thoroughly got behind specific male-focussed initiatives, including ‘Fit to Tackle’ at Warrington Wolves, ‘Tackle Men’s Health’ at Salford and the ‘Player’ project at Widnes. Through this, men have begun to see the sport as a safe, welcoming place where they can access support and men’s health and fitness is becoming a common language across the game. These initiatives have built a solid foundation to launch the Offload project from.

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Also speaking at the Conference will be Richard Munson, Community Integrated Director at Widnes Vikings. Can you explain a little about how some of their work is being taken ‘into’ the community (for example, in schools), in addition to at the stadium, and the importance of that?

The Widnes Vikings and Community Integrated Care partnership offers a range of services from physical activity and employability sessions for service users with mental ill-health, reminiscence sessions for older people and those with dementia, and staff wellbeing sessions based from the stadium. The partnership in its first year was recognised through winning two awards at the Third Sector Care Awards for Citizenship and Quality Outcomes.

The philosophy of Widnes Vikings’ approach to community engagement is built around the ‘power of sport’ – specifically how the power of the club, its badge, players and ground can be used to improve the lives of local people. Whilst the stadium is very much the ‘community anchor’ for the club’s development work, the Vikings take the ‘power of sport’ to local people through their outreach strategy which sees the club engage parents and their new-born children through the ‘Baby Box’ project, right through to engaging adults in their 90s in chair-based activity and reminiscence sessions in local care homes.

The club are proud to engage every school in Halton through the ‘Sky Try’ initiative, with more intensive work around physical fitness taking place through ‘Game Changer’. The collaboration on this programme with the Improving ME Vanguard has seen the club engage children in some of the most deprived areas of the country in healthy lifestyle work with initial results showing over 60% of participants reducing in body weight and waist circumference whilst improving scores in bleep and shuttle runs.

Providing support and opportunities for young people to achieve qualifications around employability, sport and functional skills, along with facilitating sport and physical activity opportunities for adults to be active, are just two core strands within a delivery portfolio comprising more than 35 projects. Of particular note, and in synergy with the Community Integrated Care partnership, is the club’s work on how its heritage can support the fight against loneliness and isolation in older people. For example the ‘Golden Generation’ project engages 25 adults per week aged 60-plus in a range of events at the stadium. This includes guest speakers (ex and current players), a range of cultural activities such as poetry, and a short walk around the pitch promoting physical activity. The project works with statutory health partners to offer an entry route to older people to discuss health issues such as fall prevention and prostate cancer. Whilst this activity takes place at the stadium, the delivery of ‘Golden Point’ reminiscence and chair-based exercise sessions for older people takes place in 14 care homes across Widnes. The specific focus of the project is on providing positive activities which have rugby league at the heart to engage older men. Each care home receives a total of 12 sessions with initial evaluations showing a positive change in mood of participants immediately following a ‘Golden Point’ session.

To find out more visit the RL Cares website.

Follow @RLCares on Twitter.

Follow @Offload_RL on Twitter.

To help fulfil its role within the game, Rugby League Cares welcomes donations no matter how big or small. To make a donation, visit their Just Giving page. For all other enquiries, please email info@rlcares.org.uk

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