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Oupa Mohoje: South African rugby needs to stop thinking men don't cry

Oupa Mohoje (Gallo)
Oupa Mohoje (Gallo)
  • Springbok forward Oupa Mohoje's journey of recovering from a career-threatening injury has taught him the value of mental wellness.
  • The 29-year-old Cheetahs stalwart believes South African rugby continues to underestimate mental health, predominantly because there's still a stigma attached to it.
  • His view is backed up by numbers, with organisation MyPlayers' annual survey noting that the issue remains a major one.
  • Mohoje says he would recommend therapy to every professional player in the country, even if they are doing well. 

When you ask Oupa Mohoje about the biggest lessons he's learnt from approximately two "tough" years of playing no competitive rugby at all, he says: "Talk to somebody."

That response is significant, not because it's so tellingly simple, but rather because South African rugby makes it an unnecessarily complicated one.

"The local game, without a doubt, continues to underestimate the importance of mental health," Mohoje told Sport24

"There's definitely still a stigma attached to it."

The 29-year-old Cheetahs stalwart, who earlier this week extended his contract with the central franchise, is intimately familiar with the issue.

On a chilly September evening in Limerick, Ireland, Mohoje tore an ACL in his right knee.

Franco Smith, his head coach at the time, knew it was serious and the player braced himself for "at least nine to 12 months on the sidelines - when you know, you know".

A year passed and Mohoje still didn't return.

Desperate, he reported for duty at the start of 2020 and manfully commenced full training.

But the knee had swollen again and Mohoje couldn't deny the discomfort.

"Nine months had gone by and I didn't get better. Then 12 months passed and I didn't get better. Then I made that tentative comeback in January, but the knee just wouldn't hold up. I was just so frustrated," he said.

"That's when the bad thoughts tend to crop up. You start wondering whether you'll ever overcome this injury and that turns into thoughts on whether you should just hang up your boots."

Despite an imposing 1.93m, 107kg frame, Mohoje realised this fight wasn't going to be fought through physical strength and fitness alone.

This was a battle of the mind.

For some time now, the man from the former QwaQwa has been seeing a psychologist. 

"It's been hugely valuable to me. I feel so strong about therapy that I'd recommend it to every professional player," said Mohoje.

"In fact, I was one of the few guys who brought it up as a player representative at MyPlayers (South Africa's player organisation). I really believe we still have a bit of a problem in this regard. Too many players and coaches still subscribe to the whole 'men don't cry' mantra."

His concerns are empirically backed up too.

In the latest comprehensive survey conducted by MyPlayers, mental health has been flagged as a major issue among the country's professional players.

While only 12% of the 105 respondents - 57 men and 48 women - stated that they wouldn't want to make use of a psychologist, the percentage of players considering the use of such a platform isn't exactly high.

37% would prefer to consult a team-affiliated psychologist, while 28% would employ a private practitioner.

The survey doesn't state how many players are or have been in therapy, but four out of 10 indicated that they suffer from one or more symptoms of common mental disorders.

Of that, 30% admitted to sleep disturbance, 16% to anxiety and 13% to depression.

Disconcertingly, the survey pertinently highlighted that South African rugby would continue to lack a true understanding of the state of mental wellness among players unless the "taboo" around it is addressed.

"In South Africa, men apparently don’t have problems. It's crazy. We might have problems, but we don't say a word about it. Perhaps behind closed doors with a bottle of brandy," was one player's candid and revealing response.

The irony, according to Mohoje, is that players don't seem to realise that not all therapy is clinical, where the focus is on a diagnosis.

In many instances, people employ a psychologist because they prefer the overall structure and non-judgmental environment.

"Look, initially I needed guidance. I didn't know where I was mentally, almost in limbo. The uncertainty leads to one lacking direction in your life," said Mohoje.

"But I also realise now that therapy is sometimes just about exercising your mind. It just helps to talk to someone, even if it's not necessarily to help you with clinical symptoms. Sometimes you just need to have a trusted person that can help you relax through communication.

"Professional players have to deal with a lot of things that the general public aren't aware of. I'd actually go as far as to say every player should see a psychologist once in a while, even if they are fine in general."

Mohoje's "test of character" has a silver lining as he's "excited and ready" to resume a playing career that he believes can still be stretched by five years.

"Yet while I can't wait to play, I'm grateful for what I've learned. I've been planning for my life after rugby, getting things in order." 

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