Former All Black Ben Atiga has opened up about how anxiety and depression drove him away from the game.
In an interview with the BBC, Atiga revealed the fears and doubts he experienced as a player.
He is now at the forefront of Rugby For Life, a community rugby programme for mental health support in Scottish rugby.
“Players doubt themselves in doing the smallest things – as simple as speaking to someone in a suit. Believe it or not, that, to a player, can be terrifying,” Atiga told the BBC.
“You recognise them as players, but when they take that uniform off, who are they? That’s a really hard question for them to answer.”
The 35-year-old said his anxieties peaked 10 years ago when he was an All Black and captain of Auckland. He says he now believes he suffered from depression.
“I remember sitting on the bus on the way to Eden Park with my headphones on,” he said. “All I could think about was, ‘I can’t wait ’til the end of the game’.”
“I isolated myself from players, from rugby, even from my family … I lacked energy, I put on a lot of weight – I went up to 122kg from about 99kg.
“It’s important for players to realise you could be at the top of the game, the best full-back in the world, and wake up and decide, I don’t feel like playing anymore.”
“I was over rugby at that point,” he told the NZ Herald in an interview in 2012. “I wasn’t in good shape and I needed some time out to mentally freshen. I had lost sight of my priorities and I wanted to spend more time with my family.
“I took a year out and got back in touch with friends I hadn’t seen since school and made a whole new network of friends as well. I actually thought I would never come back to play rugby. I wasn’t in touch with anyone or even following it on TV.”
That all changed when he was invited to play in a charity game at Eden Park and all the old feelings rushed back. He was excited and “a light bulb switched on in my head that I wanted to play again”.
He later played for Edinburgh in Scotland for two years. Injuries eventually cut his career short, forcing him to finally hang up his boots four years ago.
Atiga is now determined to nurture younger players through the Scottish national team’s mental health programme.
“You could be an 18-year-old kid that comes out of school and into pro rugby. You can be 35 when you come out but still be that 18-year-old kid if you’ve done nothing,” Atiga said.
“It’s important to players to find something that’s meaningful. What makes them happy? What are they going to get up on Monday for?
“If we can give them the head start, we’ll see more players transition more confidently out of the game – and we’ll start creating some better men and better women.”
At a young age, Atiga was one of the most talented fullbacks in the world. He won the under-21 world player of the year and, aged just 20, was picked ahead of All Blacks legend Christian Cullen.
He earned one cap with the All Blacks against Tonga in 2003 before being felled by injuries and expectation.