Professional rugby union player Joe Marler has had an unconventional career. As well as a few retirements (he loves a good farewell party), he’s often been known for his outrageous hair colour choices and the odd match ban here and there. Now his book “Loose Head: Confessions of an (un)professional rugby player”, is about to come out and he’s joining CALM as our newest ambassador. Ahead of the release of the book, we chatted to Joe about his career so far, what he hopes to bring as an ambassador, and what he does when he’s feeling a bit shit.
Harlequins player Joe Marler got into rugby at 11 years old when his parents realised he needed something to channel his anger into. Being known as ‘psycho’ by the kids on his estate was due in part to his wild aggression and lashing out at people. This name followed him into rugby and, feeling out-of-place in a sport that is often paired with being upper class, he lived up to it.
“I got invited down and instantly I could see people hitting each other and making tackles. People were actively encouraged to hurt people physically and be dominant against their opponent and I thought ‘This seems like something that might suit me!’”
When he went professional at 19, Joe continued to build up a reputation for being ill-disciplined, often being carded for fighting. While nobody addressed it openly, it was clear he had some issues with aggression: “I was given this persona but no one thought it was worth talking to me about because they assumed I wouldn't have listened anyway.”
It wasn’t until after another yellow card that a fellow player, someone he’d become quite close to, told him to get his act together that Joe realised he was seriously lacking in self-awareness and that he needed to sort it out: “This guy never really had a bad word to say about anyone, was everyone's friend. After that yellow card, he turned around and said - ‘Mate - you need to stop being an idiot. You’re letting the team down.’ I was about 25 at the time and I knew then that I needed to work out why I was feeling like that.”
“But I didn’t do it - because I was so convinced that I could keep my rugby world and my real world separate. So I didn’t feel I needed to address it.”
Fast forward a few years and Joe recognised that how he was feeling on the pitch was filtering into his perceived ‘other life’ off-pitch. In 2019 he reached his lowest point and decided that he wanted to get some help. With the support of his club doctor, he was able to delve deeper and understand the treatment he needed to get him into a better place.
Like many male-dominated sports - this support for Joe’s mental health struggles is something that’s a relatively new concept in the world of rugby. When Joe started, the ‘old-school’, ‘macho’ attitude wouldn’t have welcomed conversations about what would be perceived as a weakness: “If I was to have come out and said I was struggling emotionally with my mental health and stuff like that, I would have been worried that it would then be used against me - either by an opposition to get an advantage on the pitch or potentially by coaches as an excuse to be like - ‘we don't want to pick him because we're not entirely sure what we're going to get. He's saying he's a bit fragile, we want someone who's mentally strong’.”
“I'd say in the last four or five years, there's definitely been a big shift in rugby when it comes to understanding and accepting mental health. As a sport, we're definitely moving in the right direction in terms of being a bit more open and being more able to discuss it.”
This is something Joe discusses in his biography: Loose Head: Confessions of an (un)professional rugby player. The book looks back over his life and career and shares a few comedic anecdotes. While some of his mates found it odd that he included a chapter on mental health in a seemingly funny tale, like CALM, Joe’s keen to encourage the use of humour to get people talking more comfortably about their mental health.
“It was a cathartic experience writing the book but it was interesting because some people suggested that it might seem like I was taking the piss including a chapter about mental health alongside a load of funny stories. But why can't I talk about mental health in the same conversation as I’m sharing a funny anecdote? People are always worried that because mental health can be a dark subject, they can’t talk about it. But we need to try to change the stigma around it and talk more openly. That’s my aim and hope with the book.”
And Joe is definitely a bit of a joker when it comes to keeping the morale up with the team. He likes to sing a bit of Adele in the changing room or jump out a people from time to time: “I would probably expect that most of my teammates would argue that my attempts at Adele were actually detrimental to their mental health but I love to see the boys smile and laugh, and that’s really important, especially if we’re away from family for weeks at a time. If we’re not enjoying it and having a laugh then what’s the point?”.
Social events such as a night out or giant inflatable dartboards are a common occurrence for the team but what Joe sees as the best, if most basic, instance is when a few of the team members sit around and have a coffee and a catch-up.
“It's brilliant because it just brings the boys together. We go down to the team room and there'll be five or six of us just sitting around enjoying a coffee, chewing the fat together, making the most of those opportunities to stop talking about rugby for half an hour and actually engage in building relationships.”
When it comes to what he does to help his own mental health, there are a few things Joe finds that help him. If he’s not with his friends or catching up on valuable time with his family, he’s kitted his garage out with a gym where he can enjoy some time to himself and feel likes he’s accomplished something: “I do it more often than not - not to improve on my rugby or because I need to gain or drop weight - but because I actually get a buzz out of it. The chemical release of endorphins from exercise can improve your mindset and mental health”.
“I also find I'm at my calmest when we go down to the beach. Just sitting there listening to the sea, and the smell of the sea. There’s something about it; this huge, massive natural power. I love the sea air. It helps that there’s lots of ice cream shops around too.”
Here at CALM, we’re all about those conversations with mates and the way you can be a good mate to somebody who’s struggling. And Joe feels fortunate to have friends he can call on and who will call him when they sense he’s not okay.
“I was texting with my friend Matt, and I was in a bit of a bad spot. He could obviously sense that in my tone and the next day he rang me. And even though I was trying to make excuses, he convinced me to go for a coffee and then we just sat and talked for over an hour. And we just checked in with each other and he was asking these questions, just like I would for him. Those sort of things keep me sane - knowing that I have those people who will recognise and immediately pick up the phone.”
Now that Joe’s coming on as CALM’s newest ambassador, he hopes that he can be a help, even if it’s to just one person. And he feels that helplines like the one we provide are massively important when there are people out there who might not be ready to share their feelings with their loved ones.
“Even though those people might be available to you, sometimes you feel like you might be a burden to your wife or a burden to your friend. And with phone lines like CALM’s it’s about providing a separate support network - someone you feel you can talk to without the worry or guilt you might be carrying.”
And what would Joe say to his younger self?
“I'd tell him to lean more on others, be more open to the understanding of what others can give and what you can give to others. It's not putting a burden on someone if there’s that exchange there. It's not a burden to explain how you're feeling or say that you're struggling. You’re not a burden.”
Joe's new book Loose Head: Confessions of an (un)professional rugby player is out on the 1st October.
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