There is a scar that sits curved under Stevie Ward’s right eye. It serves as a reminder of every battle he’s fought and stands as a symbol of his bravery. Heart of Lion? Of course not. Heart of a Rhino. A Leeds Rhino. Forever and always. Whether that’s on the pitch, or off the pitch, his achievements will echo through eternity. He may not realise it now, but Stevie Ward is still very much the Captain and the Leader he has always been.
Through the tackles, tries and triumph of Old Trafford to winning at Wembley, there were ripped shoulders, torn ACLs, concussions and ten operations. Sacrificing it all for the game he loves, he found himself caught in a carousel and culture of being battered and bruised with his well-being wounded as he chased victory, relentless in his pursuit of perfection and preparing to die on the pitch if necessary. His body and mind were physically and mentally exhausted, waking up each day he felt deflated and disconnected with anxiety weighing heavily on his chest, suffocating him, leaving him buried underneath an avalanche of emotion, where he was hiding fear and pain.
In a game of men and masculinity where nobody spoke of mental health, Stevie at the age of just 22 stood up proudly raising his head above the parapet to confront the culture of silence around an issue that plagues players and people all across the world, to launch Mantality. A project to raise awareness of mental health in men and provide an avenue for support, by supporting them to live with purpose, peace of mind and resilience.
“Mantality became almost like an inquiry to say, ‘People are struggling what’s the crack? what’s going on?’ I couldn’t understand why we were sweeping this under the carpet. It wasn’t right,” explains Stevie. “Through Mantality I detailed my experiences. What I had been going through, and what I was feeling, and it was with a message to say ‘What are we doing here? What’s going on?’ I was 22, and I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.”
Stevie’s bravery and courage have inspired others to find their voice and confront their truth, changing the conversation and stigma around mental health not just in sports but for men across the world.
There was a time though, before all of the trials and tribulations of putting his body on the line that Stevie still recollects fondly. It was when he fell in love with the game for the first time.
“I was at my childminders, and the next-door neighbour was playing with the rugby ball and I remember jumping over the fence and thinking what is this thing and it just felt like joy. It felt right. I just felt this instant love. My first love really.”
That moment would be the start of the adventure of a lifetime that would lead him to become the youngest-ever Grand Final winner, Captain of the team he grew up supporting, playing in front of 80,000 at Wembley and achieving more than many of us could dare to dream of.
“I remember my first appearance,” says Stevie, with a smile. “We were away against St. Helens, who at the time were the best team in the league. It was Sport Relief, so we decided to dye our hair red to raise money, and I had this red Mohican. living out my David Beckham phase. So we went over there, everyone with their red hair – but we left red-faced because we got absolutely smashed.”
It was an uncompromising education in a game where he had to grow up fast. There he was surrounded by heroes like Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow, players and people he had spent years watching and worshipping and now he was stood beside them in the heat of the Headingley cauldron. He didn’t know it then of course, but he would go on to become part of a golden generation and one of the most successful teams in Super League history.
“I remember being at school all the time and I was juggling my A levels full time. And I was living a dream whilst I probably should have still been dreaming it. It was a week after my A Levels and I was playing at Old Trafford in front of 80,000 people at stand-off and it felt like this glistening period of my life you know.
Just weeks and months before playing these games I was starstruck, looking around at the people that I was training with. These were people that I had watched when I was 9, 10, 11 years old and now I training with them. It was surreal and listen, I just didn’t have an off switch for it, which was good on the field because I’d just never stop working and you know there are clips of me where I’ve injured my shoulder in the Grand Final at Old Trafford and I just couldn’t stop. I’d be making the next tackle even after I had damaged my shoulder because I was so devoted to it. It was love. I was devoted to it, you know, literally devoted to it.”
In 2019, at just the age of 26, Stevie realised the dream of being named Captain of the Rhinos. As always he would lead by example, walking out of the tunnel and into a war of attrition, where he would throw himself relentlessly into every tackle, and every game as if it were his last, until one day the floodlights dimmed on his career forever.
Multiple concussions sustained over a fortnight would leave Stevie with chronic migraines, dizzy spells, nausea, confusion, and anxiety. He became sensitive to noise and light and exercising of any kind became an impossibility. After nearly a year of severe symptoms associated with Post Concussion Disorder, Stevie announced his retirement from rugby at the age of 27.
In the wake of his retirement, Stevie found purpose in his pain and struggle by sharing his story, showing people the ups and downs and impact concussion can have on your life, making others feel heard and seen, as well as allowing those with no connection to it to understand it’s severity.
His work has opened a conversation around concussion and safety in the sport that previously wasn’t being heard, with former players struggling with memory loss, CTE and the threat of onset Dementia. “With head injuries, we need to accept there is an issue and not hide from it. When you step on the pitch you’re ready to go to war and leave everything out there. More needs to be done to look after each other.”
Stevie continues to be an advocate and thought leader around mental health and well-being, working with and delivering keynote talks for global brands, businesses, and sports organisations on the importance of resilience, authenticity, empowerment, motivation and creating a psychologically safe environment that balances both well-being and performance.
Before matches, Stevie used to plunge into an ice bath to help calm himself down, free his mind and get ready for what was ahead. It’s something that he still does to this day when he’s preparing to deliver talks for some of the world’s biggest organisations like Warner Bros.
He’s been studying the Wim Hoff Method for a number of years and uses cold therapy as a way of letting go and relaxing his breathing. “It’s hard to get in the cold water. The mind doesn’t want it. It will give you a million other things to do. But through the fear and into the cold, somehow all those thoughts drift away and what matters comes into focus.
“It’s something to do before you go out to perform, you know, you can have all the game plans, you can have all the measurements for how much you’ve stretched and if you warmed up enough and then there’s all these thoughts, concerns and worries about being ready to do play, you know, whether it’s playing in front of 80,000 people, or an amateur game, you have to let go at some point and be in the moment.”
Throughout my time with Stevie, you sense his willingness to confront and embrace any challenge that comes his way. He is on a journey that when he started his rugby career he could never have anticipated, but like every defensive line he ever faced, he’s looking it straight in the eye. Through Stevie sharing his experiences and his story, the help that could give someone, and the impact it could have on the lives of others is immeasurable.
It was an absolute pleasure to sit down together as we talked about how his love for rugby started, the importance of his partner Natalie, the battles he faces, the adventure he is now on and a possible future career in Take That.
IT FELT LIKE EVERYTHING YOU COULD POSSIBLY WANT FROM LIFE.
I remember going down to an amateur club and I didn’t need to learn anything, you know. I already knew how to catch the ball. I can remember running towards a defensive line and feeling this challenge and it was so obvious what the challenge was, it was so obvious what the hurdle was, and that I had to get through the brick wall, and to the other side of that defensive line, where there was this freedom, creativity and exploration that made me feel so alive and then obviously scoring the try, it felt like everything you could possibly want from life.
When I was younger we used to do this chant, a bit like the Hakka, the English version of the Hakka. It was almost like a rite of passage from our head coach. I would have been 10 years old at the time, and my role in that chant before the whistle went was to scream the question WHO ARE WE??…. WHO ARE WE??! And the full team would reply, ‘WE’RE CHURWELL!!’ After that, it was ‘Right, now we know who we are’, we’ve just about let go of all the nerves and anticipation just before we went into this game and then it was everything’s on the line, and I loved that.
It was something that I looked forward to throughout my schooling life. I’d dream about what I’d do in the game whilst I was in Maths class and I set about doing that the following weekend and you know what that was rugby for me as a young lad.
BEING TOLD WE’D WON THE ONE THING THAT I HAD DREAMED OF MOST OF MY LIFE. THAT WAS A BEAUTIFUL MOMENT.
There are a few moments in my career that I’ll always look back on and never forget. I’ll always remember winning my first Grand Final in 2012 at Old Trafford when I was 18 years old. I had come off the field with a dislocated AC joint and then I came on for 20 minutes in the second half and put myself about and I did pretty well.
I had been part of this surge in the playoffs that took us from fifth place to winning that Grand Final. The year before I’d sat at the final in 2011, with the reserves, and I had said to myself, ‘I’m going to do that next year, I am going to win that next year.’
Then 2012, there I was, playing just like I had always dreamt until I had to come off the field with this injured shoulder. We’re winning at this point and we had five minutes left. I’m on the physio table in Old Trafford in pain wondering what’s going on and what’s going to happen, and they put me on laughing gas. Then I’ll never forget the doctor runs in and he’s like “Hall has scored, Ryan Hall has scored. We’re gonna win, we’re gonna win the Grand Final.”
So at this point, I’d just won a Grand Final at 18 years old, the youngest ever Grand Final winner, and I’m on laughing gas. I mean, I don’t think I have ever felt as good as I did at that point in my life. Most of my mates had to stand in a field of puddles at Leeds Fest, whilst I was high on laughing gas, sitting in Old Trafford, just being told that I’d won the one thing that I had dreamed of most of my life. That was a really beautiful moment.
It was also something that was a recurring theme in my career, the shoulder issues and the injury issue. It was almost like the forecast for the rest of my career, adversity mixed with elation, celebration and all the highs.
I TAKE PARTS OF ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE WITH ME TODAY.
Rugby is a hostile environment, you realise that you have to grow up fast. There are people, that you look up to and have been more successful than you could ever wish to be, and these people are living out their years doing a tough job playing rugby. You’re in a place where the banter is flying all the time and you have to sort of be able to cop it. Give it back out, protect yourself and don’t show too much vulnerability. But that’s sort of what you learn as you’re growing up.
I remember all the characters we had in that team. There was Jamie Jones Buchanan, who was a pretty devout Christian. He would tell these fables, and recite verses from the Bible, and he would relate them to all the characters in our changing rooms. Then there would be Rob Burrow standing there, air-punching the wall trying to get ready for the game. Then there would be Jamie Peacock who just stands up and takes his earphones out and says ‘Right let’s have it.’
I’m growing up taking all of this in and taking all these different people’s personalities in, and how to play the game and it was a crash course for me. I take parts of all of those people with me today, with how I speak, how I deliver messages and with my work ethic. These are people who I will never forget.
No one spoke about depression, no one spoke about anxiety.
The driving force for starting Mantality was that I felt really, really anxious and depressed after some really big highs. And it was because I was back from a big injury and I wasn’t playing to the potential I knew I could play. I always knew I had the ability, but there is a part of me which I think is a gift and a curse in that I am an absolute winner. I would sacrifice all of myself to win, it is that powerful inside me. It’s like this desire that would burn so brightly. But also it would burn me out. it was relentless. A blessing and a curse, and I started to realise this in and around a time when I wasn’t able to put size on, I wasn’t as strong as I wanted to be, and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, which was being the best I could be.
I didn’t know what to do with it. No one spoke about it. No one spoke about depression, no one spoke about anxiety. So it was during the 12 months that I was out with an ACL injury that I ended up launching Mantality. That injury felt like a mini-death and it was that winner that was coming through in me, in this search for how to manage this thing that I didn’t quite understand.
I know everyone struggles, but I really didn’t know what type of struggle mine was, and I became so frustrated that I couldn’t understand why we didn’t talk about how we felt. It was this really intense emotion for what was going on in my life. I didn’t quite know what to do.
Mantality for me was trying to understand what this emotion was and what was this thing that we don’t speak about. You know, vulnerability is such a big word now, and so is authenticity. I now have this understanding that we block it off, and If you block out the negative, you also block out the positive and you block out the energy. That emotion is energy. The status quo has been to not talk about these emotions, but I felt it was something that needed to be discussed.
When I first launched Mantality, there was a really, really positive reception more than I could have ever imagined. That was from fans and players and across social media. Players from America, and Australia, reached out to say, ‘You put words to our lives, so thank you for doing it’, which was ace. But you know as you go on, and I kept doing it, because of the masculine environment, you almost start to feel this shame, thinking, ‘Have I done the right thing here speaking about this?’ But the reaction was ultimately positive and it connected with people in a better way than I could have imagined.
I HAD AMAZING MOMENTS IN MY CAREER. BUT ALSO TERRIBLE ANXIETY, CRIPPLING AND DEVASTATING MOMENTS.
I remember picking up concussions when I was younger. And to be honest, the recovery turnaround time was just so much quicker, you know. The return to play protocol came in in 2012. That was the first year that I played, so luckily, I had some sort of structuring around it and an acknowledgement of it, but yeah there is a very casual sort of attitude around concussion, what it means and what can happen from it, and I just didn’t know that what has happened to me, could happen.
I have had so many people getting in touch with me all the time about struggling with persistent post-concussion symptoms. And I think about all the people who have struggled with it, who haven’t been able to identify why, and also who haven’t told anyone about it, and I honestly don’t know how that is possible.
It has massively affected my life, I can’t do the thing that I love anymore, which kills me and at times, I feel grief and pain around it, and for what the future looks like, a lot of the time. I’ve been able to openly speak about it, and identify what it is, but some people just don’t say anything about it. And I don’t know how that is possible.
I used to watch sports interviews after the games, whether it was rugby or football, and I’d think, ‘What are they talking about, what are they saying, there’s nothing there.’ And I don’t know if that has all been wrapped up in my career, and I’m now at the stage where there’s no point in selling people illusions. I’ll tell people what it’s actually like. I had some amazing moments in my career. But also some terrible anxiety, crippling and devastating moments, where I felt so alone. And now I speak about it, and my own experience. And hopefully, that can help others.
PURPOSE IS THE SWEET SPOT BETWEEN DOING SOMETHING YOU LOVE AND SOMETHING THE WORLD NEEDS.
The first talk I did was to 250 people at Leeds Town Hall, and I was 22. I think it was on the back of Mantality and that’s seven years ago, so I’ve done it for a while now.
They say that purpose is the sweet spot between doing something that you love and doing something that the world needs. To me, that’s what speaking is. I love doing it, I get that real buzz. My mind’s not flickering off to other things and it connects with people. I have to say I prefer doing it in front of 200 people than practising in my garden, talking to myself and walking about shaking my head trying to get my vestibular system going.
We’re all human beings. And we all live through stories. So it just feels exactly right to be doing what I’m doing, although it’s heavy and it takes a lot out of me and It’s hard to balance with the migraines, but it makes life feel worthwhile.
The course I deliver on the back of my keynote talk is the Authenticity Game Plan, which means I have to be authentic. I get a lot of people who say, ‘You’re so honest, and you’re human.’ I don’t get what the other version is. If I’m ever doing a talk and it feels forced, then it feels as bad as it does for other people as it does for me
My missus, Natalie, said this to me this morning, ‘Can you imagine when you launched Mentality 7 years ago that you would be delivering two keynote sessions for Warner Bros?’ And it’s mad when you think about it. One session was on a courageous conversation and the other on men’s mental health, and I guess this is what I’ve been doing most of my life now, whether it’s on my own, with Natalie, a counsellor, or with a group of rugby players, and leading people through emotion to their goals.
I put time into the planning and structure of everyone, but also ask myself, ‘What can I give them in this moment that is real?’ And the feedback is ‘Thanks for being so honest.’ I wouldn’t know any other way to do it and I couldn’t do it any other way.
GIVE ME THE FUCKING BALL AND LET ME PLAY
I think when it comes to mental health in sports, there will always be more we can do. I think there is conversations in sport, that people need to have with themselves and take an honest look at the reality of their situation.
For players, even from a performance point of view, there are so many things that can get in the way, like shame and comparison. People numb their emotions or other people try and take emotions out of them. It’s just a really full-on environment, because of the need to perform and because of the need to win. People try to control things too much. And it was never that hard when we were younger. We just played the game we loved and that was it. But you become professionals and these obstacles start appearing.
In sports, I always think that whenever you measure something, it decreases the faith. We measure sprint times, we measure squat strength, and we measure fat to lean ratios. When we were growing up, It was never about that to get into that position. So why did it become about that and when did it become about that? But you become a professional and they say, ‘Okay we pay you now, so this is how we do it.’ Everything I did to get here was good enough, but now you’re professional they almost try to take that away from you. You can end up losing your confidence and trust in your ability.
When I speak to athletes now, I’ll say, don’t worry about what you have to do when you get to a certain bit of grass. Remember that feeling when you just said, ‘Give me the fucking ball and let me play.’ I’m doing what I do. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like, but I’m doing what I do.
I used to think mental health and performance were two separate things. As I got older I realised they were all the same thing. I started to truly understand that when we were underperforming in 2019. Now the bulk of that team had won the Grand Final, but we also had a shocking year in 2018. We had a new coach come in, and there was no emotional connection or vulnerability in that team. It was a case of, ‘These are the expectations, we need to get to these expectations. Without knowing it, people weren’t fully there. They couldn’t deliver all of themselves to that team, and it got a place where we lost 10 on the bounce, we had another coach come in and we still lost the Challenge Cup game against our arch-rivals Bradford. The team was how I felt – deflated, without values, a unified purpose, vulnerability or acceptance.
It took us to have 3 or 4 meetings as a team to say, ‘Where are we at? What are we doing? Why are we here?’ This is the DNA we’re trying to play, but is that DNA us? We had players from Papa New Guinea, Tonga and even further afield – Warrington and Wigan! There was a moment during all of this when I felt like that young kid again, just screaming that question, ‘Who are we??’ Through vulnerability and acceptance, you realise what’s left and that it’s us – it’s always been us. That sheer determination to not miss a tackle for your mate, and run through brick walls. Take away all of that other stuff, all the shackles that get in the way and let’s get back to doing what we loved when we were younger.
IT’S HARD AND IF I’M BEING HONEST IT CAN BE LONELY AT TIMES. BUT IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT.
The main sort of achievement or realisation, and it does waver, but the acceptance of just where I’m at just now, and getting out of the way of life a bit from time to time and being able to go away with Natalie, and that’s something that remains really important to us, to be able to go away and spend quality time with each other.
I generally have a headache every day, which is frustrating at times. I’ve got a lot of emotion I need to release, and there’s probably a lot of trauma in there, there is a lot of grief from losing my career and what I did, so it’s an ongoing battle. Somedays I’ll wake up and I’m free and feel joy. Somedays I’ll wake up and I’ll feel that fear and anxiety and frustration and that is something to work through. It’s hard and if I’m being honest it can be lonely at times. But it’s the only way to do it.
If I didn’t have the support of Natalie, if I didn’t have the purpose and understanding of what to do next, it would be really easy to get down and go into that culture of drinking. It’s frustrating, because I can’t work out as much as I’d like, and there’s no physical avenue for me. I have to be careful with what I do. I can go for walks, and drink my coffee and that’s what mainly what I do. Getting out in nature means getting up, getting moving and letting go of distractions. That’s not easy with the lives many of us lead. But it’s vital.
WHAT THE HELL HAS HAPPENED TO STEVIE WARD? HE LOOKS LIKE HE’S JOINED TAKE THAT!
All my career I had to run through defensive lines, and into brick walls and I remember that feeling when you got to the other side. It’s a lot like life. When I wake up in the morning with that grief and anxiety on my chest, that’s the defensive line to get through, not necessarily to smash it, but to accept it and be okay with it. The ice bath is also that defensive line because when you get in it, there’s that fear and trepidation and you think ‘My God, what am I doing in here? This isn’t going to be joyful at all.’ But once you’re in it and over 30 seconds you feel present and have this almost full-bodied experience.
I think just now it’s all about taking things day by day and going through what I’m going through and seeing what comes of that, and what comes from the speaking and leadership work I’ll be doing with companies over the next year. I think that is enough for me to handle just now.
I do sometimes watch the games, but it’s hard not to be jolted by all the emotions, It’s like an ex-girlfriend at times. Complicated.
I went and did Sky Sports a few months ago to watch the Leeds, Wigan game and I really enjoyed that. Being there, and being in the contest a little bit, and feeling involved in it all in a weird sort of way, and speaking about it. Letting my passion for it come up.
I remember getting back from the game and having a look through Twitter, and reading through the tweets, and they were actually pretty good. But there was one from this Wigan fan, who hadn’t seen me for over three years and had written, ‘What the hell has happened to Stevie Ward? He looks like he’s joined Take That!’ I was happy with that one though. That wouldn’t be a bad second career at all.
After my time with Stevie, I began to think about the film ‘Any Given Sunday.’ There is this scene where Al Pacino, resilient in the face of adversity, stands before his team and delivers a speech: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell. One inch, at a time.”
The road that Stevie Ward is on just now is a long one, filled with the unknown and uncertainty There will be days when he is on his knees and feels defeated. Through his courage and resilience, he will rise to his feet once more, like he’s always done. One inch, at a time.
With all our thanks to Stevie Ward. You can learn more about his work and career here
For more information on Mantality please visit here.
To follow Stevie on Instagram please visit here