England Rugby hero and Vitality ambassador opens up to COVER editor about his mental health journey
"When I was very young I loved life, but I was troubled by the idea that it was going to end," Jonny Wilkinson tells COVER over Skype.
An intriguing statement - poetic, almost - from a national hero immortalised in sporting history after drop-kicking England to last-minute World Cup success in 2003.
Some may be surprised by his willingness to speak so candidly about vulnerability. Outwardly, as a sportsman, Wilkinson appeared as the ultimate British male architype - a well-educated, good-looking poster boy for our country's most popular full-contact sport; a world-beating champion, unflinching in the face of defeat. ‘Real men' don't fear death… do they? Well, yes, actually they do.
"As I grew up and matured, this dark idea became less literal and more figurative," Wilkinson continues. "I had this underlying unease about things going wrong. My passion for exploration led to my own personal battle to constantly be in control. As I became more self-important and successful in my career, I experienced a huge internal conflict which involved me wanting to control everything, which led to my compulsive approach to playing rugby, winning games and a fear of letting myself and others down."
Renowned for his intense goal-kicking practice routine, described at the time by ESPN as ‘driven by obsession', England Rugby's most famous star is today refreshingly honest about what was going on behind the mask of his public image back then.
However, rather than putting labels on his mental health over the years, Wilkinson admits that at the age of 27 - at the height of his career - he realised his mind was working "against him" - not for him. His identity, he says, had been self-created around him achieving certain things: being the best, beating others on the pitch or intensely training for big tournaments or matches. Only after he let go of those attachments was he able to find true self-awareness.
"I was left asking: Who am I? Only by removing the importance of self - by separating exploration from motivation - was I able to let go of old ideas and start to live in the ‘here and now'."
Despite his dark days, Wilkinson says he is grateful for everything, lifting the Word Cup for England in 2003 he says was "an incredible experience". However inside the man who scored the winning drop-goal against Australia, was a person he says was held hostage by "limited beliefs".
"Stress disrupts everything; it influences our emotions and fear of not being in control holds us back from acting efficiently and effectively," he says.
Wilkinson's view is that through his unconscious behaviour both on and off the pitch, he was never entirely present in the moment; he was living in the past or in the future. "I was putting untold pressure on myself - suffering and sacrificing all-week-long - weighed down by my inability to accept the consequences of being the one who misses a tackle or a kick," he explains.
In the rugby world back then, while there were often conversations with teammates about nerves, it only scratched the surface of what was happening underneath. What's clear is that Wilkinson's journey of self-discovery went far deeper; into his own introspective, existential realm. What he learnt there radically shifted his perspective.
"By constantly trying to be a winner, I was unable to be ‘all of me' in every moment," he reflects. And this epiphany has defined the course of his life ever since. In contrast, today, he says he is truly engaged and connected with life these days; he feels part of something, living moment by moment rather than projecting into the future or past.
"Aligning a person with what they have done in the world is what can reinforce and cause anxiety," Wilkinson points out. "Many of us are comparing ourselves to others and using this to build our sense of self-worth. As a society, we tend to want to split people into good or bad people, but that is dividing and judgemental. We are not what we have done in the past, nor what we are likely to achieve in the future. We are only who we are in the ‘here and now'. Working on someone else works for nobody; the only thing we can do is work on ourselves and learn to love ourself."
Good mental health is about building resilience, then? "I think by saying ‘resilience' suggests that I am a result of my journey, which is a direct result of my past, however that is not my experience. I prefer to look at it as: I am free of my old behaviours and therefore open to ever-expanding opportunities and with that comes growth."
These days, as well as working alongside Vitality as an ambassador to help raise mental health awareness, he has set up his own charity - The Jonny Wilkinson Foundation - to tackle prejudice and promote understanding, while working with England Rugby both as a physical and mental coach.
What's clear to COVER is that - perhaps without realising it - Wilkinson has an angle: he is redefining the language we use around mental health. Rather than focusing on the negative influence of ‘pressure', ‘doubt' and ‘stress', today his role is one hinged on installing and cultivating "performance potential", "inspiration" and "freedom" in those around him. Far from something to be feared, Wilkinson's vision for mental health is an optimistic one. His view is that it affects us all, but the good news is that every one of us is on a journey towards knowing our self. Luckily, we have the experience, strength and hope - the wisdom - of someone like Wilkinson to help us through it.
"Where am I now? I am brand new," he beams. "Reenergised, spontaneous and engaged. I am using this to explore life now and be more creative."
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