Former Edinburgh centre and one-time All Blacks cap Ben Atiga is aiming to help Scotland’s professional players through the Coronavirus lockdown.
The New Zealander, who hung up his boots at the end of the 2013/14 season, now works as a Player Liaison Officer for Scottish Rugby, hopes he can use the experiences he gained during a long professional career to help the current crop.
He’s been in touch with all the players from Edinburgh Rugby, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland 7s and Atiga explained he’s been keen just to check in.
The former centre, whose early career saw him named Junior World Player of the Year, spoke to highlight Mental Health Awareness Week, and said: “My remit is in charge of our contracted players, just checking in, asking what they’ve been up to, just tracking really.
“There have been video calls, I’ve been telling the guys need to get my dose of socialising in just as much as them.
“Not everyone has responded, it’s not for everyone and that’s fine, but the guys need to know that we’re still here and there is an avenue for contact here if they need it.”
For professional sportsmen used to being directed at every turn – from daily schedules to diets and everything in between – Atiga believes staying in touch with players – particularly those from overseas, or who are on their own during the lockdown, will help get them through.
“When you’re used to being in groups and being around people it can be tough,” the former Edinburgh centre said.
“There are some players in hard places who are completely isolated, living on their own, so it’s about managing that, staying in touch and keeping track on people.
“We’re working closely with medical teams as well, just making sure that we’re picking up on the right guys and putting things in place so these guys can stay upbeat.”
While some sports – tennis, golf and bowls among them – appear set to return following the announcement today (Thursday) from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, it may be some time before the players Atiga has been speaking to will lace up their boots.
And the 37-year-old has urged players to remain “in the present” and warned against looking too far ahead.
“You’d have to be a sociopath if you weren’t anxious at all about this period, we’re all going to go through this,” he told the media via a Zoom call yesterday.
“We’re going in uncharted waters right now so a key message for us to to tell guys to stay in the present, try not to look too far forward.
“We see things happening in other countries right now, look like they’re starting up again in New Zealand and that can get under a players’ skin back here.
“They understand the situation here and know to be here, think about what you can get out of today and take the pressure off.”
After hanging up his boots, the one-Test All Blacks midfielder worked as International Resettlement Advisor for Scottish Rugby, but took on his new role in 2018.
“We understand that you’re not recruiting a player, you’re recruiting his family as well, his team. It’s important for us that this process went as smoothly as possible.
“And we’ve found that the players we have brought in really enjoy their time here, they stay on an extend,” Atiga said.
He also insisted that while he is not a psychologist, he has been through his own mental health struggles and knows what life as a professional rugby player is like.
“The first thing I tell the guys is ‘I’m not a psychologist, you all know who I am, I was on the field a couple of years ago’.
“What I do know is that I have that empathy to understand what you’re going through, and I guess it’s a passion of mine to look after the generations coming through.
“Being a pro athlete is like a fraternity, you have to care about those guys coming through and make sure they don’t make the same mistakes that you did.
“What we have in place is we’ve aligned ourselves with our own mental health provider which allows us to signpost guys there way if they need that kind of support, confidentially, through me or our medical teams.
“This is my first proper role, managing the programme and the initiatives for the guys.
“What I have come across is times when guys have been mentally low, it has been informal conversations that have helped, we haven’t really had to go to the next stage and getting professional help.
“I understand what they’re going through and share my own stories, because at some stage I’ve experienced this myself or been around guys who’ve been through these things.”
Image caption: Former Edinburgh centre Ben Atiga has been checking in with all of Scotland’s professional players. Image credit: Fotosport/David Gibson