England and Loughborough Lightning star Sarah Hunter on the mental health benefits of becoming a professional rugby player and why 'it's okay to say that you're not okay'
Turning professional has reaped unexpected rewards for England rugby captain and Loughborough Lightning's Sarah Hunter.
The 34-year-old says it has alleviated stresses she wasn't even aware of when she was juggling full-time work with rugby.
"In terms of rugby, being professional just means you've got more time to have better quality sessions. We only added a couple of extra rugby skills sessions to our programme but the quality of what you can do improves.
"You're not having to rush through a gym session or have back-to-back sessions because you've got to get to work. I think you've got time for your body to refresh and recover, both from a physical and mental point of view, before your next training session.
"You're not having to train, to go to work, to come back to train in the evening. I think that's the biggest thing. Your mental health wellbeing is eased because a lot of pressures and stresses that you didn't realise you had when you were doing everything, as you didn't know any different, are gone. Now you look back and go 'how did I manage to fit all of that in?' It's pretty crazy."
In January of last year, the Rugby Football Association introduced 28 central professional contracts for female players who were a part of the England squad. Hunter had been working in rugby development to earn a wage and this was the first time she had been paid to play.
When NewsChain spoke to Hunter's ex-team mate Maggie Alphonsi in September, she revealed that during her time at Saracens a psychologist was not available to players at club level. England players had access to the medical team at the national level and the professional female players now have access to the Rugby Players Association - an organisation dedicated to supporting professional rugby players exclusively.
Hunter says this is something Loughborough players have access to in the Tyrell's Premier 15s.
She added: "We're [England players] supported by the Rugby Players Association which has all its mental health wellbeing campaigns and the ability to talk to people and its support lines. There's confidential services where you can get that support. At England we have a psychologists that support us as individuals.
"At Loughborough we have a psychologist that will offer one-to-one support to players if they need it as well.
"It's important to make sure people are supported if they have struggles with mental health. It's okay to say that you're not okay and to speak out to get help. I think it's positive that there is less stigma about it. It's great that people who have had struggles in the past are coming out and talking about them more openly.
"I think the more that people share their stories, the more comfortable people who are suffering will come forward rather than suffering in silence."
Hunter has played at Loughborough since the club began competing at the top level of women's rugby in 2017. She is happy with the progress that the side has made in a short space of time and has said it's 'exceeded her expectations'.
She said: "I think it's certainly exceeded our expectations of where we wanted to get to and how fast we got there. I think we were looking toward the third season to be playing competitively in the league - to get to semi-finals and finals.
"We were in the semi last year where we unfortunately lost to Harlequins, but I think that really drove us on to see what we can achieve this year.
"We have players at the club coming through into England as well. Other international sides are also calling up players due to their performance at Loughborough. So I think it is a really exciting place to be and that's what drives us and what makes this season really exciting."
The club's next game is against Saracens away, a tough challenge as the defending champions are unbeaten in the league this season and were not defeated at home last season. Despite the scale of the task, Hunter says the team are 'really excited' to play Sarries.
"Obviously playing Saracens is always a big challenge and beating them is something in our relatively short history at Lightning that we haven't been able to do. We know what challenge they will pose but I feel as a squad we've really developed over the last few months and there is confidence going into the match.
"The league doesn't lie, they haven't lost a game all season so we know it will be a difficult proposition but to be the best, you have to play the best. You have to challenge yourselves and that's what we want to do on Saturday really."
Saracens vs Loughborough Lightning kicks off today at 1.30pm, keep an eye out for NewsChain's coverage of the match.