Coventry RFC man and Opening Up supporter Adam Canning spoke to us about life in rugby union, from mental preparation and fitness to dealing with injury...
Coventry is synonymous with Rugby Union as many players from the city have represented their nation, products of a seemingly endless production line. Tell us about how you came to make the move to the city's club?
I have taken the long route, working my way through the leagues, having started my senior career at Old Leamingtonians RFC where I grew up. After a move to Kenilworth and then a year at Rugby Lions under the coaching of Neil Back & Ben Gollings, I got the opportunity to play professionally in Spain. I had a great time in Barcelona but came home for personal reasons after 1 season and then enjoyed two great years at Birmingham & Solihull Bees before moving to Coventry last season.
We speak a lot about mentality in cricket. How important do you consider mental preparation and fitness to be in rugby union?
Being mentally prepared is critical in Rugby. Every game requires full focus and physical commitment and unless you're in the right frame of mind to push your body through the obstacles that are presented then you're unlikely to have a good day. Personally, as a fly-half and goal-kicker - mental preparation is perhaps even more important. Staying mentally strong and believing in your skills and routine is something that I have developed as I've got older.
Missing 1 or 2 kicks does not affect the best kickers because their minds continually refer back to the process and skills that will work more often than not if you continue to believe in yourself. The fly-half is usually responsible for orchestrating the team round the field as well and is a key decision maker. Not every decision you make is the right one and fans/team mates can sometimes be quick to judge but if you are confident enough to back your general decision making ability then hopefully more often than not things will work out. Again, as I have got older ive found it easier to shrug off any self-doubts when it could be easier to shrink into a shell and step back from the role. Nobody wants a passive fly-half.
Does it get addressed specifically in training?
Every club and coaching set up is different. In my second year at Bees we had a sports psychologist who spent some time with the squad and focussed a lot on the language we used when we talking amongst each other both on and off the pitch. I'm sure at the elite level in the full-time professional environment that it is a key part in preparing players but could perhaps be used more in the lower leagues.
Your recent time in the sport has been marked by injury, prior to this one how had you coped with periods on the sidelines?
Previous injuries have been a lot easier to cope with. If you break an ankle, fracture an arm or tear a muscle - 99% of the time you know within a week or so the full extent of the damage and you can start to plan your recovery. You know the estimated time you will be away from training, you know what you need to do to recover as quickly as possible, you can be proactive with your recovery with things like massage, stretching etc and you can also train other body parts and try to stay relatively fit and in some sort of condition.
How did your current injury come about?
I was KO'd in a pre-season game and was out for about 4-5 seconds. The physio recognised that I wasn’t right and removed me from play. I didn’t really acknowledge that I had been concussed until I had seen the video about a week later. I tried to carry on training hard the following week and problems started to occur in my head. A minor car accident and a bit of whiplash 3 weeks after the original injury certainly didn't help and before I knew it my head deteriorated to a point where I was getting bad headaches every day and developed a complete intolerance to exercise or any exertion. I spent 6 months near enough doing no exercise, nothing socially and limited time in work. It was diagnosed as Post Concussion Syndrome and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
How far did it effect you? Was it just sport or was their overlap to other areas?
It was much more than my Rugby that was effected - it was my whole life. It sounds very over dramatic now but my life was literally on-hold for 7 or 8 months as I tried to recover. Firstly, I couldn’t train at all. I developed a complete intolerance for any form of exercise, even as little as trotting up the stairs or picking up a chair in the house triggered symptoms let alone running, cycling, weight lifting or any of the other activities that shaped my usual routine. It was a vicious circle as this complete change in my lifestyle lead to a complete change in my personality which subsequently affected my relationships with family & friends. The symptoms also lead to me having an extended period off work and I went through a period of trying to get complete cognitive rest - which included no TV, no phone, no reading - just literally lying in bed or on the sofa in a dark room.
You seem to have got through the worst of it now and building towards full recovery. What motivated you to not give up?
It sounds ridiculous but when you're in that frame of mind and your life has been completely flipped upside down you feel like you're fighting for your life - at least as you knew it. I made the mistake of reading about other people's recoveries (or lack of) online and discovered that there was a chance that these symptoms could be permanent. I soon had to snap out of that frame of mind as the worrying and anxiety to recover probably only exacerbated the symptoms. The neurologists explained how positive thinking is critical to long-term recovery from PCS and I assured myself things were going to improve.
How do you rate rugby union as a sport for looking after injured players?
I think it's hard to generalise the sport, as again, every club is different. I have been lucky enough at the clubs I have played for to have great people behind the scenes in the physio and medical departments who have taken player welfare very seriously. There is however still a stigma with head injuries. Some old-school coaches don't empathise or understand these 'invisible' injuries and there can be pressure to rush back in some cases.
Does the same level of care and consideration extend to emotional wellbeing?
No, I think that this is definitely an area that Rugby and sport in general needs to improve on. There are so many factors that come into play that determine how an athlete performs and their mental and emotional state is as important as any.
Finally, what are your plans for next season?
Coventry have given me the opportunity to get back fit and train with them over pre-season with a view to proving that I can get back to where I was this time last year and hopefully earn a new contract. I have enjoyed the first few weeks of pre-season and my head has been fine with the intense and demanding schedule. Hopefully things continue to improve as we get closer to the season.