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Stevie Ward 1 USE

Rugby league star pays visit to York College

IF Linkin Park are your favourite band, then don’t be afraid to admit it to anyone!

If you ever wonder how relevant your A Levels might be in later life too, then ex-Leeds Rhinos captain Stevie Ward also reckons his Further Education studies proved better preparation for his current role as a mental health public speaker than any of his impressive achievements on a rugby league pitch.

Stevie, who became the youngest-ever Super League Grand Final winner at the age of 18, gave talks to two different groups of students in York College & University Centre’s Lecture Theatre.

He was on campus as a guest of Head of Humanities, Languages & Social Science Luke Zwalf, who was Stevie’s Head of Year from the age of 11 to 18 in a previous job.

Stevie, who went on to win three Grand Finals and two Challenge Cups before having to retire from rugby at the age of 27 in January 2021 after suffering a brain injury following three concussions, could have quite easily spoken about his illustrious and unique sporting career and held everybody’s attention for an hour.

Instead, his inspiring talk focussed on how his well-being was affected by his meteoric rise in rugby, as he lost his sense of psychological safety, and the journey he went on to find it again.

Stevie shared with students how he believes we all need to feel safe to be our happiest and perform to our best in life and that requires positive exposure to “The Three C’s” – Context, Connection and Choice.

At the age of 10, Stevie reckons that he had all three in abundance, enjoying the Context of running around on a patch of grass playing a sport with team-mates that he had a Connection with, which made the Choice of throwing a rugby ball around a simple one.

He went on to describe how he would daydream in “Zwalfy’s classroom” about sprinting over the try line for Leeds Rhinos and how it would give him a “warm, golden sensation”.

By 16, that fantasy had turned into reality with Stevie making his full Rhinos debut against St Helens alongside legendary players such as Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow whilst he was still studying for his A Levels.

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Stevie Ward (left) with York College Head of Humanities, Languages & Social Science Luke Zwalf

He was even allowed to dye his hair red – completely against school rules – as it was in aid of the Sport Relief charity!

It was also around this time, however, that Stevie started to put up what he calls “defensive lines” as he tried to fit into the competitive – and sometimes intimidating – environment of a world-class sporting setting.

He told students that rather than being an advocate for programmes that suggest following “five steps towards well-being”, he recommends a subtracting process, as part of his “Authenticity Game Plan”, to rid yourself of those debilitating defensive lines and return to a position where you are happy again with who you really are.

Stevie spoke of how he lost “The Three C’s” he had always associated with rugby as the professional sport’s perceived “Win at all Costs” mindset, at the time, left him feeling nervous and dizzy before games.

With coaches insisting that you should never show opposing teams your emotions, Stevie also followed that advice in terms of his behaviour around the rugby club.

The pressure of being constantly compared to Sinfield – one of the best rugby-league players in the world with a reputation as the sport’s most successful captain – weighed heavy too.

He even got called “Kev” as he progressed through the academy and started thinking he had to be more like and play more like the talismanic hero.

That suffocating insecurity even extended to Stevie feeling uncomfortable about expressing his musical tastes.

“I loved the rock band Linkin Park and still do but I didn’t want to tell the rest of the players in case they said: ‘What are you listening to that for?’ if they didn’t like it,” he pointed out.

Confessing that he felt like he was folding himself into a tiny version of himself, Stevie eventually decided to open up about his anxieties and depression in 2016 and launched Mantality with the aim of inspiring conversation around mental health for men.

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A Level student Billy Armitstead meets Stevie after his talk in the Lecture Theatre

He also started to reengage with “The Three C’s” at Rhinos, citing the 2017 Super League Grand Final as a pivotal moment in that journey.

Castleford - a team that Rhinos had lost to during the clubs’ last six contests – were the opposition and the team genuinely looked “fearful” ahead of the latest meeting.

On the eve of the game, however, the Rhinos team naturally spoke about the journey up to the final they had all shared, as well as what it meant to them to play in such a big game and why the team were going to win.

On the back of that Context and Connection, Stevie then made the Choice to play in the game despite still recovering from a shoulder injury he had suffered in the semi-final six days earlier.

Rhinos subsequently won 24-6 and Stevie was named club captain a couple of years later at the age of 26.

His career was curtailed little more than 12 months on, due to injuries that have seen him suffer daily headaches, vertigo and dizziness over the last three years.

Mantality’s subsequent growth, however, now sees Stevie offering counselling and life-coaching services, as well as delivering talks around the world.

On how his A Levels helped equip him with the skills and confidence required to carry out such important work, Stevie told a captivated Lecture Theatre audience: “One of the best things Kevin Sinfield ever said to me was ‘Do your A Levels’.

“I just wanted to play rugby but, when I talk about resilience, coping and hard work, I know what a massive test it is to do them. As part of my A Levels, I had to put a presentation together that saw me read out the poem If by Rudyard Kipling in front of the whole school and that has served me well so much longer than being a rugby player, because I rely on that experience more now.”

Stevie answered questions from students at the end of his talk, before also posing for selfies.

You can learn more about Mantality here