Tackle Your Feelings, a campaign that is increasing the mental wellbeing of school students, professionals in the workplace and rugby players at all levels

Formed in 2001, Rugby Players Ireland’s remit is to act as the collective voice for professional rugby players in Ireland. A representative body at heart, the association also boasts a world-leading Player Development Programme (PDP) which has become a reference point for other sporting bodies across the globe. The PDP enables players to fulfil their potential both on and off the field so that they succeed as both professional athletes and successful individuals. The wider Irish Women’s XVs (non-contracted) squad and a growing past player network can also avail of these services.

The wider work of Rugby Players Ireland sees players being encouraged to be valued members of the community, leading to the launching of the award-winning Tackle Your Feelings (TYF) campaign in 2016. The TYF app and campaign address mental health. Some of the resources available cover happiness, optimism and resilience in taking control of your mental wellbeing. To-date the campaign has focused on three main target markets: students in school, professionals in the workplace and professional rugby players, but as Phase 3 kicks-off this year attentions will turn to establishing TYF as the primary wellbeing syllabus in secondary schools across the island.

The TYF App was named the ‘Best App’ of 2019 at the Spiders’ Awards and was named as the Best Long-Term Campaign at the Awards for Excellence in Public Relations in 2021. Most importantly, it was found that 92% of people improved their mental wellbeing score by using the TYF app.

I interviewed Rugby Players Ireland Head of Communications and Legal Affairs Richard McElwee, to find out more about the success of the campaign: 

  1. Can you briefly outline how Rugby Players Ireland began and some of the impact that the organisation has had?

Rugby Players Ireland was formed in 2001 as the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association (IRUPA). Following discussions between Donal Spring, Peter McKenna, Liam Toland and the IRFU, Rugby Players Ireland came into being with the remit of promoting and protecting the welfare of all professional players across the four provinces. 

Now seen as one of the leading player representative organisations in sport, Rugby Players Ireland is committed to making Ireland the best place in the world to play rugby through the effective representation of its membership which has evolved considerably over the course of the past 20 years.

In addition to players in the provincial squads, the players’ association’s membership encompasses the Irish Sevens programme and the newly contracted female players, while our world-leading Player Development services are also available to non-contracted members of the Irish Women’s XVs squad and our growing past player network.

The functions of the association have also expanded to include a dedicated community engagement programme so that our members can be seen as valued members of society through charitable and corporate interaction. Most notably our members have been to the fore of Tackle Your Feelings, our public mental wellbeing campaign run in partnership with Zurich and the Z Zurich Foundation.

  1. Why did you feel the need to create the Tackle Your Feelings app? What has been the impact since it launched?

Amidst the growing popularity of rugby in Ireland, it was felt that the influence of our membership could be used to ignite widespread, sustainable change in how people think and act around their mental well-being.

Despite coming from a world that espouses the macho ideal of mental and physical toughness, we found that our players were open to sharing their experiences of some of the challenges they have faced and overcome in their lives. With players leading from the front, TYF adopted an innovative and unique approach to breaking down stigma around emotional vulnerability and sought to empower a widening rugby fanbase and beyond.

Since launching in 2016, TYF has motivated people across Ireland to be more proactive when it comes to looking after their mental well-being and has increased awareness around the importance of taking care of your mental health. Following the conclusion of the campaign’s first phase in 2020, it was found that 92% of people improved their mental well-being score in the TYF app.

  1. Can you tell me more about the upcoming campaign for Tackle Your Feelings in 2023?

In 2023 we enter the Third Phase of the campaign which will place a greater focus on the TYF Schools Programme which was launched as the pandemic took hold.

The TYF Schools Programme is a classroom-based, life-skills development programme which enables students aged 14-18 to build healthy habits and personal coping strategies. The syllabus has been developed using positive and sport psychology principles and is supported with comprehensive lesson plans for teachers, amongst a host of additional resources.

While teacher-led, students also have digital access to the resources, enabling them to proactively manage their mental well-being both inside and outside of the school environment.

Our aim is to make the TYF Schools Programme the go-to well-being syllabus for all second level schools in Ireland by the end of 2024.

  1. What ambassadors do you work with? Do you find it best to have some diversity in the players that you work with?

In all, Tackle Your Feelings has worked with over 200 rugby players from across the island. Built on a foundation of diversity and inclusion, our frontline ambassadors have included the likes of James Lowe, Eimear Considine, Jack Carty, Joey Carbery, John Cooney, C.J. Stander, Andrew Porter and Linda Djougang.

Hailing from Clare, Auckland, Athlone, Cameroon and elsewhere, our male and female ambassadors also speak to a wider audience than those affiliated with the traditional rugby strongholds, although such rugby hubs remain of huge importance to the campaign.

Our ambassadors are also supported by an army of rugby players throughout the country who are committed to championing the message within their squad groups and wider networks.

Having a diverse panel of ambassadors across the country fosters goodwill and trust.

  1. How do you go about marketing the campaign? What media do you find works best?

Over the course of its existence, TYF has achieved a phenomenal reach with the help of both traditional and digital media.

Surpassing all expectations, TYF has been reaching a global audience with statistics showing that the website has been accessed in 130 countries. Viewership statistics have confirmed that the main consumers of campaign content are males within the 18-35 age group.

Social media has proved to be an effective channel through which to communicate the messages of the campaign to our target audiences. Ambassador videos had arguably the greatest impact of all content in terms of changing attitudes and breaking down stigma around mental well-being. We have accompanied the launch of each video with a wider publicity campaign through national media, amounting to a reach of 125 million. In addition, regular OOH campaigns have also contributed to TYF App download spikes and website visits. 

With a view to moving into schools from Phase Two, TYF began to use animation as a means of providing a lighter touch to what can often be understood as a heavy subject. Animation has proven to be a hugely accessible tool for both contributors (in the telling of their story) and users of TYF’s resources.

  1. Can you tell me more about the three target markets of the campaign? What similarities or differences do you see in students in schools, people in the workplace or professional players?

Workplaces typically get in touch with us to support their annual well-being strategies with a webinar or workshop. These are bespoke to the company and cover topics like self-care, stress management, sleep etc. In Phase 2 of the campaign we provided these free of charge to companies to drive their employees to use the app more proactively.

Professional players are people first and encounter all of the same pressures and stresses that employees of other industries do. They have the additional stresses of injury, selection and early retirement to manage. They are concerned with being the best they can be in all aspects of life and take their well-being very seriously. They’re great role models for our student-users who we target to try to help them learn earlier in life what we all wish we knew then.

  1. What were some of the highlights since launching? What awards has the campaign won?

Since launching, Tackle Your Feelings has been reaching international audiences and has served to inspire similar campaigns across the globe, including; The English Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), ‘Lift the Weight’ campaign, New Zealand Rugby’s ‘HeadFirst’ campaign and Tackle Your Feelings Australia, a collaboration between Zurich Australia, the AFL Players’ Association and the AFL Coaches’ Association.

The TYF App was named the ‘Best App’ of 2019 at the Spiders’ Awards – Ireland’s most prestigious digital awards ceremony. Additionally, several launches have been covered extensively by the national media, resulting in TYF being named as the Best Long-Term Campaign at the Awards for Excellence in Public Relations in 2021.

  1. What impact did the pandemic have on the app? Did you see an increase in usage?

While there has been a steady download rate of the TYF App since it first launched, it has been demonstrated on several occasions that public activity results in a download spike. To counteract the restrictions, TYF developed novel ways in which to continue engaging its audiences.

It has been shown that usage increased by 49% during the Covid-19 lockdown due to the adaptability and awareness of the wider TYF team. Our instinctive #BeKind initiative during the 2020 Guinness Six Nations drew many eyes to the campaign while registered schools appreciated the remote capabilities of the app when classes were forced to go online.

With fans forced to watch games from home they turned online in their droves to enhance their matchday experience and feel a sense of community. Unfortunately, some profiles directed intolerable abuse towards players, coaches and media personalities, prompting the #BeKind mini-series – a collection of animations scripted using some of the toxic tweets in which rugby players were tagged – and resulted in government agencies stepping up their efforts to protect users through the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

  1. Has the return to school or work impacted the usage of the app or areas of mental health that your app provides assistance for?

While all the techniques employed in the app are evidence-based and grounded in sport psychology and positive psychology theory and empirical research, the TYF App does not have the capacity to treat or diagnose mental illness.

The TYF App has been designed to help people become more proactive about taking care of their mental well-being. It aims to act as a bridge to engage people who may have never considered this topic as relevant before and to support people who are already proactive but may want a little extra help in this area. The intention is to inspire and signpost people to suitable strategies that work for them and then for people to apply these strategies in their day-to-day life.  

If you are concerned about your own or another person’s mental well-being seek professional advice without delay.

  1. Are there any other people or organisations in the area of mental health in Ireland that you’re fans of?

As an awareness campaign, we are hugely supportive of advocates in the positive mental well-being space, especially in the sporting sphere. Indeed we have collaborated with several sports personalities and influencers who take a light and fun approach to the conversation in an effort to expand our audience. We feel that the more people talk about their mental wel-lbeing, the more accessible it becomes.

Several members of Rugby Players Ireland have also been ambassadors for mental health charities such as Aware (Joey Carbery), Pieta House (Jack McGrath, Hannah Tyrrell and Fergus McFadden). We support each member in their respective endeavours. It’s a team effort!