Blindboy Boatclub welcomed Irish and Munster rugby standout Keith Earls onto his podcast this week, alongside psychologist Dr Declan Aherne.
The three men had an open and honest chat about mental health and sports psychology, with Earls providing some fascinating insight into his mindset on and off the pitch.
It was a brilliant discussion on mental health and at the forefront was coping with Bipolar 2 Disorder, which Earls revealed he was diagnosed with during an Irish camp in 2013.
The Lions Tour in 2009
Four years prior to his diagnosis, Earls was included as part of the British & Irish Lions Tour of South Africa at the age of 21. He described that particular experience as 'hell' to Blindboy.
"It was the best and the worst thing that happened to me. I went out in my first game and I mean to say if you have seen someone, I had the worst game of my life," he said.
"I was playing for the Lions and I was like, this was hell. Then the media came after me and it was just a downward spiral and I hated rugby for years."
Earls scored tries against the Free State Cheetahs and Emerging Springboks in non-test matches but said he fell out of love with the sport after the tour.
"I couldn't get out of that thinking. I was always stood out my whole career as a young fella coming up through, and even my first season with Munster.
"Then that Lions Tour. That one game derailed me for 5 or 6 years. I didn't know how to manage my emotions and I hated rugby."
"It was to a point where I had to talk to my father and Edel my wife and I said, 'I'm giving this up,' because this is ruining my life because of who I'm playing for."
"Because I care about Munster so much, you care about Ireland. I can't get away from it and it's not enjoyable anymore."
The Loss Of Axel
At 34 years of age, Earls says he's learning to cope with his mental health struggles and one of those mechanisms is detaching his emotions from the rugby pitch.
"I don't care about it anymore. I don't care about rugby," he said. "Which is weird because rugby is what I do. It's not who I am. I prefer Keith the human."
A loss many of the Munster rugby family are still coming to terms with is the passing of legend Anthony 'Axel' Foley, who died almost over five years ago.
Foley coached the province for two seasons before his death and passed away in the team hotel in France before a Champions Cup game.
"When Anthony Foley passed away in 2016 when he first took over we had a horrendous season, we were just trying to qualify for Europe never mind trying to win it," Earls said.
"The abuse that man got. And then when he passed away .. rugby didn't matter. There's a wife and there's two sons that are after losing their father."
"Even talking to Paul O'Connell now, like, it's irrelevant really in real life, rugby. Obviously yeah there are people's livelihoods and stuff."
Earls' Current Mindset
Speaking on his own mindset on the pitch, Earls says he's matured to the point that he doesn't dwell on poor performances or losses after the fact.
"If I go out now and as I said there, if I prepare and I still play shit, I can deal with that now. Whereas years ago I just thought talent was enough."
"I go out and play a shit game and I beat myself up. 'You didn't eat properly this week or you took a shot in training.' If you tick all the boxes and you go out and lose, you can live with that."
"It's not my life anymore even though I'm still in it and I'm enjoying it; Keith Earls the human is more important than Keith Earls the rugby player."
When it comes to controlling his emotions, Earls' talked about focusing on his breathing and blocking out everything else that's going on at points in games.
"The last couple of years now, say when a scrum is happening and the lads are pushing and I'm on the wing scratching my arse and I have thirty seconds, I'm literally thinking about my breathing now."
"As hard as it is. It comes with practice. I'm just trying to block out everything in the crowd, even though you could be getting abused and everything."
"Thankfully the last couple of years I've got a great hold on it"@KeithEarls87 shares his story of being diagnosed with Bipolar 2, the negative voice in his head he calls 'Hank', and how he reached out and asked for help.#LateLate pic.twitter.com/2E4VcAW9Lr
— The Late Late Show (@RTELateLateShow) October 15, 2021
Earls And His Teammates
Earls also discussed how his relationship with his teammates has evolved over the years. He says close relationships with other positions on the field are important.
"I'd be linked with my fullback and midway through the game I'd be like, 'man, I feel like a bag of shit.' It was like nearly asking for help to chat through it."
"He'd say, 'I've got your back, don't worry, don't worry about it.' We're on the field killing each other and playing each other. The big thing for us in rugby is we're showing vulnerability."
He goes on to talk about being in vulnerable positions, and that teams are showing more vulnerability now which has improved discussion on and off the field.
"A lot of the teams I'm playing with, it's all about being vulnerable now, being yourself as fast as you can and that's how we can all trust each other," he said.
"I'll come over to you and I say, 'Blindboy are you feeling alright', and then you go, 'No man I feel like shit', and then you go, 'It's alright man, I feel like shit too, we'll get through it together.'"
"Things can be easier when you communicate. When you're feeling shit, you communicate. It helps. The stuff that's on the field. They're starting to relay it in different ways."