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Filling the void

Owain Jones

In the week of the third and decisive Test of the Lions series in South Africa, a low-key press release was made by Saracens. They announced that Calum Clark, their abrasive backrow, had retired from the game and was to take up a newly created position as Wellbeing and Personal Development Manager, after making 57 appearances for the North London club over four seasons.

Clark you will remember had a reputation as a player who took no prisoners. With a chequered disciplinary rap sheet, notoriously, he served a 32-week ban for breaking the arm of Leicester Tigers hooker Rob Hawkins in 2012 but was talented enough to play for England, and be part of numerous national training camps. He had moved from Leeds, made his name at Northampton Saints, before spending his final years with the Saracens juggernaut.

To the smart-alecs among us, his appointment was the modern-day version of Wade Dooley heading a disciplinary panel for foul play (which he did, with aplomb). The dye had been set and Clark cast as an over-zealous miscreant unable to change his spots.

Only that’s what rugby fans would say without scratching beneath the surface. Indeed, why would one of rugby’s ‘bad boys’ want to take on such a job, and why would the mild-mannered Mark McCall want to empower him with a role which factored in every layer of the organisation if he was a ‘wrong ‘un’.

It should be noted that Clark, 32, has endured a very challenging year. Last September, he lost his father in a freak accident. Dave Clark had been walking his dog in the Yorkshire Dale’s when he was trampled by stampeding cows. A well-loved deputy head at Richmond School, it was a huge loss to the community.

Earnest, serious and understandably a little guarded, Clark wanted to know the purpose of The XV’s article, mindful he had faced enough snap judgements over 14 years. You certainly won’t find Clark dredging Twitter for historic criticism.

Calum Clark
Clark in action for the England U20s against Wales U20 in Bridgend in 2009 (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

First up, his reason for retiring was straightforward – his body was no longer doing what he wanted it to and at a place such as Saracens, with its rarefied standards, he didn’t want to feel like he was not worthy of selection.

“If I’m honest, I was struggling,” he says. “I wasn’t performing and was constantly in pain. I had some personal issues happening off the field and I’d been studying pretty intensively for the last three years, preparing for what I wanted to do beyond rugby. When the opportunity arose for a new direction, I grabbed it. It was a no-brainer. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Clark also said his beaten-up body was a by-product of being one of rugby’s youngest professionals when emerging as a teenager under the tutelage of Stuart Lancaster. “Playing a full-season in the Premiership at 18 and getting battered every week for Leeds, who weren’t great at the time, took it out of me.” 

The County Durham-born backrow says he is incredibly grateful to the club for creating the new role but is keen to stress it is a return for incredibly hard studying of psychology at Masters level.

“I had to stop playing golf and PlayStation and get serious about my life so I was fortunate to meet Professor Aneta Tunariu, my academic supervisor at the University of East London. She is the dean of the psychology department there and has had a huge impact. It’s fair to say she has changed my life. She is a force of nature.”

Saracens’ ethos isn’t just for show. They want players to think beyond the field of play. Having a well-rounded, holistic approach to development actually makes players perform better on the field.

That Clark, already an economics graduate, has been supported in his further academic studies is unsurprising. For all their detractors, Saracens are renowned for investing in players beyond the game. Clark is grateful for their support and understanding that doing so makes for better players.

“Saracens’ ethos isn’t just for show. They want players to think beyond the field of play. Having a well-rounded, holistic approach to development actually makes players perform better on the field.”

Clark has been supported in his transition by David Jones, the head of psychology and player development, who he says was instrumental in helping him make the leap into becoming an ex-player. His remit is in its embryonic stages but he is already attacking his inbox with gusto.

“There’s a number of levels I see myself as operating on. After a decade of unbroken success, we were thrown into the Championship so I thought it would be a good time to take stock so we can prepare for another successful chapter at the club.

“I’ve worked alongside Dan Vickers, looking at our culture, how to freshen it up and re-energise it. That’s not just the senior men’s squad, it’s women’s team, netball team and commercial team so we can get some alignment and clarity across the organisation. We need a clear sense of who we are and what our values are.”

Calum Clark
Clark was renowned for never taking a backward step (Photo by Bob Bradford – via Getty Images)

As the former flanker gets his feet under the desk, he will also be working at the training ground, alongside his former team-mates, looking at the club’s approach to mental and emotional health.

“There has been a lot in the press about supporting people who are dealing with anxiety, depression and addiction, which is really important but it’s also about the day-in, day-out difficulties of professional sport. My role will be trying to get players in the most optimal emotional place to get out on the field and be the best they can be. I’ve had my mind opened up by my education in positive psychology. It’s not just a first-aid, surgery approach I’ll be taking.”

While Clark says superstars such as Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola may not be knocking on his door just yet, he is open to doing one-on-one coaching with younger players adjusting to the rigours and strains of professional sport, mentoring management staff and running mindfulness sessions.

It’s difficult for outsiders to understand the nuances of daily sporting life unless you’ve lived it. This is where all the challenges, setbacks and mistakes I made in my career have helped.

As someone who has faced his fair share of opprobrium in an incident-packed career, Clark says his experiences have held him in good stead when it comes to understanding his fellow professionals.

“Obviously I have the benefit of having a good relationship with the boys from training and playing with them. It’s difficult for outsiders to understand the nuances of daily sporting life unless you’ve lived it. This is where all the challenges, setbacks and mistakes I made in my career have helped.

“I have genuine empathy and compassion for the players. Although difficult at the time, I hope it helps them speaking to someone who has been through the mill. This is what drives me; being what I needed but never had as a player. I know the void because I experienced it my whole career. Everything I’m studying for is in order to be that resource. I’m a work in progress, but I’m getting there.”

It begs the question, do Premiership clubs do enough to support the hundreds of professionals making their living in an ultra-competitive, uncertain environment? “For want of a better phrase, we’re still eating baby food when it comes to mental and emotional support. You know, dancing round the edges. At the very least we’re still playing catch-up with the research. When you compare it to the provision and support and resources to deal with physical health, in terms of coaching and time spent, it’s some way off.”

Clark celebrates winning the 2014 Premiership final with Saints (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Clark is at pains to point out this is not a dig at his current employer, far from it. “Saracens take that side of things more seriously than most. That’s shown by dint of the fact they’ve given me this role. It’s an acknowledgement they’re taking it more seriously across the board. It’s not rugby’s problem, it’s a wider societal problem.”

The last 18 months have been incredibly challenging for so many people. In rugby, money has been scarce and contracts stripped from gifted players as financial realities hit home. Clark says he has his own therapy and psychological help so that if anything comes up in sessions, he has a sounding board. To his knowledge similar roles do not exist elsewhere in the Premiership but he is currently reaching out to people within rugby to form a network of support.

Clark says that while rugby players are role models for their achievements on the pitch, they have flaws, like everyone else, away from the game.

“The narrative around professional sport is that you’re programming robots because they can do some pretty cool things on the pitch, but you forget they are humans who are imperfect and fall short, as everyone does.”

The one thing my dad loved was getting kids into sport. He had a special knack for unearthing, shall we say, rough diamonds and getting them into sport to give them a purpose and focus.

In recent weeks, Saracens went on a pre-season tour to Leeds and York, an area Clark knows intimately. When he found out they would be going near his father’s old school, team manager Warren Lang made sure Clark was able to go with the squad to open the new sports facility named after his late father. It was a gesture that touched him deeply. “The efforts Sarries went to just shows what sort of club it really is. They care about people and went out of their way to make it happen.” 

Understandably Clark looks glassy eyed when talking about his father, and there are long pauses in the conversation, as he reaches for the right words. “The one thing my dad loved was getting kids into sport. He had a special knack for unearthing, shall we say, rough diamonds and getting them into sport to give them a purpose and focus. Dad played at West Hartlepool and he was the one who got me into rugby. He was well respected in the local community.”

Calum Clark
Clark putting his point across in an England training session ahead of the 2015 World Cup (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As one high-profile chapter closes, more than ever, Clark feels a calling to his new career, one he hopes his dad would approve of. “I’ve been through a lot but the sort of thing I’m getting into is along the similar lines and shares similar values to the ones Dad tried to live his life by. It’s weird but this feels more natural to me than playing rugby. I am trying to serve other people, rather just thinking of and serving myself. It takes a lot of energy to do this role and listen intently, but it carries a lot of meaning to me.”

Alongside his role at Saracens, Clark is keen to work with clients outside the club and is looking for some office space in Harley Street. “If any players, or individuals are looking for coaching or mentoring, I would say all my work is fully confidential. Sometimes people don’t want to open up in a club environment because they may feel judged. To some there is still a stigma around mental health. It can be seen as weakness, so a space away from your day-to-day life as athletes can be a lifeline if you’re struggling.”

Yes, Clark made mistakes, and he knows he cannot outrun them, especially in a digital world, but Saracens’ faith in him is implicit. He is atoning for the errors of his youth and he wants to fill the void he never had for the next generation. For that, surely he should be given a chance to move on. Good luck to him.

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