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South Surrey teen rugby players use 'barbaric' sport to focus on mental health

Peace Arch News - 11/11/2023

Get it all out on the field and leave it there.

Pass the ball to your teammates, tackle your opponents and, ultimately, reach the in-goal area.

These are just some of the ways many rugby players describe how they play the game.

Something that is less common, which players on a local South Surrey high school team are trying to normalize, is creating space for boys to discuss their emotions and mental health.

It's astounding for coach Nico Docolas to see the difference between his players today in Elgin Park Secondary's rugby program compared to when he played on the team about 10 years ago.

While running, passing the ball backwards and to the side, and incurring somewhat minor injuries still occur frequently on the field, they are now exploring the different facets of men's health off the field, all while attempting to grow a 'stache this Movember.

When thinking of what to focus on for their fundraiser, Docolas immediately thought about bringing attention to prostate cancer, as that was always the focus of the month when he was younger.

"These guys actually, when I said prostate cancer, were like 'Hey, there's another portion to health and men'," Docolas shared.

His team wanted to focus their initiatives on mental health and how the topic relates to young men.

So each day, members of the team give a growth update on their moustache in a social media video, while paying tribute to a man or boy in their life who they admire.

The contrast between this initiative and the common stereotypes of rugby players is not lost on the team.

"Rugby being a physical game brings more of a barbaric side to things where you're really in a fight during the game so that's where we're trying to bring the mental side of things in," said team captain George Pritchard, who is in Grade 12.

For Docolas, remembering his time playing in the same program at the same school, some regrets and tough times stick out for him. Among them is a memory of one of his best friends.

"I played inside centre. The person who played next to me was fly-half and he committed suicide the day before I came home from my first year in university. One of my best friends.

"There was no chance 10 years ago I would've ever asked how he was doing. I just was too stupid and no one ever asked me. I regret that."

While it's too late for Docolas to change the past, that experience will forever influence how he chooses to move forward in life. And it looks like his goals for the next generation are materializing for this team.

Grade 11 player Ryder Brooks is used to keeping his emotions to himself, but he is seeing the positive above all.

"It was definitely brand new to me (because) I've always been an enclosed person. I kind of just deal with it on the rugby field, but definitely, coming out and having this Movember movement has been new but I wanted to try to open myself up," Brooks said.

Using rugby to bring in more members to the community seemed ideal to Pritchard, who said they all make new friends already, so ensuring the environment prioritizes safety and well-being is the natural next step.

"We're trying to instil positive values to guys at school and be the older brothers for them."

Still, channelling the more emotional, vulnerable side of themselves was a bit of a challenge for some players.

"The first thing that popped into my head was 'How am I going to be perceived by my friends and everyone who sees this video?' I was thinking, 'Man, everyone's going to flame me at school'," said Luke Colabella, a Grade 12 student.

"But then I just started thinking about what truly matters, like yes there's going to be some of that but the upside is, we get it out there and then it becomes more normal and everyone becomes a part of it and everyone's sharing the message."

While the teenagers' moustache growth so far leaves little to see, the attention has really been on the words coming out of their mouths instead.

It's clear that the Movember movement is a new venture for the team – several members shared as much – but the rewards that have come make it worth it. It has also been interesting for them to reflect and realize that while each of them has struggled in some way, they were often fighting their battles alone.

"During COVID, we didn't really have a support or way to talk about these things, so I think what we're doing now is fixing that for the younger boys," Colabella said.

"Bringing the younger kids in and making them know that they're not left out. I remember when we were on the younger side, we were scared of the senior guys but now with this movement, it's helping us include them."

With this shift in the team's atmosphere, Docolas has noticed many more Grade 8 and 9 boys showing an interest in joining the team and turning out in numbers greater than ever before.

"These guys have enough love for those older and younger and it just gives me goosebumps to see how they've taken it on," Docolas said.

The younger teenage boys also feel more comfortable opening up to the older guys. Much of that has to do with the social media videos the team have been posting, they said.

"Honestly, men's mental health isn't something talked about much in the world in general. Us focusing on that is helping us bring our community closer and we get those younger guys who are maybe feeling a little more insecure and they realize that rugby isn't such a barbaric sport," Colabella said.

The fundraiser for the Elgin boys' rugby team is running for the remainder of the month, with the boys aiming high, with a $15,000 goal. At the end of the month, the team will gather and each player will have their moustache shaved by a man of their choosing.

There will also be a 'Ruck n' Roll Runway Show' to celebrate, where the players will strut down a runway and present an auction, on Thursday, Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. at Ocean Park Pizza & Village Pub. In addition to the GoFundMe donation link, the proceeds raised will be split evenly between Canadian Men's Health Foundation and the rugby team.