Steve McCormack Q&A
Steve McCormack enjoyed a successful coaching career at club and international level and has now been appointed as England’s Rugby League first-ever player welfare manager ahead of this year’s home World Cup.
In January this year Rugby League Cares Head of Welfare Steve McCormack became one of only two sports practitioners in the UK to gain a recognised qualification in player welfare provision having been awarded a prestigious Level 4 Certificate in Elite Athlete Wellbeing from the Wellbeing Science Institute.
We caught up with Steve ahead of October’s Rugby League World Cup to discuss Player Welfare and his role with England ahead of the tournament.
What does your role as Head of Player Welfare with Rugby League Cares and England Rugby involve and what are the key learnings from the Level 4 Certificate that you bring to your role?
My role entails writing the welfare and wellbeing blueprint of the whole game. In 2019 Rugby League Cares took over the welfare of the sport and the independence of the charity was really important. My role involves setting processes to make sure that the clubs, the players and all of the stakeholders within the game follow the well being blueprint but also value it and put the players and the staff at the forefront of it. Within my role I liaise with all the player welfare managers (each Super League Club has a full-time player welfare manager) and also speak with the sport’s governing bodies, the RFL and Super League. I also oversee the welfare provision with regards to transition and career development, alongside our Transition Manager and Careers Coach.
You’ve been involved in the game for many years now in a coaching capacity previous to your current welfare role. How much do you think Player Welfare improved over recent years, and what do you believe to be the most beneficial areas of support for players?
I think player welfare, certainly in Rugby League has always been important. It’s a really tough sport Rugby League and I think that the sport has always really cared for players. There has always been individuals within the sport and governing bodies who’ve really cared about the community within it. Over the last 10 years I do think that the processes have got a lot better when you look at concussion and player welfare managers. I also think it has become more holistic now so it’s not just a matter of supporting players and staff who are in crisis it’s a full holistic approach looking at relationships, finance, careers, transition, injuries and culture. There is a lot that goes into the player welfare support and I think we’ve made huge strides in the last few years in this.
What support is there in place for young players and for those who perhaps don’t make it as a career?
The way it works as sport is that the player welfare support is exactly the same for a young player as it is for the captain of England and the senior players. As soon as a player steps foot into professional sport, whether it be as scholar at age 10 or 11 or as an academy player there’s education and transition projects across the sport. As you mention not all players will make it, some will go back to the community game so we have close relationships with the community clubs and coaches. There are some real tough conversations that clubs have to have with players if they don’t make it as a career so it’s important that the well-being staff are included in these conversation to provide appropriate support and ensure that when players leave the sport they can still flourish and do well as individuals.
With regards to protecting players during their careers there’s a current focus on lowering the tackle height to reduce head shots, also new innovations such as the 6 again rule which while speeding up the game may potentially result in an increased injury risk. Do you support these changes and do you think this will help improve the game for players?
I think the fact that we are constantly reviewing the safety of the sport is certainly a positive. As with anything we’ll only know whether the changes are successful once the research has been done. There’s a lot of innovations with regards to concussion, the wearing of gum shields and signs of concussion. As a sport we have some excellent medical professionals and I believe we’re a leader in terms of medical provisions for players and the protocols pre and post-game as well as on the pitch. There’s quite a lot of research programmes going on at the moment and its being constantly monitored which is always a good thing.
Looking at life off the pitch for professional rugby league players; rugby is obviously a tough sport and unfortunately players do on occasions have to retire thorough injury and similarly professional sport can be a short career. Through your experience as a coach and player welfare manager what is your best advice for player in preparing for their career after sport and for the transition out of professional sport?
I think most importantly it’s understanding exactly that, the fact that it is a short career. I was there myself, my career finished when I was at Wigan when I was 19 with an injury. I remember what it felt like, it felt like it was the end of the world. It’s really important for players to understand that it is a short career and they need to have two ‘Plan A’s’ straight away. It’s not a Plan B, you need to be looking at doing something outside of the sport as well. It’s no coincidence that the most successful individuals in business and education are often the most successful players on the field as well. I would always advise a player to listen to the advice available to them; listen to their peers, players that have been through welfare system, learn from and listen to individuals that have perhaps had their career cut short and take on every bit of advice that you can. That level of invincibility is with us all, all sports men and women.
And now looking ahead to the World Cup. It’s great to see that England has appointed their first ever Player Welfare Manager for the England Squad ahead of the World Cup. How much do think this will impact the performance of the team on the pitch?
I know Shaun Wane really well and I worked really closely with him in my time at Wigan. The one thing that Shaun does is look at the 1% difference and gives absolute attention to detail with everything. He’s a person that really values welfare and wellbeing. There’s no doubt about it that having a player that’s flourishing off the field whose getting support and being proactive can definitely be that 1%. As well as the England men I’m also working the women and wheelchair teams so it’s the first time that all the World Cup squads within England have got a Player Welfare Manager with them. The way the sport has embraced player welfare is brilliant and I think it can make a massive difference.
As you mention it’s great to see the Women’s and Wheelchair tournament being staged alongside the Men’s competition. Does your role cover all of the England teams?
I will be overseeing the welfare for all of the squads but we’ve also appointed two more player welfare managers; Steve Hardisty is looking after the Women’s team, doing an absolutely fantastic job and Francis Stephenson is working with the Wheelchair squad. It’s been great over the last couple of weeks as we’ve all been able to have our first face to face contact with the teams since the Covid pandemic. With regards to my role with the England men I’m fortunate to be able to see the players on a regular basis through my club visits with Rugby League Cares so I already have existing relationship with players which is valuable. Steve and Francis have also been working closely with the squads to develop trusted relationship with their players. It’s great that all three squads are getting the same welfare provision.
And finally, what’s your predictions for the World Cup. Can England win it?
I think all three squads can win, no doubt about it, I’m really confident. It’s really tough the World Cup, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in the last three as a coach. It really is the ultimate of the sport, just being part of it but all three squads want to win and they are capable of winning as well.
Hopefully, we’ll have crowds back by the end of the year as well. I remember the 2013 World Cup when it was last in England, it was an unbelievable experience and left a fantastic legacy. The fans were brilliant, and we need them back.
The great news for the World Cup is that some of the Women’s games are going to be double headers as well, so the Women’s game is going to be put on the centre stage which is crucial. The women are going to be playing hopefully in front of thousands and thousands of people which is fantastic.
All of the squads are prepared for if there’s crowds or no crowds, but we want the fans to be there. We want the public to come and see the best players in the world but if there’s not there’s certainly no excuses from the England camp.
What does your work with the England squad involve specifically in the build up to the World Cup in October?
I think importantly it’s having some presence so that the players know that there is that well being support there and that it’s independent as well so it’s not part of the performance staff. We are lucky as a sport that certainly the England Men and Women get a lot of wellbeing support throughout the year. For the Wheelchair team it’s been slightly different, but we are constantly improving that support. Pre and during the tournament it will just be having some presence within the squad, liaising with the players and their families and making sure everything is going smoothly.