The Strength of the Wolf – Gareth Steenson
Interview by Tracey Duke
Gareth Steenson is, without a doubt, the man of the moment. Fresh off the back of his heart pounding, Premiership winning kick in extra time, at Twickenham earlier this year, Steeno is a firm favourite with Exeter Chiefs fans, across the globe.
Celebrating his testimonial year with Devon’s rugby champions; Exeter Chiefs, we sent our Editor in Chief along to Sandy Park, to catch up with the man himself.
Steeno, thanks so much for taking some time out for me. This is obviously a huge year for you; you’ve just won the Aviva Premiership title, you’re in the midst of your testimonial year celebrations and you’re ready to start the new season, as England Champions. If you don’t mind me saying, whilst that all sounds incredibly exciting, it also seems like a lot of pressure on your shoulders. With mental health being a big talking point right now, let’s jump straight in and talk about just that.
Yeah, so obviously as professional athletes you’re constantly under pressure to perform; you’re always under scrutiny. Every time we take to the field we have a GPS monitor, creating stats from every game; so you’ll know whether you miss a tackle or make a tackle. You’re always scrutinising every decision you make on the field; it’s just the way we live. It’s a high performance, pressured environment. I suppose that’s what makes us competitive animals really; we all want to win and everyone hates to lose.
When you see a negative mark against yourself, it’s not easy. I’ve had plenty of nights when I’ve gone home and thought I hadn’t performed that well. That’s tough in itself, but then you’re also seeing on social media that people are telling you that you haven’t performed well. No; it’s not nice but obviously, you have to take it hand in hand because there are plenty of ups in the game too.
And so how do you deal with that?
It’s just the way we live; it’s the nature of the beast. Like you say, we’re obviously coming off the back of winning the premiership; everybody’s patting us on the back and it’s lovely right now. We’re lucky to be in this position, but you have to be very clued in, and rounded, to understand that next week it can be very different.
And so what about the guys coming into the Academy now? They’re young guys starting a career in the game they love, but Exeter Chiefs is a very different club now to the one that Slade and Nowell joined just a few years ago. How are the youngest players being looked after to deal with what’s ahead; they are literally walking straight into the spotlight, which can be mentally tough at a young age?
I think that, first and foremost, they’re probably not coming into the spotlight in the same way as some might; the beauty of this club is that we’re all very grounded in what we do. I think that’s a lot to do with where we came from as group; we’ve all played on a level below the premiership.
Obviously, like you said, the likes of Henry & Jack who have come through, are now playing for Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership, but these guys have played for Plymouth and Cornish Pirates too. I think it’s really very important, and key, that we stay grounded; as soon as you start thinking you’re something special, that’s when you’ll get knocked off your pedestal.
It definitely feels as though you’re grounded here; there doesn’t seem to be any heroes or egos in the club.
It’s interesting now that we’re champions to see how everyone reacts to that. I guess we won’t really know what that’s like until we start the season again and get back out there on the field. I’m very aware that everyone keeps saying that we’re the hunted team and how are we going to react to that as a group?
So let’s talk about the 2016 Prem final at Twickenham; obviously, it didn’t go your way. Looking back now, how did it feel to lose that one?
I felt disappointed but, honestly, not too disappointed. I think if we’d lost this last one, it would have been very hard to take because we’re in a different place as a group now.
It’s interesting because Geoff Parling’s reaction was so different to all the other lads; he found it very hard because he’s obviously won and lost the premiership in finals. But for a lot of us, this was our first time.
A lot of people say that you have to lose finals in order to go on and win them. Having done both I’d agree. I think you need to realise & appreciate what it means to have lost before you can appreciate winning.
How was it different this year? What gave you the edge in the final?
The celebrations we had after we beat Wasps to get to the final in 2016, were so different to the celebrations we had after we beat Saracens in the Semis this year. I think it was because of the emotions we had around the way in which the game finished; we won on a knife edge and the sense of relief, the appreciation I guess, was huge. Honestly, by the time we got back into that changing room we were ‘right, we’ve got a serious job to do now’. Whereas the year before, we were high-fiving, whooping, hollering; but I think that’s the progression of maturity that you make.
I’m sure now that Wasps will feel differently too; I expect a lot of teams will be coming out very hard on us this season.
I’ve spent many a game; whether that’s here at Sandy Park, or at Twickenham, watching from the sidelines, my heart beating and literally willing you to get that ball through the posts. When it doesn’t go your way and you’ve got 100’s of thousands of fans watching you, how do you move on and recompose yourself?
Years ago, I used to define how I performed in the match by my goal kicking; if I missed two or three kicks in the game but the team had won, I would still say that I’d had a bad game. But when I went back and reviewed the game, I’d realise that actually, I didn’t do too bad; I’d just been focusing on missing the kicks. When that’s what you’re in the team to do, that’s a hard one to deal with.
I look at it very differently now.
What do you do? Do you have to just switch off from who’s watching you?
No; if you say that you do, then you’re not being honest with yourself; you do realise the moments that you’re in and the pressure that you’re under at the time.
What you do is you take each kick in its own right and, whatever pressure is associated with it, you flip the pressure around and turn it into a positive. So instead of thinking ‘If this doesn’t go through, we’ll lose’ you think ‘this is a chance to win’ or ‘this is a chance to get ahead’.
You’ve got to take each situation as a positive to make sure you stay mentally focused on the outcome you want.
And if you do find yourself on the field with time on your hands, are you visualising how you want the game to go?
You have to visualise a lot of things. Before the game, when we come out here on a Saturday, you kind of have a feel for what you want to happen; you play the game before you even play it. But when you’re actually playing, you have to live the moment. You have to live that specific time. If you worry about what’s happened or what’s gone, you miss what’s about to happen in front of you. I think that you have to be very focused, especially in professional sport, not to worry about what’s coming on your path. Obviously, once the game is over, we’ll review the game; we’ll sit down and go ‘right you did this wrong’, or ‘you did this well’.
I think that’s the best way to approach things. Once the moment has gone, it’s gone. You can’t get it back, but you can affect the next thing that’s coming.
The mind plays a funny thing in what we do. The difference between a lot of professional athletes and athletes who play just for fun is purely the mind.
The game is played 90% in the mind, right?
Oh yeah! Absolutely! It’s all about your mindset. I know when I’ve been on the field before and we’re not on it as a group; you can feel it in the changing room before you go out. It’s how you flip it around.
How do you flip it? Can you change it around when you’re out there?
For sure you can. Anything can happen in that time.
But if things aren’t going so well, do you have to wait until half time to have the talk?
No, we can flip things. We all talk to each other all the time; you can make decisions at the time. We have leaders within the group who can steer things as best they can, but hopefully, you don’t have to wait until half time. If you wait until half time, the game can be long lost. Much like the final we had against Saracens in 2016; the game was long gone at half-time.
And so going back to the whole leadership thing; I know that Rob thinks along the lines of ‘leaders create leaders’, empowering everyone to take up the role of leader when they need to.
I think that all great leaders have to pick qualities from different people. Where I’m strong might be where someone else is weak, but obviously, it works vice versa. We’re all good at different things and if you pick individual strengths, it’s what makes you strong as a group.
At the end of the day, we’re all pushing for the same goal; we all want the same thing to happen. Sometimes you have to put your foot down; that’s what Rob is very good at. If he doesn’t agree with something, he’s very quick to say; ‘right we need to change things’ and you have to be able to trust that. And understand that he’s doing it for the great of the team.
We all have to buy into that, but it’s hard at times to do that because it comes right down to selection too. Everyone wants to play, but you’ve got to trust that if you’re not in the team, it’s happened for a reason. You have to go away, deal with that and come back stronger.
So how do you deal with disappointments like that? And how do you deal with injuries? How do you stay mentally strong when you’re out of the game either through injury or not being selected?
Injuries are part and parcel of what happens. There’s no doubt that there are dark times, but you kind of have to lean on people as well. We’re all quite proud individuals and to admit that you’re weak, at times, is quite hard for any of us, especially in the changing room because you get bantered for it. That is a hard thing; there’s no getting away from it. It’s the same as selection really. At least when you’re injured, you know why you’re not playing.
Whom do you lean on? Your families?
Yeah; it would be. If we’re married, it would be the wife who’d get it in the neck mostly or girlfriends. For the younger fellas, it might be parents.
But that’s what it is. You have to take it for what it is; you have to kind of spin it around and make it a positive thing.
We have a bit of a policy here where the guys who get injured end up working harder than the guys who are playing because when they come back, they’re going to be better than they were before the injury. But getting that through your head when you’ve been playing well, is tough.
I remember when Henry (Slade) was playing incredibly well and then he broke his leg. That was a really tough situation for him but, with focus, he got through it and came back even better.
What was the toughest injury that you’ve come back from?
I had a knee injury in the first year of the Prem; I was about 8 – 12 weeks out. At the time, because we were just in the Prem and it was all brand new, all I wanted to do was play. It’s hard when you have to step aside because you know you’re not coming straight back in. You know you’ve got the rehab process, but you give yourself little targets and challenges along the way.
I like to challenge myself in different ways during kicking sessions. I have little things that I play around with in my head; you’ve got to try and do that whenever you go to rehab. You’ve got to have different challenges that keep you going and when you hit that target you give yourself another one. I know I wanted to lift x amount in the gym before I came back playing. When I hit that target I felt that I’d achieved something and then it’s on to the next challenge.
You have to put a positive spin on everything. And it’s the small steps; you can’t jump too far too quickly; you have to celebrate and acknowledge the small wins.
We wish Steeno a fantastic testimonial year and a hugely successful season. He’s got a packed year of events, including a pretty awesome Celtic night coming up in November. You can check them all out through the link on our website.
Go follow Steeno on Twitter @Steeno10