By Cameron Hogwood
Leeds Rhinos star Stevie Ward has moulded himself into an inspiration for others, both on and off the field, over the past nine months.
A serious knee problem saw the 23-year-old endure a torrid period on the sidelines during the 2016 campaign. This was the latest setback of an injury-ridden three years, during which time he also battled with depression.
Ward launched online magazine Mantality in May last year to share his story and provide men with a platform to open up about personal experiences that they may have previously found difficult to discuss.
He has since overcome his hindrances to return to good health mentally and physically, ready to prove himself as an influential figure in the Rhinos setup.
A swing of culture
With Mantality approaching a year since first being launched at First Utility Super League’s Magic Weekend, Ward has reiterated the importance of the message he remains so keen to spread.
In an exclusive interview with Yorkshire Voice, he said: “I feel like there’s been a swing of culture already in how guys are speaking to each other, whether that’s about mental health or any problems at home.”
“People are being most honest about the less glorious sides of themselves which is what I’ve noticed over the past year or so. I love hearing stories, inspiring stories. There never would have been any impetus for me to speak out if I wasn’t confident in the fact that depression is something that happens to a lot of people.”
It has been a gruelling but incredible journey for Ward, who has also seemingly gone some way towards achieving what he set out to do in terms of his own progression.
Before launching the magazine last year, he said: “I’ve had this condensed period of five or six years where I’ve been ultimately high and then stuck in real low moods. I reckon the middle of that can show the honest and gritty approach to how I am going to deal with things. Hopefully I can convey that in the magazine.”
Ward now finds himself working with a positive mindset and is remarkably only one appearance away from equalling his tally of four in 2016 having featured in each of Leeds’ opening three games so far in 2017.
He has reached a physical condition even he has been surprised by and is ready to build on a standout 2015 season, which he finished as the side’s leading tackler.
“Mentally I’m in a really good spot. Physically, I’m feeling strong. I felt really strong away to St Helens and I didn’t think I would be that strong and fit.”
“From so many years of doing it and getting up off the floor and tackling I think it just goes into your muscle memory and once you’re in that situation you just pick it up so I’m pleased I just picked up from where I left off.”
“I want to be one of the best performers in the Leeds team consistently. I feel like it’s time I can crack on and regain some of the form I showed in 2015. I’ve got a determination to just improve and improve.”
The loose forward has recently seen his dedication to Mantality alert him to a new and interesting breathing method that he is now applying to his life as a rugby league star following his return to fitness.
Ward strived to look after his body during his spell out of action, altering and expanding his personal match preparations.
He said: “I do practice the Wim Hof technique, I’ve done it for the last three weeks now. I do it in the morning now and I also do it in the changing room before a game. It does make you feel a bit more fully charged, more ready and excited.”
The Wim Hof technique is a form of meditation designed to raise oxygen and PH levels and creates a “euphoric feeling”, as described by Ward in a recent Mantality article.
— Stevie Ward (@Ste_Ward) February 23, 2017
He added: “Talking physically, I’m a bit smarter with how I prepare so I used to be full on all the time and I used to get every last inch out of training sessions which in the long run probably wasn’t best for my body. I’ve realised that’s not always the best scenario because you can burn out. It’s such a collision sport you can work your body too hard so I’ve kind of learnt a little bit more to take my foot of the gas.”
Ward’s more calculated approach is sure to be one he maintains throughout the season as he looks to stay fit and help Leeds improve on a disappointing ninth-place finish in 2016.
He has refrained from thinking too much about international recognition for the time being, with his sole focus being on success at club level and rediscovering his top form after coming through a testing stage of his career.
It was a happy return to Headingley for Ward and his Rhinos teammates on Friday as they overcame the Salford Red Devils 20-14, to make it two wins out of three in the Super League. The result followed an away 17-14 victory over Leigh Centurions and a 6-4 opening week loss to St Helens.
So far so good for a man doing admirable work away from the pitch, who has conquered his own personal issues.