WARRINGTON, United Kingdom, Jan 30 – For many fans the referee is a pantomime villain and fair game for abuse but former Super League official Ian Smith has spoken of the huge toll constant criticism had on his mental wellbeing.
The 52-year-old told AFP a culmination of many years of taking flak from fans and then leaving the Rugby Football League (RFL) after almost two decades meant he hit rock bottom in 2016.
But Smith turned the corner with the help of the Offload project, sharing his experiences with other men in an effort to improve mental health in the northwest of England — a role he says has given him a new identity.
He says being a referee — despite having his two touch-judges alongside him — was a lonely role, although during a match he would not have the time to register the abuse.
“Fans are just passionate and desperate for their team to win,” Smith says. “We are the pantomime baddy aren’t we?
“They become blinkered when the decisions don’t go their way so that amount of negativity, and when people constantly tell you you are poor and some of the language can be choice it chips away at your mental wellbeing.”
The frank and engaging Smith says his post-match assessments of his performances would affect weekends spent with his long-time girlfriend and sometimes he would not want to leave the house.
“That stress becomes a little bit more, you become more anxious and six months into a season you realise emotionally and mentally you aren’t in a very good place.”
Smith did not confide in his colleagues as he felt that would reveal a weakness and they might wish to benefit by taking a big game from him. He says the fans do not register there is a human being wearing the referee’s shirt.
“A lot of people you have contact with afterwards and at social events say ‘my word that Ian Smith, he is actually a good bloke’.
“The shirt is the facade and it is the shirt they are shouting at, not necessarily at the person behind it.
“However, there is a person behind that facade and if he is not mentally strong and has fallible points it is hard for him to get over sometimes.”
– ’10 feet tall’ –
Smith says after he had cut ties with the RFL he felt he had lost his identity — it was not just a job but “a vocation, a love”, and he put on a brave face to his girlfriend and his daughter from a previous marriage.
“I had no reason to get up in the morning,” he says. “It was my life and there was a void that I just couldn’t fill with any sort of other work.
“I would have loads of masks so when she (his girlfriend) came home from work I had been an emotional wreck a lot of the day trying to find work I didn’t really want to do.
“However, half an hour before she came back I would say ‘right, come on, put happy mask on, yeah, yeah everything is fine’ when it really wasn’t.”
Their relationship has survived — when he hit a wall in July 2016 he came clean to both her and his daughter and his life changed for the better once he heard about the Offload project.
Offload is a men’s mental fitness project involving a number of rugby league clubs — Salford Red Devils, Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings — and charity Rugby League Cares, delivered by former players and officials at the clubs’ stadiums.
The content is devised by the State of Mind Sport charity.
“I was advised ‘just tell your story — there are like-minded men on it who have all got their own back stories and some of which might resonate’,” says Smith.
– ‘Bullying’ –
“The trigger of emotional bullying and negativity — people in all walks of life and industries can feel that and when I told my story people would say ‘yeah that happened to me in the factory or workplace’.
“Every time I tell my story and get feedback from the guys feels like my own therapy class, makes me feel 10 feet tall, gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
Smith revelled in the role of facilitator at last week’s Offload fixture — which attracted around 50 attendees — mixing humour with emotion and acting as the catalyst for some lively discussion.
“When I left the RFL my identity had gone. Now I have a new identity and I am a presenter for Offload and State of Mind,” he says.
“I have so much more to give and I can’t wait to continue this journey.”