We continue to travel along with David, and this week we accompany him back to Europe, let’ s see what rugby has been like like for David in la douce France.
The plan for my 2nd year at the WPRA was that I was going to go from January to May, and then try get a contract with a European club to start the season from August.
This was the first time I had something to do with the business side of rugby. The highlights videos, the agents, the contract negotiations, all of this was very new to me. Luckily the WPRA was working together with some agents. We got news that there was a French Fed 3 club (5th division), called Saint Claude, that was interested in having me.
Initially my thoughts were: ‘Fed 3? Man, that is a bit lower than what I was aiming for.’ But, I am not an unrealistic man, and I know that as a new, Dutch guy in a new environment it’s normal that you have to prove yourself first. Start from the bottom. I agreed on the deal.
Not even a week after I pre-signed the St Claude contract however, in my farewell game for NNK, someone dived in on the side of my knee and I heard a pop. I couldn’t believe it. It was about 3,5 months before I was going to start at Saint Claude. The South African diagnosis was that I had to undergo surgery and that it would take about 4-5 months to recover, so that was extremely disappointing to hear. We went for a 2nd opinion to a knee specialist in Holland, who was also connected to the RAZW, and luckily he was seeing a different recovery possibility: no surgery, but lots of strengthening on all the surrounding muscles, and that was going to cut down the recovery to about 3 months. Wow. This was still going to be tight but at least it sounded a lot more positive than the 4-5 months. I started the rehab with B&B Healthcare who helped me tremendously (and still do to this day) with my recovery and training, and with no time to spare they succeeded in bringing me back strong and fit to start my first season in France.
Living in a Bubble
Before officially signing the contract I visited St. Claude with both my parents, which was quite comforting. I couldn’t speak any French yet, but my dad has played a season in France and was still able to speak a few words. On top of that he has the indispensable ‘dad-confidence’ when it comes to languages, so he was able to do most of conversations and bond nicely with everyone. All that while talking maybe 40% real French, and making up 60% of the other words. Dad Confidence.
For the first 6 months I could not communicate with anyone except 3 other foreign players in our team. I was having pretty intense French classes but it just took such a long time to get the sufficient knowledge to speak and understand people, and to obtain the confidence to actually talk without caring about your mistakes (Dad-confidence?).
Once I was able to communicate though I met some really special people there, and looking back to it I’m happy that St Claude was my introduction into France.
I obviously would’ve liked to enter at a higher level, but this allowed me to learn the language with a little less pressure, and get used to it at my own pace while having to be the general of the team.
Making an Impact
I was determined to make as big an impact as possible, so that I hopefully would be able to earn myself a contract in one of the higher leagues. The team only had 3 trainings a week, but I made sure I trained 2 or 3 times a day consistently. Gym in the morning, then go to the field for a kicking and/or conditioning session, having a bit of a break and then either go to club-training or do another conditioning or gym session, depending on the day. I then got taught an unexpected lesson when it came to my way of training. I am a big believer of ‘working when nobody is watching’. I don’t like posting trainings on Social Media or telling people about the sessions you’ve done that day, because I don’t think that’s the right motivation to have. In St Claude that’s exactly how I went about my business as well.
So by the time most guys started their (training) week on the Tuesday evening, I had already done 5 or 6 sessions. Therefore there were times when we were doing a (typically French) warm up with the club, that mostly consisted of running 4 very slow laps around the field, followed by 50 push ups and sit ups, I maybe did 30, or I did a few actual exercises on my own because these warm ups were doing nothing to me. It made sense, because now I would be properly warmed up, and when the actual training began I was completely focussed. But after a while I heard people saying things like: ‘Man, we got this contracted player who’s supposed to be the star, but he can’t even do 40 push ups, and he’s always running behind in the warm up runs.’ I was like: ‘What?! Are you kidding me? I have been working my ass off this whole time, making sure I do everything I can to respect this contract, and then you guys say I’m lazy??’ To which their reply was: ‘Well, we don’t see you do all of those trainings, we only see what you do at night during our trainings!’ That was a huge eye opener. As one of the few contracted players in that club is was crucial for me to not only work my ass off, but also shów them that I worked my ass off.
My first (friendly) game for St Claude ended up being great, with me scoring 19 points including 2 tries, the actual league games were more difficult at the start. It took me a while to be able to command the troops in French, and for the team to get used to me. Once we started gelling it actually became a great season for the club. We made the play offs for the first time in 7 years , and I ended up scoring a lot of points in the season.
I also got the call up for the Netherlands XV in this year, and made my debut in November 2016. One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Europe was to have a shot at playing for NL. I had always enjoyed playing with the youth selections, and I was hoping that it could become a similar experience to play for the Men’s side. Having said that, I had no idea what to expect. The last thing I heard was that the NL was still one big touring-party, acting far from professional and never really reaching its potential.
I knew Gareth Gilbert had taken over and he put a big emphasis on professionalism and pride in the jersey, but I had no idea if that was actually going as planned. It was therefore a massive relief and positive surprise when I arrived to see that trainings were fully planned out, and there were lots of players who were motivated to get better. On top of that, Amir Rademaker for example immediately came to me to explain the backs moves, and people like Sep Visser extended a helping hand to make me feel at ease. It was the exact opposite of those horror stories that were still echoing in my mind.
I ended up being Top European Points scorer in my debut season, and most importantly I re-established my passion for the National Team, of which I wasn’t sure if it was present.
Saint Claude was the first time I started working with a Sport Psychologist. I tried to change my kicking routine to a more consistent one, but that was such a long process where for a long time I forgot how to do my ‘old’ way, but I hadn’t gotten used to the new routine enough yet for it to be effective, so I was in a huge grey-zone where I wasn’t hitting anything well. It created a lot of mental problems because I was still the kicker in every game, but I had no confidence whatsoever. That I was having these problems already in Federale 3 made me really conscious of the fact that this was a problem I needed to fix as quick as possible. If I want to play at the highest level I can play at, this was something that’s only holding me back.
That’s when I got in touch with Petra from Tough Minds. Immediately I had a good connection with her, and we were able to have regular Skype meetings while I was in France to keep working on it. The exercises and methods she introduced to me were literally mind-blowing at times, and purely the fact of realising that I wasn’t just a ‘freak situation’ made me feel super relieved and motivated. Now I not only knew I would be able to fix it, Petra was showing me exactly hów to fix it. Especially the visualisation exercises had a big impact on my game, since I found out I was mostly thinking in negative doom-scenarios, instead of positively picturing me executing the thing ‘perfectly’.
I could choose to be my own best friend, or my own best enemy.
After a good season I managed to jump up to Federale 1, at SC Graulhet. Federale 1 was a big goal for me. It’s the last Amateur level before going Pro, but that means the top teams in that league are basically pro and the level of players is incredible. I was high on confidence because of the season I had at St. Claude, and I was feeling good physically. In the first couple of months I established myself as a part of the team as a starting nr 10, and was feeling comfortable at this level.
Unfortunately 3 games into the season I tore ligaments in my ankle which put me out for about 1,5 months. I came back 2 games before International duty and with a heavily strapped ankle I was able to play the club games without any major problems. But in the first 15 minutes of our NL game against Moldova, one of their players fell on the ankle again while my studs were firmly planted in the floor, so I messed it up again…. out for another 2 months. Man oh Man.
Injuries weren’t the only problem though, as we were losing almost every game of the season. It was tough mentally, to be part of a team that was losing most games for consecutive seasons, as it kind of became an ‘expectation’ to lose. I don’t know if it’s really explainable, but the fact is that losing can unfortunately be as much of a habit as winning can be. There are times that you are fully competitive in games around the 65th minute, but you have the sensation that it’s just a matter of time before something or someone is going to lose you guys the game. You don’t know who, and you don’t know when, but you feel like it’s a going to happen.
Not a great environment to come back into after a long injury. I was desperate of playing and getting some rhythm back. Gaining confidence and then helping the team as well as I could. But now I was expected to change the team straight after being out for 3,5 months, and every mistake I made people were shouting negative comments, or just dropping their heads straight away. That was incredibly tough as now I was starting to become so afraid of making mistakes, that didn’t try anything anymore. I found myself starting to make negative comments or shouting at people whenever they made mistakes just because of the pressure I felt I was under. On the field it became really toxic and it made me hate going to training, because I knew it was going to be a shit show again. That’s why I needed to get out of there.
It was such a shame because I loved the town, and I really had a great bond with players off the field. We had dinners and watched rugby together, or went to the Pyrenees for a free weekend, they really helped me enjoy life off the field while I was there. A really difficult decision, as I knew it would disappoint a lot of people.
The other part that made it more difficult was that, since we lost a lot of games and I didn’t have a good season myself, it wasn’t exactly like clubs were lining up to sign me. That meant that my only choices were basically staying at Graulhet, or stepping down a level. I decided that the most important thing for me was to change environment. I needed a fresh breath of air, regain my enjoyment in Rugby. That meant stepping down a level to Fed 2 to hopefully put two steps forward again the season after.
The off season was incredibly stressful because of all the decisions I had to make. Through the lack of opportunities and offers I received, I eventually only knew end of July where I was going to play mid-August.
My new destination was Bourges XV, a club with a seemingly ambitious strategy. Besides, it wasn’t like there was a lot of other choices available, so this was going to have to do.
I was really well received by the club, and the staff had been helpful from the start so that helped a lot to make me settle in nicely. I felt incredibly well physically, because since the end of March I had been training with 1 goal in mind: to make sure this step back was going to result in two steps forward. It had to.
That’s why I had the most insane Off-Season, led by the notorious Frank van der Meer, from B&B Healthcare. I trained gym 5 days a week, had 3 running conditioning sessions (tempo’s, 400m, intervals, 3kms, all that jazz), I kicked at least 4 times a week, and on top of that I joined an athletics group to work on my running technique. All in my Summer Holidays.
When I arrived in Bourges, I kept that schedule for our Pre-Season, but linked it with an intense diet to lose a bit of weight and theoretically play the first game of the season looking like a Greek Sculpture. But then my body starting giving me a bit of feedback. Things suddenly started squeaking and within weeks I was getting niggles in multiple muscles. Looking back on it I was of course heavily calorie-depleted, and I wasn’t resting enough.
I have found out over the years that it’s not over-training that’s the problem, it’s under-resting and under-eating. I was so focussed on doing everything right, that I eventually ended up doing everything wrong. I counted all my calories and micronutrients, but I ate too little. I logged all my training sessions and had constant contact with Frank to improve technique, but I never rested. I did ALL the boring recovery sessions perfectly, but too many of them. So even though it certainly didn’t feel like training, it definitely was not recovery.
Being in this constant state of depletion and not listening to my body ended up causing a massive overtraining injury in my groin, which eventually took more than 9 months before I was able to play again. I played through it in the first couple of months, but after a while I wasn’t able to move normally without lots of painkillers. I knew I wasn’t able to continue like this for much longer. It was incredibly disappointing to receive the news that my season was finished.
As I said, my biggest motivation this season was to have an amazing season and earn myself a bigger contract, but now it ended up being a huge let-down season once again. And the worst thing: it was all my own fault. I had been self-sabotaging myself when I wanted to do the exact opposite.
I knew this was going to be a massive lesson for the future if I decided to pay attention. I could’ve put it all down to bad luck and other factors, but then I would have nothing stopping me to do it again.
Doing it once was a mistake. A very long, painful mistake, but a mistake. Doing it twice would be the stupidest thing in the history of things.
Going Back Home.
I decided to cut my contract short and go back to Holland for the recovery process. I had been put in touch with a Groin-specialist (Roald Otten) in Amsterdam and besides that, it was going to be a lot more comfortable doing this at home in my home language.
Thankfully Bourges was supportive in this whole situation so fortunately it did not create any further problems.
During this long period of recovery it luckily wasn’t just all negative, as I was able to explore some of my other interests. I ended up meeting a bass-player in Bourges, who I ended up playing a lot of gigs with, and I was able to go as an Assistant Coach of the U20 NL side for their European Championship in Portugal.
This was a massive opportunity for me to get some experience in this area. I had been coached by all the coaches on this team, and therefore it was really cool to witness them work from the ‘other side of the fence’. What made it even more special was that my little brother Robin was playing in this team. It was special to see him as a leader and integral member of the team.
Funnily enough it is at this tournament where I started working towards my destination for next season…