“I knew I would never play rugby again” – Jonny Wilkinson
This is an unusual way to start any feature: with a confession. We’d originally set up an interview with Jonny Wilkinson for our Masterclass page, hoping England’s greatest-ever rugby star would share his tips on sporting excellence. When we spoke with Wilko, things immediately took a different turn.
The 39-year-old from Frimley, Surrey, opened up about his relationship with stress and anxiety, and explained how ‘resistance’ has always been part of his life. And yet, Jonny pointed to a brighter future attainable through open and honest communication (and kombucha).
We kicked off with a question about how he always seems so grounded, and his response set the tone for what proved a very special conversation.
“When I was younger, as much as I may have seemed grounded, I was stressing and suffering and struggling before games,” he says. “My values came from being the best, which was telling other people they weren’t as good as me. All these things like competition and comparison made me hugely judgemental. Even when I was in interviews I wanted to be the most modest, most humble guy, which essentially is quite ironic.”
THE CURTAIN COMES DOWN
Not even victory brought serenity. Most sportspeople take enormous satisfaction in the trophies they win, the tangible fruits of the marriage between labour and excellence. Yet Jonny found the experience utterly hollow.
“I’d won the World Cup and other trophies, and achieved all these things. Once I arrived at those spaces where I figured the Hollywood happy ending was, there was nothing there.”
To any onlooker, it seemed Jonny achieved the perfect ending thanks to two spine-tingling, back-to-back Heineken Cup triumphs with Toulon in 2013 and 2014 before retirement. But nothing could be further from the truth. “I’d love to say it was all open space and exploring life, but when it came to the last two games of my career, I knew I’d never play rugby again.
“I was someone who’d designed themselves as a perfectionist for most of my career; I then had two chances to leave a mark and a legacy, which was what I was so into at that age; it couldn’t matter more.
“I was having to go on to that field with no control over what was about to happen, so the anxiety was incredible at that stage.”
JOIN THE RESISTANCE
Sport didn’t make Jonny feel like this. Life did. Put simply, it’s how he’s wired. He says: “It was always a mental health journey in that throughout my entire life, and from being very young, I just experienced enormous resistance to certain things, at times what seemed like an inescapable resistance to certain situations.
“My whole journey, at that stage, became one superhuman effort to overcome the resistance, which was just to create more of it
“I took on the biggest questions alive and I wanted to beat them. It was a nice effort, but I was going in the opposite direction. By trying to overcome the resistance I was only sort of creating steeper mountains, which just seemed even more insurmountable.
“At some point you stop trying to climb out of these ever-deeper holes and you realise that actually the black hole is taking you so close to the core of everything, if you’re willing just to look in the other direction which is a little bit deeper.”
However, he acknowledges that game-time brought serenity. “Between those whistles is probably one of the most spiritual experiences you can have because for the most part, when the action heats up, you lose yourself completely; you become the game itself.”
TASTE OF SUCCESS
Often when a ‘brand ambassador’ talks about a product they’re promoting, it can be quite the turn-off. But, in the case of Wilkinson, it seems No1 Kombucha – a company he co-owns – has granted him something approaching peace. Studying, creating and learning all about the fermented drink has clearly been a journey. “My wife has been working on a Masters in nutrition and worked in naturopathy, so we started making kombucha at home as a fermented, living, unpasteurised drink.
“It became a case of us integrating it into our lifestyle to see whether physically it works with me, or creates resistance and works against me. One thing I found out immediately was it had a boosting and a very flowing effect with me and the way I wanted to live.”
“My experience, from a physical perspective, is that there’s more ease and effortlessness. I don’t have any internal stress from this; when I’m moving at ease, flowing and effortless, there’s no stop-start to my life. It aids me in what I describe as a kind of gentle acceleration on growth from the start of the day to the end of the day.
“There are no peaks where you feel oh-my-god amazing, followed by massive downs. That harmony is what underpins the physical health and certainly ventures into mental health as well.”
Jonny would love for us all to use mental health as a conversational jumping-off point as a means of getting to know each other better. Instead of talking about which bands or films you like, Jonny says, “Go for something else to find in common: go to anxiety, go to stress, to struggle, go to regret, whatever it is.
“We’re all trying to connect with each other on the basis of what we all share, what we’re all great and amazing at, but that’s the stuff that we’re most anxious about!
“If you start with opening up on that level then you’ll find you can connect with anyone in any way. You may not have experienced winning a World Cup, but it doesn’t matter. That’s just context.
“You’ve experienced, I’m sure, in so many ways the things that you’re excited about, and hugely pleased about and then, maybe after, you’ve experienced the immediate gentle emptiness that follows. You realise that arriving is not the goal, there is no destination, and that’s what causes the issue.
“Then suddenly you think that maybe the journey was more important. Share that. You’re on the same team as everyone, so why would you hide something that would connect you to everyone else around you?
“Even if they’re hiding theirs, when you’re speaking to them they’ll be dying to tell you how they relate and how they connect.”
Jonny Wilkinson’s No1 Kombucha is available exclusively in Sainsbury’s. For more information, visit no1kombucha.com