STUART HOGG has explained how he has taken extra care of his body and mind in recent months, to shake off the physical and psychological strain of a turbulent year and a half bouncing between Exeter Chiefs, Scotland and Lions duty with barely a chance to draw breath.
The 29-year-old had to cope with the disappointment of being dropped by the Chiefs for their Premiership play-off semi-final and final matches at the tail-end of last season. In Scotland colours, he has adapted well to the demands of captaincy, but there is inevitably extra pressure and scrutiny which comes with that. Meanwhile, being left out of the side for the third Lions versus South Africa Test last summer was a major blow.
All in all, it has been a roller-coaster ride, and Hogg is open about the fact he has struggled at times. However, having been given an extra fortnight off by Rob Baxter – Director of Rugby at Exeter – after the Lions tour, and having made a conscious decision to take better care of himself, the full-back is confident that he is ready to “rock and roll” again for Scotland.
“After we came back from the Lions tour, I had the compulsory two-week isolation and when I got back from that I started training again for the new season, but I just felt I was physically and mentally drained after we’d had a season and a half put into a year, with a lot of rugby played and a lot of challenges along the way,” explained Hogg. “So, Rob Baxter and the rest of the [coaching] team at Exeter gave me an extra couple of weeks off, and I was extremely grateful for that.
“It was massive because I got to spend more time with my wife and kids who had not been around all summer. After that, I felt refreshed and energised and I have really enjoyed my rugby over the past few weeks. I have played four games for Exeter this season and absolutely loved it. I had a good holiday and worked incredibly hard to get back into shape. I’ve made a few subtle changes and I am ready to rock and roll.”
“I managed to drop a few kilos in weight, roughly about five kilos, and I have looked after my body a lot better over these past couple of months, just trying to get myself in the best possible place physically and mentally to go out there and perform.”
Hogg added that Scotland’s ‘wellbeing’ coach Ben Scott has been a big influence in helping make small – “one percenter” – changes to his approach to life, which can have a huge difference to performance.
“He’s worked wonders with individuals and with us as a team,” said the player. “We’re learning all the time about the different things that help us with our mindset and mental health. It’s something that more and more boys are tapping into.
“For me, it’s been a massive difference since the Lions tour. I was struggling with how the back end of last season finished – dropped by the Chiefs for the semi-final and the final and then wasn’t selected for the third Lions Test match. That’s something that really hurt me personally and I wanted to add the one percenters to make the difference and not go back to those mindsets that I was in back then.
“I wanted to be in a position to look after myself, to plan my weekly schedules every single week to allow time for family, a bit of me time, and ultimately to perform at the weekend because that’s what I’m judged on.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned over the last little while is that you’ve got to look after your body, and I’ve done that for a number of years, but more so now that the games are coming thick and fast.
“I want to be in a position to play in every single game I can. In order to do that it’s all about the preparation.
“I got to the stage at the back end of last season after playing so much rugby that my body was affecting my mood. If I was stiff and sore it was affecting the way I was going around my work. For everybody who knows me, I’m quite a happy and lively person, and I want to be like that every single day. I don’t want to be up and down like a yo-yo, so I’m trying my best to look after my body because I know that’s going to look after me on the weekends.
“The message we’ve been picking up is that the best person brings out the best player. There’s a quote we were told that ‘performance is 90 percent mental health’ which is hugely exciting as we can tap into that more and more.
“What I’ve learned working with Ben is that the brain is a wonderful thing. I’m really looking forward to working with Ben for a number of years to come.”
Hogg also paid tribute to the influence of England and Harlequins prop Joe Marler, who released a documentary earlier this year in which he opened up about his mental health struggles.
“It’s something I’ve probably been shying away from or hiding from for a little while, but I’ve gained a huge amount of confidence from people standing up and speaking out,” he said. “People like Joe Marler. I watched a documentary about him towards the back end of last season and after they beat us in the [Premiership] Final with Quins I said to him I could relate to 90 per cent of the things that he was going through.
“I found it really quite refreshing that somebody else … I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t in my own little bubble, there was somebody else going through very, very similar things. I had a good conversation with him after the game for a couple of minutes which made the world of difference.”
Hogg won’t be involved in Saturday’s match against Tonga as it has been arranged outside the international window but, all being well, he will be back to lead the side in their three subsequent Autumn Test matches against Australia, South Africa and Japan.
The team to face Tonga, which will consist of players who are not attached to English or French clubs, will be named tomorrow [Wednesday].