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Maro Itoje On The Mental Pressure In Sports, And His Ambitions Beyond The Rugby Pitch

Performance in sports is as much a mental game as a physical one, with a lot of pressure attached – especially when it feels like the whole world is watching and pinning their hopes on a win.

With the Guinness Six Nations 2022 in full swing, for England forward Maro Itoje and his teammates right now the spotlight is firmly on the field. But how does Itoje manage the pressure and find ways to unwind?

“I unwind through switching off from rugby, connecting with some of my other interests and passions. I always think it’s important to try and lead a relatively balanced life, where you have a few things that you’re interested in and you can tap into them when you need,” says the 27-year-old.

“That’s important for me. I think it’s important to maintain – or at least try and maintain – the relationships I have outside of the game.”

Maro Itoje during the EPCR Challenge Cup at the StoneX Stadium in January
Maro Itoje during the EPCR Challenge Cup at the StoneX Stadium in January (David Davies/PA)

Itoje, who was born in North London’s Camden to Nigerian parents, fell in love with sports early. Introduced to rugby aged 11, his talent for the game was more or less instant and he was soon spotted by a Saracens Academy coach. He captained the England under-20s to victory in 2014 before earning his first cap for England at 21. One of rugby’s brightest stars, his rise in the game is often described as meteoric – but he’s determined to keep a sense of perspective.

“With sport, especially a sport which is so black and white like rugby, where you either win or you lose, I think it’s important to try and keep a relatively level mental state, and by that I mean it’s not full of the peaks and troughs of victory and loss. It’s important to try and keep control of how you feel, and you don’t want to be dictated on how you feel by the result of the game,” Itoje explains.

“It goes without question that when you win, you’re happy, and when you lose, you’re sad – but you don’t want to go into the darkest depths of the earth when you lose, and equally when you win, you don’t want to be as high as Mount Everest, because it just creates a life that is very up and down.

Especially if you play sport for a long time. You are going to want to win, and as much as possible you’ll want to avoid losing. But most people do face defeat at some point in their lives, so it’s about trying to maintain a healthy state of mind.”

So, what are those ‘other interests and passions’ he turns to? It would be easy to think that somebody at the top of the game, bringing such stellar performances to the field wouldn’t have room for much else. But that is definitely not the case.

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten into art, African art in particular,” Itoje shares. “I’m a big fan and advocate of African art, so that’s been a passion point of mine. I’m currently studying as well, doing a Masters in business, which is taking up a lot of time.

I’m actually not devoting enough time to it at the moment,” he adds with a laugh, “but I will get back on it. I love history, I’m interested in politics. And I just like chilling out like normal people, spending time with friends, going to watch theatre shows from time to time. And I love a good documentary.”

Studying business is “all part of the preparation for retirement” and Itoje says he has a few ideas of where he might take this in the future: “All in due course. But I would like to get more heavily invested in art, get into that space.”

Right now, he’s supporting Guinness’ ongoing #neversettle campaign, which aims to help promote diversity and inclusivity in rugby, as well as making spaces linked with the sport – including stadiums, pubs and on Twitter – safe and welcoming.

“Guinness are essentially trying to give light and give shine to areas that haven’t really had the shine they should have had and deserve to have,” says Itoje. “Particularly with the women’s game, they’re trying to bring attention to that, and areas of diversity and inclusion.”

A big focus has been tackling hate and abuse on Twitter. How does Itoje handle social media in his own life?

“I think social media is probably the biggest drug since heroin,” he observes. “I think it’s important from time to time if any individual does feel overwhelmed through whatever they consume on socials, it’s for them to take a break or take a step back, limit or control what they consume. It’s definitely been a learning curve,” he adds.

“It’s understanding that social media can be a vehicle for a lot of good, and I think a lot of good does happen on social media, but it can also be a very damaging vehicle if it’s not used in moderation.”

Again, for Itoje, it all harks back to keeping that sense of perspective.

“To a certain extent, you have to take the rough with the smooth. When people say negative things about you, you can’t – or you shouldn’t, in my opinion – take it to heart.

Equally, when people say positive things about you, you also need to take it with a pinch of salt. Whether you’re perceived to be succeeding or failing or whatever, it’s important to keep that balanced state of mind.”

Maro Itoje was speaking on behalf of Guinness alongside teammates Ellis Genge and Joe Launchbury.

Guinness is working with its partners to make sure rugby is inclusive and welcoming for everyone. To find out more, visit www.guinness.com/neversettle (#neversettle)