Tadhg Kennelly: How male connection has a powerful domino effect

Too many men find it difficult to admit when they’re struggling. Former AFL player Tadhg Kennelly wants to change that.

After his retirement from AFL football, former Sydney Swans defender Tadhg Kennelly was in a dark place.

The premiership-winning Irishman had lost his job as an assistant coach of the Swans when covid hit, and the impact left him struggling mentally.

“My ego took a hit,” Tadgh tells The House of Wellness TV host Zoe Bingley-Pullin.

“I didn’t want to go outside the front door of the house – it led me to a pretty dark place mentally.

“It was very challenging for my wife and my kids.”

How the helping hand of a mate helped Tadhg Kennelly get back on his feet

The support and persistence of good friend and fellow Irishman David Eccles helped Tadgh start working through his challenges and rediscover positivity in his life.

“I could see Tadhg was going through some challenges – as was I,” David recounts.

“It was more just to reach out to a friend, and say, ‘Should we go down to the beach, do a little bit of training, have a coffee, and continue the conversation’.”

Though Tadhg initially resisted the invitation, David eventually persuaded him to join him one morning.

“In the end (David) just basically knocked on the door and dragged me out,” Tadgh says.

“So we went for a walk and had a coffee, and he said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’”

Tadgh’s experience with mental health struggles and the transformative effect of a supportive friend inspired him, along with David, to start WNOW – a social support group helping men to connect with one another through conversation and exercise.

“The program started from (the notion), if I’m feeling like this, the shift in me mentally from just having a chat and doing some exercise… I said, ‘OK, next week, you invite someone and I’ll invite someone, and it just grew organically’,” Tadgh says.

What is Tadhg Kennelly’s WNOW?

WNOW – an acronym for When No One is Watching – is an avenue for men to get together and connect with one another.

Tadhg, who is now head coach of the GWS Giants Academy, believes it’s something men do not do enough.

“We (men) are just not great at sharing,” Tadhg says.

Tadgh believes creating a safe and supportive space for men to get together and exercise their body and mind can help improve their sense of belonging and feelings of wellbeing.

“We feed them the broccoli without them understanding they’re eating the broccoli,” he says.

“What I mean is we do exercise and they feel good.

“Obviously we know the results of doing exercise and how good it is for your mental state – but (what we’re doing) is so simple – come down, do some exercise, get in the water have a coffee over a chat. That’s it.

“We always do the ‘purpose’ – we do 60 push-ups for the 60 men who commit suicide around the world every hour, and we talk about it, but it’s the connecting piece – having the coffee, and the stories and the shares that you get from men that are really driving me and David.”

David says men have traditionally been raised to not show their feelings, but hopes sports heroes like Tadhg showing their vulnerabilities will help more men start to feel more comfortable to do the same.

“We idolise the sports men on our TV screens, and we see them as being bulletproof and faultless,” David says.

“When somebody like Tadhg comes down and openly shares his story about what he’s going through in life – positive and negative, and just the everyday struggles and joys of life – that gives everybody else permission to speak.

“It just takes a few brave men to stand up and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to be vulnerable, and share my story’.

“That resonates with somebody else and then it’s like a domino effect.”

Why organisations like WNOW are important

Around 43 per cent of men experience a mental disorder at some point in their life, while men account for more than 75 per cent of deaths by suicide in Australia.

By creating a community of men who can connect through exercise and honest conversation, WNOW aims to breakdown unhealthy stereotypes about masculinity.

It was important to David and Tadhg when creating WNOW to make it free and open to any man to experience.

“The concerning bit for me with mental health is there’s not a whole lot going on in the coal face that’s free and available for anyone in the country to come and do,” he says.

“Mental health doesn’t discriminate, whether you’re a CEO or whatever you are. It doesn’t matter, come down.”

For more on men’s mental health support:

Written by Claire Burke.