Liz Connor speaks to former England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson about life off the pitch

JONNY Wilkinson became a sporting legend 2003 when he delivered a heart-stopping drop-kick that won England the Rugby World Cup. But behind the scenes, the former fly half was battling with anxiety that consumed him with panic and debilitating nerves.

Four years on from his retirement, Wilkinson says that he's now happier than ever, having found time to fuel his passion projects; setting up a new range of health drinks called No1 Kombucha and starting his own mental health foundation. He tells Weekend about fighting his mental demons, the negative side to being a sportsman and how his life has changed since hanging up his boots.

Kombucha is really big news in the world of wellbeing - what inspired you to make your own drink?

"My wife's training to be a nutritionist and I was also at a stage of investigating different ways of working with the body. We wanted to understand, at a deeper level, the machine that is the body - both mentally and physically. Kombucha's an amazing product. It's great for gut health because of the bacterial element which looks after the gut, but then there's also lots of research into the gut-brain connection, which can affect your mental health. The antioxidants mean that it has an anti-inflammatory effect, and it's also good for liver, heart and lungs too."

Are there any other wellness trends that you're into at the moment?

"Diet nutrition is a huge one - caring about your food, caring about what you drink and having a relationship with the planet that you're eating from. I lived a long time treating the body as my machine, where I told it to do whatever I wanted it to do, plying it with protein every time I could and just shoving fuel into it. You do pay a price for that.

"I'm now understanding it as the most incredible machine there is on the planet, that will never, ever be equalled by anything we can create - I'm listening to it and seeing how it works."

Do you still find time to workout ?

"Yes, I'm constantly training and enjoying it. I still like a challenge and have the odd competition with myself when it comes to training hard, but I'm not a rugby player. I'm not going out there at the weekend, so I don't have a reason to be thrashing my body anymore. You end up asking yourself why you're doing it. My big turnaround has been that I'm understanding now that health is so much more powerful than fitness. If you start with fitness and then try to draw some health out of it, you're so limited, whereas if you start with health and try to build some fitness within it, it's endless. "

You've opened up about struggling with mental health in the past. Was it a relief to tell people you were battling with anxiety issues?

"When I was struggling with mental health, I wanted to know where I was going with it. I was never going to be happy saying, 'I'm suffering deeply' and for someone to say, 'OK well we can help you to cope with this for the rest of your life'. I didn't want to cope. That's not really the bright light at the end of the tunnel - it was just a slightly brighter state than I was in. Talking about it, for me, was the start of it. You look at guys that play rugby and everyone's happy to go to the pub and talk about where they got a black eye, why they've got so many bumps and bruises and what a great game they played, but it's the same thing with the mind. If someone's got a bad ankle, they can't run on it. If you've got a mind that's not quite functioning with you, then you can't run on it either. Talking about it is just the start, but it goes somewhere after that."

What particularly helped you to cope?

"I had professional help at the beginning, and it took me a few goes to find the right person - they came in my late 20s. Every time I suffered mental health issues, I managed to find my way out of the hole I'd fallen into, because over time, it passed, or things happened or I had help. I just kept getting back to the path I was on, which was littered with holes. At some point, I made a choice to say, 'I don't want to get back to where I was - I want more'. Suddenly you climb out of that hole. You continue climbing, look down and realise that there was no help, no path and there were no holes. The ladder has gone and this is how life's supposed to be. I'm in the process of starting up a mental health foundation, which is based on the many incredible ways of looking inward for the answer."

Do you think that there's a negative side to being a sportsman that many people don't realise?

"It's not necessarily being a sportsman, rugby is perhaps a sport that influences you to really buy into who you think you are. There seems to be a constant messaging and a subliminal influence around you that's telling you you're important. Sometimes it can create an issue where, when you're being that person in that environment, you're great, but when you take away that environment, such as retirement or unforeseen events like being injured or dropped, suddenly that same identity that was making you feel fabulous is now working against you, to tell you you're nothing.

"I often found myself, metaphorically speaking, wearing that rugby shirt everywhere I went. And it just doesn't work when you're sat at home having dinner with the family, and you've got a dirty sweaty rugby kit on and you're trying to think about the next game, what time training is and whether you get your contract renewed. You have to take the shirt off, which is the hardest bit."

And if you weren't professionally a rugby player, what do you think you would have done with your life?

"Who knows? I wouldn't have thought I'd be saying what I'm saying, and experiencing life the way I'm experiencing it now. I would have thought that I'd play rugby forever - I thought I'd retire in my 60s. My view was that rugby was life, so it's difficult to say. But I think it would have been something active and something competitive... but I know I would have ended up here, no matter what it was. I wanted to be the best at everything when I was younger, and now I'm understanding that I want to be the best at being me."

How do you think your life has changed since you retired from rugby?

"It's interesting. Stepping back from that world has been an incredible opportunity, because I'm enjoying it more and more each day. Since retiring, life's got better and better."