For the past seven years, 70 of the 75 players who have been selected for New Zealand’s senior men’s rugby league team were of Māori or Pasifika heritage. About 42% of the National Rugby League’s player base is Pasifika.
The start of the inaugural Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) Oceania Cup last month further highlights the contribution Indigenous and Pasifika communities make to the game. The Oceania Cup allowed Māori and Pasifika players to showcase their footy skills and represent their cultural heritage on a global stage, outside of the world cup competition.
Given the continued contribution Indigenous and Pasifika communities make to the growth of rugby league in particular, we need to use processes and practices that resonate with the diverse player base.
Player development ignores culture
The Oceania Cup is a long overdue move. It reflects the impact of the decision several prominent Pasifika rugby league players made at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup to turn down the opportunity to represent a top-tier nation like New Zealand and Australia. Instead they chose to represent the country of their heritage. Since then, more Pasifika players have followed suit.
The pathway towards a professional sporting career is typically shaped by four key aspects: physical, technical, tactical and psychosocial. Despite the significant contribution of our Indigenous communities, existing talent development research fails to acknowledge cultural nuances that are critical to the preparation and performance of Māori or Pasifika athletes.
Research highlights the critical role the psychosocial aspect plays in facilitating longevity and success for a professional sportsperson. For many teenage Māori and Pasifika athletes, this can be more arduous than the physical aspect.
So far, the psychosocial aspect of talent development has been discussed from a Western perspective, which focuses on the achievements of the individual. In my research, I challenge this with an approach that more appropriately reflects the Māori and Pasifika talent of rugby league.
A significant finding was the importance and value of relationships with other people, including family and mentors. My research suggests that key relationships are those that are anchored by trust and create an energy that helps junior players to process mentally trying times they may experience during training. When viewed through a Māori and Pasifika lens, psychosocial training is (re)defined as the inter-connectedness of relationships, trust and energy.
Authors: Sierra Keung, Kaiako - Sport & Recreation, Auckland University of Technology