If we lead with our hearts, they will never walk alone….
What is a 39-year-old Maori woman with an immense passion for helping others and who cares deeply about cultural diversity doing living in Sydney, over 2000km from her homeland?
My husband and I are house parents for a progressive-thinking NRL club and have eight young sportsmen living with us for the 2014 season. We provide a network of support that they wouldn't normally have at home. Quite simply, we are living the dream and wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Our main responsibility is to care for these boys, to set boundaries, and provide good advice and assistance on everything they think is important. We are the 'home away from home' for our multicultural whanau (family), who comprise a mix of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Maori, Samoan, Fijian and Croatian nationalities, all living together as one. Our experiences back in our home town of Papakura, South Auckland, where we previously coached and managed an U20's team of 28 Polynesian, Maori, Indian and Pakeha young men, and being a part of their journeys through sport and life, have helped to shape and prepare us for the nurturing role we're playing today.
What first motivated me to investigate doing a house parent role were the tragic suicides of Mosese Fotuaika and Alex Elisala last year, both young Polynesian men playing in the NRL. These senseless tragedies raised countless questions on how we can understand and protect the welfare of players from different cultural backgrounds and how we can assist them in times of crisis.
These days the NRL is a diverse mix of race, ethnicity and culture – over 10 per cent of players are Indigenous and 30 per cent have a Polynesian background. At the time of the tragedies last year, Peter Badel (Courier Mail) wrote: 'The proliferation of Islander talent has provided fresh challenges for the code. On the field, with their enormous physiques, they may seem impervious to weakness. Off it . . . there are cultural nuances and pressures that are not easy to understand'. This is so true; these players have different cultural specific issues and once they get outside their comfort zones and are living away from their families they can struggle to cope and are often reticent to seek help.
While I understand the NRL has invested heavily in player welfare and education, I remain somewhat skeptical about how our sport helps young, emerging talent deal with the rigors associated with trying to make it to the big league, and if they do, how it helps them deal with the pressures and requirements of being an elite athlete. As a rugby league community I think we need to embrace all of our many cultures, learn more about them, and appreciate why each of these young men fit differently into what I call 'the BEST box'. This is something my husband and I have tried to do with everyone we have cared for in our rugby league 'family'.
Our BEST is Belief – building a relationship on belief in each other, where our athletes feel valued and respected and have ultimate belief in themselves.
Our BEST is Empathy – having the ability to understand our players, learning about what home looks like for them, and being able to empathize with or appreciate what these boys have been through – on and off the field.
Our BEST is Synergy – that your expectations meet their expectations and your values and core beliefs are the same or are similar.
Our BEST is Trust – a sound relationship is ultimately built on trust and an outcome of this is respect. They will trust the decisions you make for, and with them, as they believe you have their best interests at heart, and not your own.
As house parents for up-and-coming rugby league players, my husband and I have always made a conscious effort to be culturally aware of the boys' backgrounds, their families, their hobbies (good and bad) and what motivates them each day. We care about the complete person, not just the athlete. We realize that they rise well to the occasion of success and happiness, but they may also suffer immensely and often in silence when things don't quite go to plan. It is at these testing times when we should support them the most, because this is when they are most vulnerable.
In this way, we earn the trust and respect of the boys, through valuing their heritages and beliefs, and embracing their thoughts and opinions. When we speak to each and every one of them they know we genuinely care for their wellbeing and that we put them first, not by chance, but by choice. We understand that to make a difference in their lives that it can never be about US – it has to always be about THEM. We teach them that values are vital and so necessary to grow as an individual, and that without them, we have no true direction or sense of being. We teach them to celebrate their successes no matter how big or small they may seem – any personal achievement is a success worth acknowledging.
This to us is 'true' player welfare. It is genuine investment in caring about young peoples' lives and their futures. If we listen more, value what is said and do the BEST we can, the results will speak volumes, on and off the field. And if we lead with our hearts, they will never walk alone.
Carmen has worked in various roles for New Zealand Rugby League and was part of the Kiwis squad for their Rugby League World Cup campaign in the UK last year. She is currently living and working in Australia.
Terima kasih/ Thank You
Jefri Ngadirin Majlis Sukan Negara/ National Sport Council