NZ Rugby World
COACHING THE PACIFIC WAY
FORMER ALL BLACK ERONI CLARKE EXPLAINS HOW A ONESIZE-FITS-ALL APPROACH TO COACHING DOESN’T WORK WITH POLYNESIAN PLAYERS.
Going back to the days of Sir Bryan Williams, there was a low percentage of Pacific peoples playing sport at the
highest level. Sir Bryan’s career inspired others - Sir Michael Jones, the late Inga Tuigamala and Walter Little to name a few – seeing someone who looks like them, showing them that if they dream and work hard, they can achieve at the highest levels.
As a result, there are now so many players with Pasifika heritage in our elite rugby sides. If we look at the All Blacks, over 50% of our current squad are Pacific players. That number is greater in the Black Ferns and Sevens sides. Not to mention our Super Rugby teams, including Moana Pasifika,
Fijian Drua and those in our Provincial
Unions. Even around the globe we are seeing Pasifika representation at the international level.
Those figures and examples lead me to ask if the rugby environment is culturally responsive for these players and their families. Does the environment in our sport – and all sports – best serve, cater for and promote Pacific peoples?
While Pacific representation has grown on the field, what rugby wasn’t ready for was the difference in values, culture and the lenses that Pacific peoples see life through.
For example, in my early years of rugby, Sir Graham Henry brought in a lot of new, exciting Pasifika players, but early on in his coaching career, he had a ‘one size fits all’ coaching style. His approach wasn’t in agreement with how Pasifika people operate. It was a dominant, and often aggressive style, which doesn’t resonate at all with the Pacific way of life. This upset Pasifika players, making them think they’d angered the coach, they constantly kept doing things terribly wrong and that he didn’t like them. This would lead to them becoming increasingly likely to make mistakes, and as a consequence would result in them being dropped and cut from the team.
To his credit, Sir Graham was open to doing what he could to get the most out of all of his players. He turned to Sir Michael and myself to ask how he could create a better environment for them. We advised that the issue wasn’t their talent or commitment, it was the style of coaching that didn’t resonate with them, creating extra pressure.
Seeing how the landscape of his team was changing, Ted knew he needed to adapt. He was not too proud to realise that his style was negatively impacting his players. He thought about our advice and began to understand the nature and worldview of his Pacific players. He began to connect with them, building up a two-way loyalty and effective communication style that translated to better results on the field.
This is the power of cultural competency. You create understanding, build a bond, and nurture the “Va” (Space – “The Space that Relates*” & Va Tapuia – The Sacred Space) allowing people to bring their authentic selves to everything they do, resulting in better outcomes for everyone.
We can prepare Pacific athletes for the sporting environment, but at the same time, we should be preparing our sporting environments for Pacific athletes and their families. Environments should be responsive and understanding to people of all cultures. This is not just on the field - we need to ensure that our coaching and administrative pathways are also receptive to Pacific people and cater to holistic approaches of operating.
At New Zealand Rugby, we are developing a cultural competency programme in collaboration with Pasifika Health Workforce Development group Le Va and other Pacific leaders to ensure we are enhancing the rugby environment at both high performance and community level. We are starting within the NZR organsation itself as cultural competency needs to be embedded at all levels of an organisation. It’s not just for the teams or the players and management, but at the administrative, commercial, executive and governance levels as well, then rolling the programme out to Provincial Unions and Super Rugby clubs and aiming to get more Pacific peoples involved at Heartland level as well.
How can you take steps to make your environment more welcoming and responsive to Pacific peoples? The three key areas to understand are family, language and tapu (sacred, incorporating values, protocols and ways of being**). By learning about the importance of these aspects of Pasifika life, it will be foundational to making great strides in understanding Pacific athletes, their families and communities and creating culturally safe environments.
I will leave you with a quote from former Head of States of Samoa Le Susuga ia Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, which helps explain the Samoan and Fa’aPasifika collective approach - the way Pacific people see themselves as more than an individual, which informs how they bring themselves to all environments:
"I am not an individual; I am an integral part of the cosmos. I share divinity with my ancestors, the land, the seas and the skies. I am not an individual, because I share a tofi (inheritance) with my family, my village and my nation. I belong to my family and my family belongs to me. I belong to my village and my village belongs to me. I belong to my nation and my nation belongs to me. This is the essence of my sense of belonging."
*From Albert Wendt: https://www.nzepc. auckland.ac.nz/authors/wendt/tatauing. asp
**From www.leva.co.nz/training-education/ engaging-pasifika