R M Cullen
MD MSc MFM BA DipStats DipProfEthics
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Back in September, I heard Nigel Vagana, a NRL/NZRL well-being and education officer interviewed on Tony Veitch's radio programme where he bragged about an encounter with a pupil while leaving a school visit. Apparently the youngster approached him as he was leaving. Nigel asked him if he should be in class, and when told the student was missing maths told him to get to class and apologise to the teacher for being late.
"He won't make it in professional sport", said Nigel. The message being that if you don't attend school then NRL clubs won't be interested in you. There is another message - a NRL club well-being and education officer has nothing to offer beyond being a part-time truancy officer.
During the radio interview, Vagana said that New Zealand youngsters were naturally talented but not mentally tough. Mental toughness, according to him, is an individual thing that comes from long, hard trainings.
Nigel Vagana is very experienced, and widely respected. He is a former player but his comments reveal a lack of training and skills for a 'well-being and education' role with school aged athletes. As Nigel said in the interview, he was shoulder tapped for a position by the NRL with his chief qualification being that he hadn't been involved in any off-field scandals during his playing career.
The role of a well-being and education officer, as with a development manager, is not to judge as Nigel did. It is to assist. He probably thinks of himself as a professional. If so he should remember that professsionals are their own masters and what professionals do is assist their clients. If his first duty is to the NRL/NZRL he is not a professional, end of story.
What is Nigel's role as an education officer? From his comments it seems he is some kind of a truancy guy. He encourages young men to stay in school and waves the stick that if they don't, then an NRL career is beyond them. His 'education' role does not seem to have anything to do with increasing educational acheivement, which is a shame.
Most of the athletes I work with live in South Auckland. The schools out there are dreadful. Only 56 and 57% respectively of students at Papakura High School and Otahuhu College passed NCEA level one in 2016. The national rugby league champion for the last two years, Southern Cross, has a 60% pass rate at NCEA level one. Would Nigel Vagana send his children to any of these schools? If not, he shouldn't require athletes to attend either. In South Auckland a professional sports career is the only good paying possibility. The schools prepare too many athletes for a career on the dole, as drug dealers, or as unskilled labourers.
Formal education is important. I believe that players who have careers outside of rugby league and who have good lifeskills are more likely to be picked up by NRL clubs and more likely to have longer NRL careers. Certainly, these athletes are very unlikely to come to the attention of the NRL integrity unit.
A challenge for Nigel Vagana is to lift the educational achievement of young athletes. There are two approaches. One is to steer elite players away from poor schools. Kelston Boys, Mt Albert Grammar, and St Pauls are all strong rugby league schools with NCEA level one pass rates of 86-90%. The second is to ensure the provison of tutoring services to these athletes.
However, it is likely that Nigel's role is seen as suporting schools rather than supporting athletes. These are not the same. Nigel said in the Veitch interview that he didn't believe boys should be allowed to play in the national schools competition unless they had a 85-90% attendance rate. Why didn't he say that schools can't enter this competition unless their Polynesian students have an 85-90% pass rate at NCEA level two?
One of the key drivers behind expanding the number of education and well-being officers was to decrease the suicide rate in young rugby league players. Nigel's response to the student he bragged about sending to class was dangerous.
What if this student had been turning to the well-being officer for help? What if, today, he is found hanging from a rafter in his garage? How clever will Nigel look then? Suicide prevention is a key task. Nigel should take the opportunity offered by every 'cold call' from a young player. There is a good, and there is a better, way to approach this sort of contact.
"Hi, pleased to meet you. Is there anything I can help you with?" is a good first line. "Hi, pleased to meet you. Have you got a few minutes for a chat?", is better. Ten minutes, that is how long it would have taken for Nigel to have had a lasting impact on this player. Start off by asking the league questions - what position do you play, who do you play for, how high do you want to go, have you got an agent, made any rep teams? Then the question, what do you plan to do when you have finished playing league?, which leads in to the education discussion. Take the time to find out who the kid lives with, has he ever been in trouble with the police, stood down from school? Do you drink? Have a girlfriend? What do you see as the barriers to your playing professional league? That's the first seven minutes. Then talk about a plan to close the gaps between where the kid is and where he needs to be. During the course of that conversation Nigel should have been able to slip in the four (or so) questions that are used in whatever imminent suicide risk assessment tool he is familiar with.
Suicide prevention in elite young rugby league players is achieved through good player development programmes. These young men face pressures and stressors, but they are not extraordinary pressures and stressors. Thoughts of suicide are normal in the middle and late teenage years. They are typically responses to temporary setbacks - the break up of a relationship, the finding out of a secret, an arrest. What makes these young men different is that they have the courage to go through with the suicide. It is uncommon for teenage male suicide to be the result of depression, as that term is used in medicine.
A good player development programme has three components
Developing the footballer is a simple concept. Identify where the player is now, where he needs to be to make his NRL debut, and plan to close the gap. The ethos is to work with the athlete to make him the best footballer he can be. That is not how the NZRL does things. It selects players for U16, U18, and NZ schoolboy teams and provides no feedback to the athlete. Once selected the players are involved in team training. Any individual improvement is a fluke, it is not the goal.
Lifeskills are important. Elite young rugby league players receive the same two or three lectures every year. Where is the assistance with getting a driver licence? What about dealing with stress/frustration/anger? What are the lifeskills a young league player needs, and what is the NZRL doing to provide them? What happens is that with limited time (a two hour session during the national schools tournament for example) the same old lecture is repeated. This year the lecture was, once again, on drug testing, with a warning abut marijuana use. I wonder how often well-being and education officers ask young players what they want to hear about, or want help with.
Nigel's understanding of mental toughness is very last century. Young, elite league players are tough. Almost invariably they are 'at risk' youth. Wars are won by young men like these. They can be found in, and are at the core of, famous units such as the Maori Battlion.
Mental toughness, in the narrow sense of toughing it out in the the last twenty minutes when you are tired and under pressure, of finding a way to win when you are behind with time running out, is what you get when a bunch of mates with a good leader are in trouble facing a shared enemy, and everyone has to push himself, and then push some more. The role of flogging the boys at training is not to introduce mental toughness, but to generate the special team spirit which gets a team through the tough times. Mental toughness in this narrow sense is something teams have.
So what are NRL education and well-being officers good for? They cover the NRL's backside. The NRL is spending money on the problem so any further suicides aren't the fault of the sport. That's it.
On the negative, they are just another brick in the wall from the athlete's perspective. Snakes. Nice enough to your face, but they will stick it to you behind your back.