The decision by the NRL this week to revert to a state-based development pathway in place of the national Holden Cup marks the realisation that the welfare of players is better served closer to social support networks.
About 80% of players in the Holden Cup pathway never make the step up to senior professional football, and the NRL should be commended for realising that treating them as professionals too early can, in fact, be setting them up for failure.
Unfortunately, this lesson has been learnt through series of suicides in young athletes, a reflection of what happens when some athletes sacrifice everything they have to make it and come up short.
Whilst by no means exclusively an issue in Rugby League, this point was further echoed by Rhys Jack this week when he revealed he ‘was living with severe depression and anxiety, putting pressure on myself to succeed as a footballer’. As the grandson of an All Black and the brother of a Wallaby, I can relate to the self-imposed pressure Rhys talks of, and when injury ended my career the challenges were real and difficult to talk about.
Displacement from Social Support Networks
One of the great anxieties experienced by athletes is the fear of the unknown, of selection, of contracts, of injury and acceptance. The transition from schools is hard enough at the best of times without these pressures being added on top, and when they are experienced away from social support networks they can seem like a weight rested solely on a young athlete’s shoulders.
Much of the research into athlete burnout refers to the importance of social support, and specifically in relation to intrinsic motivation psychology, of support that an athlete can relate to and has some freedom in choosing.
As sport becomes bigger and bigger business, so many athletes and their managers are increasingly willing to chase the dream at any costs. For the young athletes, this can mean living away from home, sacrificing time with friends, doing trial contracts as squad members in the distant hope of securing an elusive contract.
This often also means sacrificing education, particularly in scenarios where contracts are often won around the ages of 17 – 21, a situation that occurs in all 4 of our major football codes.
The Sacrifice for Success
The big drivers under Self-Determination Theory for intrinsic motivation are;
- Autonomy – Having a choice in your actions and therefore your outcomes
- Competency – Feeling that you are equally challenged and supported
- Relatedness – Feeling that you understand and are understood by those around you
The challenge for young athletes is that sport so often demands that you sacrifice all three of these to a degree in order to achieve success. In fact, it is something that is almost seen as a test to see who can make it, who has the mental toughness to survive through this tough talent identification gauntlet.
What the NRL’s decision so correctly identifies, is that if athletes are going through this at their clubs, in training and in competition, why are we exacerbating the problem by making them do it in their social lives as well.
Better (socially supported) people make better athletes
Social support networks away from footy meet the needs of athletes by giving them a sense of belonging outside of their on-field performance. They allow them choice in terms of who they hang out with and therefore what the conversation and activity is centred around, which in turn lets them regulate their need to feel understood and also an opportunity to feel comfortable and safe in their off-field environment.
In relation to anxiety – social support reminds athletes that whilst the outcome of football or selection may be unknown, they still have self-worth in their family, their friends, their hobbies and education – that the future will still hold these outcomes even if football doesn’t eventuate.
In relation to depression – social support networks keep these options in the athlete’s awareness, the lack of which creates apathy and hopelessness.
Step in the right direction
Moving athletes away from the support networks risks loading them up with stress in both areas of their lives at the exact time that the vast majority of them are likely to experience significant challenges to their dreams and esteem. This point is even more relevant for young Indigenous and Polynesian and Melanesian players, whose cultural backgrounds often place a high value on family and communal society.
Undoubtedly, while some will follow the cultural stigma of social support being a sign of softness, the NRL’s move is a brave and honest assessment of changing attitudes in modern sport. It is a step towards appreciating the increased role athlete welfare has in not only individual well-being but also talent development and performance; hopefully a step in the right direction that more sports will follow.