Jerry Yanuyanutawa is a former Fijian and Brumbies rugby player who retired in the middle of 2016, finishing up with Glasgow in Scotland, whom he played with for 3 seasons. Having studied during his playing days – he completed both a Bachelor of Education and an MBA – he had started to prepare for life after rugby well before hanging up the boots. He is now a PE teacher at a school in Canberra.
So from your understanding, can you describe the meaning of dual pathways careers for elite athletes?
It’s having the opportunity to focus on something that’s outside of the sport that you’re in, preferably the career that you would choose if you weren’t an athlete. Also, it should be something you’re able to continue to pursue at the same time as being an athlete.
Do you think that requires to be work- or study-related or can dual pathway just be a passion?
It’s a bit of both, a passion but also a career. If you’re an elite athlete or a professional athlete, it’s a privilege and you get opportunities to experience something that not everyone in the world gets to experience. It makes your life special for a short period of time! If that wasn’t part of your life, you’d follow something that had to be your career.
What are the challenges that athletes face on a day-to-day basis in terms of maintaining a high-performance mindset?
It’s your own expectations of wanting to be the best in whatever field you’re in. It’s also the performance expectations from coaches and fans. And every person is different, so for Islanders, there’s the expectation from the community there and the extended family. It’s one of the biggest challenges that every athlete would face; how to deal with the level of expectation that is upon them.
With respect to Islanders, is it the perceived quality of performance or is it also the ability to provide for the family and community?
Yes, the performance on the field and the status that comes with it is important as well as being able to provide for your family. It’s obviously different in Western society, but I did find that when I went over to Europe that players like the Georgians had the same expectations as Islanders. Same for the Romanians and to an extent the Argentines. They still had to deal with the expectation to perform, but also had the expectation from families.
Did you observe any differences between athletes that were doing their sport and something else at the same time, compared to athletes that were just doing their sport alone?
Massively. I found the majority of dual pathway athletes would be able to hold a proper conversation in terms of being able to talk on a variety of topics. Socially, they had a better grasp of what’s going on and were the lateral thinkers. You could be comfortable in their presence. I could be biased, but conversations didn’t flow as much or there wasn’t much variety with athletes who weren’t doing something outside of sport. I’m speaking from a rugby perspective of course, so it could be different in say elite rowing or elite cycling.
Did you see any differences in their performance? Some people have suggested that having another interest moderated some of the highs and lows of sport.
I did. I found that those guys managed the pressure well, especially after a tough loss. They were a bit more level-headed in the way they approached things. But the biggest thing was probably their social interaction; those boys had different perspectives on things and they added a bit more value to the team. I think performance-wise is either/or, but I did find that those athletes who had dual pathways were able to manage pressure better. They also made the team environment more solution-based by being able to come up with various ways to improve team performance.
Were there any other performance benefits from doing something or having an interest outside of sport?
I found it helped my focus in that I didn’t only think about sport and if I played a good game or a bad game. It allowed me to think with a clearer head as when I came to training on a Monday I hadn’t had the time to really relax and just think about the game or play the game over in my head. So it really helped with how I went through my processes at training. I used to be really bad at over-analysing things, but studying helped me in that regard.
Also, it gave me a sense of empowerment, that rugby wasn’t my only identity and it allowed me to enjoy the game more. I’d work hard in a classroom and try to improve academically, and then go out onto the field and have this other focus. Studying was one of the reasons why I enjoyed my last five years of rugby. I wasn’t perfect at it, but I think I understood the value of studying. That’s one of the reasons why I played some of my best rugby in my final five years.
Out of the sporting organisations that you’ve been involved with, do they feel that dual pathways are a good thing for performance or do they still think that it’s a distraction?
I think it’s a bit of both. Some coaches support it; I know Gregor (Townsend) was very big on dual pathways and I supported a lot of the Warriors boys with their studies. Gregor was an academic himself and he loves supporting guys who had the opportunity to study. So do clubs know the value, I don’t think so. London Irish was different as there were a number of senior players there and so dual pathways were non-existent. I don’t think a lot of clubs know it improves performance, or they just don’t think it does, so it’s still seen as separate to a performance discussion.
Do you think in the future that will change, that dual pathways might play a part in the discussions around athlete performance?
In Europe, there’s more money being pumped into rugby now with TV rights deals, so more young rugby players are seeing that as their only career. I think it’s going to deteriorate even more where young rugby players don’t think about the future as rugby is their only identity. A lot of them come out of school at 18 and they’re the next best thing. One of the biggest things I found in England and Scotland is that when they come through the academies they get given more chances and they’re earmarked to play for Scotland or England and everything for them is trapped that way. So they take on this one identity and they don’t know anything else. And then you have senior players who don’t really set a standard academically outside of rugby – only a few do – and so that’s where I think the deterioration will continue.
I was lucky in that a few years ago rugby was still coming from an amateur era to a professional one so there were still people who were studying. I think the senior players and the coaches need to push that agenda a little bit more, but at this stage overall, dual pathways are still quite separate from performance.
Do you think it’s the responsibility of the sport and the coaches? If I’m a young 18-year old and I’ve been taught to think that performance is the most important thing, then that’s the path I’m probably going to follow.
I think parents should come into it as they play a massive role. It’s important that these young men understand that rugby can end at any time and if you’ve got good senior players that set the culture of focusing on something outside of rugby, I think it will reverse the deterioration. The parents of those athletes need to make sure that sport is not their only identity, but they have other areas that they can focus on. So I don’t think it’s the coaches’ role.
Do you think that managers can play an influencing role in terms of getting into that discussion between parents and athletes at an early age?
Yes, I think managers play a massive role as they can influence the identity of that athlete and what type of athlete they’ll be. So those big three – managers, parents and senior players – have the most influence. The coach is judged on his performance and how the team performs. The heart and soul of the team is the culture and the senior players, but the advice the parents and managers give to those young athletes is very important too.