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The heART of Coaching Māori and Pasifika Youth Athletes

The great youth sport coaches are not defined by outcome; that being, wins and losses. Rather, the great youth sport coaches leave long-lasting impressions on their athletes.

So, how do you best go about shaping, influencing and empowering young people through sport? And what if these young people are Māori and/or Pasifika? Are there any unique considerations you should account for as a coach?

From 2015-18, I was part of New Zealand Rugby League’s High Performance team, where I conducted research related to athlete welfare and wellbeing with Māori and Pasifika. Let me share some of my insights.

Firstly, it’s key to understand that Relationships are fundamental in te ao Māori (Māori worldview) and te ao Pasifika (Pasifika worldview). At the heart and centre of all Māori and Pasifika cultural values, practices and protocols is the whānau (the Māori word for family), ‘aiga (Samoan) or fāmili (Tongan).

With this being said, things to keep in mind as a coach of Māori and/or Pasifika youth athletes include:

The Māori and Pacific world is diverse

Be mindful that within the communities that connect to the Pacific, there are many cultural groupings, such as Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island etc, as well as Māori. They may have strong cultural/tribal links that influence how they see the world and engage within it. Acknowledge this diversity. For example, time and space could be offered for your athletes to engage in prayer, devotion or scripture. There may be other significant yet overlooked values, beliefs and practices that your athletes may engage in at home but are too shy to do so in the sporting realm. Encourage and embrace the uniqueness of their worlds.

Be open to understanding your athlete’s culture, beliefs and values

Research shows that even a basic understanding of an athlete’s culture can enhance a coach’s capacity to maximise that individual’s development and performance. Initiate the process and be sincere and genuine about wanting to understand them through their culture, beliefs and values. Make a sincere effort to understand their living situation and their responsibilities (e.g. personal, family, church etc), and the implications this may have on their ability to turn up to training, games or having the appropriate gear to play. 

This knowledge will inform your decision-making process as a coach, and help you to offer the appropriate support for your athlete’s development and performance. One young man in my research3 shared this about his former youth rugby league coach:

Coach was always there for me…Even now, he’s still there for me. He’ll come pick me up and we’ll just catch up about life in general. I know I can ask him any question to do with footy stuff and life…he even bought me boots.

Be open to learning about your athlete

Learn to pronounce your athlete’s name properly and ask them what their preferred name is. This should be an obvious starting point but is often overlooked. This is more about respect, not just for the individual athlete, but also for the family, culture and community that informs their identity and heritage. Do not underestimate the power that lies in this first step when it comes to learning about your athlete. Learn about their aspirations and challenges. Learn everything you can about your athlete so that you can have a solid relationship with them.

Acknowledge the family of your athlete

It is likely that parents or other adult family members of your athlete will be on the side-lines watching. Find ways to connect with your athlete’s parents or caregivers in a genuine and sincere way. It might start with a smile, a wave, or a simple hello. Your athlete’s parents or caregivers may not be confident at speaking English, so do not be disheartened if they do not immediately engage in small talk with you, or any talk for that matter. Building a trusting relationship takes time  and patience, and it starts with the little things. Again, you will need to initiate this process and will need to meet in their space. Pace yourself and respect their timing to engage fully with you.

Some athletes may come from families who are steeped in traditional cultural practices and values, in which parents are gate-keepers. Hence, forging a trusting relationship with parents means you have strong allies who will support you in your role as a coach and ensure that their children pay attention to you, and respects you and your coaching knowledge.

Communicate with your heart

We tend to think about communication as verbal and non-verbal. For example, the tone, pitch and volume of your voice; open or closed body position; your eyes, etc. To communicate with your heart, however, is to listen intently, respond sincerely and respectfully, and be consistently present or available when your athlete needs you. This builds trust between you and your athlete. This will, in turn, have a positive influence on your athlete’s loyalty and commitment to your programme, structure or coaching plan. Another young man in my research3 shared this about his coach mentors: 

When I first met them, I didn’t say much, but [mentors] would always come and ask me if I’m alright. I guess, over time, I just got that feeling and I knew I could start trusting [mentors]. No matter what I am going through in life, I know [mentors] will always be there for me. Their support means so much to me, especially since I’m away from Mum.

The old adage rings true here:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

So, learn to listen and lead with your heart. There is a well-used Māori proverb that highlights the critical importance of setting the relational foundation:

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. What is the most important thing in this world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

In te ao Māori and te ao Pasifika, your success as a coach is dependent on how well you take care of your athlete, inclusive of their family, community and culture.

References:

  1. Storm, L., Henriksen, K., Larsen, C., & Christensen, M. (2014). Influential relationships as contexts of learning and becoming elite: Athletes’ retrospective interpretations. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 9(6), 1341-1356.
  2.  Keung, S. (2018). Te taha hinengaro: Using talanoa to facilitate an interconnected analysis of psychosocial development shared by Māori and Pasifika young men in Rugby League (Doctoral dissertation, Auckland University of Technology).
  3.  Schaaf, M. (2006). Elite Pacific male rugby players’ perceptions and experiences of professional rugby. Junctures. The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, (7), 41-54.

Image Source: photosport.co.nz.

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