Written by Robert Burgin
A year or so ago, leading international rugby league scribe Steve Mascord asked me a really interesting question.
It was along the lines of “What is it like to relinquish control over something you’ve worked so long towards building?”.
He was referring to the gradual splintering of Latin American Rugby League – or the GYG Latin Heat as some fans will know it – and the decentralisation of power away from the founding directors and towards individual nations.
I paused for a moment to mull over the instantaneous responses that crossed my mind:
“Fantastic” and “Immensely relieving” were the first two kneejerk responses, though I didn’t utter them out loud.
It was at that point I realised they probably weren’t the responses that Steve was expecting to hear on the other end of the telephone.
And that got me thinking about the way the game has been developed around the world, and some of the common problems witnessed with people butting heads and getting stuck in cul-de-sacs of limited growth, unable to relinquish control or unwilling to allow others in.
If you want to talk about longevity in the administration of emerging nations rugby league, the gold standard has probably already been set by people such as Romeo Monteith (Jamaica), Terry Liberopoulos (Greece) and David Axisa (Malta). I’m sure I’ve left somebody glaring out, but these are the first that come to mind.
Those three have not had it easy and faced some pretty big bumps along the road, but soldiered on and retained an involvement in nations that have built an enviable – even disproportionate – amount of success over a sustained period of time.
For others who are thinking of following in their footsteps, here are 10 little mental tricks or mantras I’ve employed to try and keep an even perspective with assisting Latin America and then Brasil.
1. Focus on the community impact, not the personal impact
From the moment I started, I had one very simple goal: ‘I want to show this is possible’. I was thinking no further ahead than showing it was possible to form a training squad of Latin Americans, then a 9-a-side team, then a 13-a-side team, then an independent Chile and El Salvador, then other stand-alone nations, then junior teams, then contest an Emerging Nations World Championship, and so forth. Each step became about doing something that hadn’t been done before, something against expectation, which would benefit the broader community and region. ‘Show that it’s possible’ became a little motivating slogan that I returned to over and over. Initially, I had zero designs on being involved day-to-day for years on end, or earning any fancy titles etc. What eventuated was merely a by-product of ticking one box and moving to the next – and the amount of enjoyment derived each step of the way.
2. Don’t try to stay in power, try and remain useful
Something I’ve seen a lot of in international rugby league is people who have gone into a country or region, set up rugby league, then allowed themselves to think that’s entitled them to a lifetime position as president or something similar. When you’re working as a volunteer, your power lasts only so long as people need you around. If you don’t update your skills, maintain the work ethic, or work in the best interests of the sport overall, it’s inevitable others will usurp you or there will be unrest. The less you expect of the sport and the more you expect of yourself, the longer you magically stay involved.
3. Keep money out of it as much as possible
I feel like this doesn’t need stating on a site of learned enthusiasts such as Everything Rugby League – but the old adage of ‘You don’t become involved in rugby league because you want to become rich’ is front of mind. Most people who have been around the game long enough realise this in a very short space of time. The problems inevitably come with those who have dreamt up the notion that rugby league is their gateway to a profitable business, a retirement fund, or is their path out of poverty. Okay, so far as a social ladder for NRL players born into underprivileged positions, the last part rings true. However, if you’re an administrator, it’s not advisable. Sadly, albeit understandably, in some developing nations, where the history of the sport is relatively young, the uninitiated end up chasing – and fighting over – a cash cow that existed in their minds only.
4. Be true in your intentions
Standing in front of a rugby league team is like facing the toughest lie detector known to humankind. People sniff out your bullshit in a matter of seconds. Remember, some of these people have been lied to all their lives and had to scrap for everything they’ve got. They’ve developed a heightened sense of when they are being conned. If you go in with an open heart, with a purpose that genuinely means something to you, people will sense that just as much as the opposite.
5. Be fiercely loyal, but don’t believe this will always be reciprocated
Going in with an open heart does leave you vulnerable. You do need to remain alert and sensible at the same time. For me, my modus operandi is to remain loyal to someone until they burn you. Loyalty counts for an incredible amount in football, and it filters outwards through the team. When there is loyalty, you get through a lot of situations you wouldn’t otherwise survive. I guess it’s human nature that someone will always disappoint you after you’ve given them every support you can, but I’ve learnt not to regret being gregarious or trusting. A disloyal person has to carry their actions on their conscience and reputation into the future. A loyal person may be wounded temporarily, but can hold their head high.
6. Be there
One of the simplest and earliest tricks I learnt in business, of all types, was the art of being on time when and where you promised you would be. Whether it’s in fitness, marketing, real estate or running rugby league teams, if you disrespect people by wasting their time, or don’t invest your own, you’ll lose their attention straight away. You can be the smartest, best-dressed, best-credentialled person in the industry, but if you run late and have unexpected no-shows, your reputation crumbles. Administrators that make the effort to get to as many events as possible, who show up on time, who are there to lend a hand in the tuckshop or the medical room, are worth far more than the ones with the fancy CV.
7. Believe in it, say it will be done
Just as players and teams can sniff out deception or ulterior motives, they are also great at sensing doubt or nervousness. If you plan an event or begin forming a team, you have to 100% convince yourself that it can be done and will be done. If you post vague call-to-arms like ‘Let’s have a session and see how many turn up’, you’re likely to get five at the field and 10 sitting at home waiting to see what happens before they dip their toe in the water. Of course, to convince yourself and the players that everything will go ahead as planned also relies on you subconsciously committing to doing whatever it takes, and not resting until it comes to fruition. Don’t feed players who start to ask questions like “What happens if not enough show up?”. The more you entertain them, the more likely it is to ring true.
8. Make sacrifices that reflect those of your players
I’ve seen this go wrong in so many ways; expecting the world of players and their undivided attention, but administrators not investing a similar amount in return. Don’t schedule training sessions or events nearer your house than the players. Don’t ask players to fork out money for trips that you miss because of financial excuses. You don’t necessarily have to remain in elite physical shape, but you have to exhibit discipline, dedication and an investment of equal effort in the off-field areas of the sport.
9. Value opinions, develop a good filter, limit negativity
This was a really tricky tightrope for me to walk. I’m probably someone who was nurtured to listen to as many perspectives as possible, and actively invite opinions. This led to unwieldy committees of 13 people or so in the early days of Latin American Rugby League. That’s when board meetings become places where good ideas go to die a slow and painful death. You need to establish early what level of value you place on people’s input and be careful of walking away from a great concept, simply because it didn’t meet everyone’s agreement. Sure, mull over the pros and cons, but be decisive, confident and selective in your actions. A similar approach is needed towards people who are predominantly negative. Sometimes they need to be listened to. But most times in growing a new sport, you should be dealing in positive thoughts and positive steps towards an activity that brings positive life outcomes. I’ve never been involved in another pursuit where negativity can be so destabilising and disadvantageous as it is in grassroots sport development.
10. Constantly self-analyse how you are holding the team or sport back
When I look around rugby league, I see a lot more of this than may be apparent at surface level. I think, unconsciously, there are a lot of people who have unknowingly held the game back, not because they are bad people, but because they didn’t reflect on their own preconceived notions or limitations. Some people only want to build the sport to a point where their friends can take part, where people of a similar skill level as them participate, where only people who look and speak and act like their friends are involved, where they can control the sport within their corporate or technological limitations. Most times people follow this gameplan unconsciously, not realising what they are doing. I think one of the key lessons I’ve had to learn is not to be afraid to approach players who are at a much higher standard than what our previous level has been, who would undoubtedly be better players than I ever was. The same goes for learning to be comfortable working beside administrators and technical staff who have a breadth of knowledge that is much greater. Admitting your self-imposed limitations, checking them, adjusting and moving forward is critical.
If you fancy supporting underdogs Brasil on their World Cup journey, it is possible to make a one-off or weekly donation that will go towards the costs of their training camps and warm-up fixtures – or even get your name on their official training shirt. Click here to support Brasil’s women’s team, a team that will consist of approximately 90 per cent domestically-based players.