I love the rugby league media at this time of year. Like your local Westfield setting up their Chrissy decorations on 1 November, you can set your watch by the stories that are bound to pop up.
“Such and such player returns to training in career-best fitness.”
“Some other player spends off-season doing something beneficial for society, hooray for them.”
“Some other player still spends off-season doing something of the utmost detriment to society, tut, tut.”
“Every second club vows to put players through the MOST DIABOLICAL VOMIT-INDUCING PRE-SEASON EVER IN THE QUEST FOR ON-FIELD GREATNESS.”
Cool, cool, sure they are.
In an ever-evolving world it’s so nice that some things never change. It’s the print media equivalent of your dad’s Sunday roast.
That said, I was struck by two side-by-side headlines on the Daily Telegraph website this week:
“Eels rebuild begins in the bush” and “Bulldogs hire woman to look after players, WAGs.”
The Eels headline is your bog-standard ‘clubs going to the ends of the Earth’ (or in this case, Armidale) to gain that elusive edge over their opponents.
Evidently, the Parramatta roster spent six days in country New South Wales docking livestock (of their pay? What does that even mean?), fencing, lifting weights, meditating, doing yoga and generally doing rugby league’s version of a corporate love-in. Without the apricot danishes and filter coffee at morning tea.
You’ve got to give Parramatta points for creativity and the variety of activities. Whether these points will translate to actual on-field points remains to be seen, but best of luck to them.
The second, Bulldogs headline was a little more interesting.
On the one hand, “Bulldogs hire woman to look after players, WAGs” is very much in the mold of rugby league journalism. I cannot for the life of me work out why the new recruit’s gender was deemed relevant enough to take up valuable headline real estate but this is nothing new.
Headline semantics aside, the content of this article was intriguing. If you missed it, the Bulldogs have hired a Player Engagement Coordinator, whose job will be to look after the welfare of players and their families including match-day support and housing assistance, for example.
Well, what a bloody great move this is. As a long-time proponent of better welfare support for the families of players and staff involved in professional rugby league, I have long believed that this type of role, and an associated framework, should be a critical part of any club. NRL-funded, maybe even.
Now, I know this is a controversial stance. Mainstream media coverage of so-called WAGs going back to Posh Spice and her posse at the 2006 soccer World Cup has done no favours to the stereotype of what it means to be involved in professional sport.
Combine this with our universal tendency to curate images of the best version of our lives on social media and it would be easy to assume that players and their families live a charmed and glamorous life.
And in some cases, I guess that’s true. Hell, even I’ve had the occasional sneak-peek of this life myself.
But I’m acutely aware that this life, even flashes of it, is only available to the select few. In most cases, it’s just bloody hard work.
It’s regular upheaval of your family to move interstate and overseas, not to mention the personal career disruption that comes with that. It’s the expectation that your weekends will be built around attendance at football games and support of your significant other, even when you’d rather spend it playing board-games and watching DVDs with your kids. It’s the stress and anxiety at said football games, of having to sit there week after week, year after year, watching your boyfriend, then husband, then the father of your children, put himself in harms way, tackle after tackle, all for the sake of entertainment. It’s the away games, the tours, the representative camps and pre-season love-ins, all spent completely alone, or single parenting, all in the name of on-field success.
And it’s this last point that got me thinking about these two headlines and their relevance to one another.
In one case, you’ve got the Eels, treading that tried and tested path of taking the players away, isolating them from their families and day-to-day lives, in an effort to solidify their commitment to each other and improve their on-field performance.
I have always been frustrated by these exercises because as someone who has been routinely left behind, it ultimately makes you feel like a distraction. Like your partner absolutely has to go away because they couldn’t possibly perform in optimum condition if he has to come home to you and your kids every night. It’s a wildly demoralising feeling, especially when there seems to be so many unavoidable opportunities throughout the season for players and staff to spend time together and bond away from their families.
But it’s not a new approach and I’m certainly not taking a stab at the Eels for trying it. I’d hazard a guess that almost every NRL club will undertake a similar exercise between now and the beginning of the 2019 season, the Bulldogs included maybe.
But what the Bulldogs are also doing, in my view, goes some way to counter-balancing this tendency that clubs have to overlook the needs of the player with regards to their role in their family. They are sending a powerful message that I believe says: We recognise the inherent expectation that families actively support their players and football staff and we would like to do something to mitigate the stress caused by this expectation.
Or… maybe the whole thing is just a knee-jerk reaction to the Mad Monday bar nudity debacle and I’ve completely romanticised it because my brain is a bit broken from years of said stress and expectation. Who knows? It’s a coin toss.
Interestingly though, the final line of the Bulldogs article says, “Anecdotally, players who have a content personal and family life are more likely to perform better on the field.”
And isn’t that just food for thought?
It’s almost a though when you recognise that a player is a person who has commitments outside of winning football games, like a family, an education, or a civic duty, that it increases his self-worth. It’s almost as though it sends the message that you are worth something other than your ability to win football games and your total value to the world is not contingent on your on-field success. It’s almost as though this inherent self-worth helps to relieve the stress of week-to-week perfection and creates a more relaxed headspace from which to perform. It’s almost as though players that are allowed to have time with their families and space from rugby league are refreshed from the exercise. It’s almost as though when we stop treating players as though they have no responsibilities in this world other than to score the try or make the tackle, that we create better people who are not so pre-disposed to general dirt-baggery.
Huh. Who knew?