To take care of others, start by taking care of yourself
In January 2022, the Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano erupted, creating ocean-wide tsunamis never documented before in the Pacific. The widespread damage wiped out homes, crops and significantly disrupted lives across the country, with an estimated 2,400 people displaced and over 36,000 children affected.
The Pacific is no stranger to natural disasters. As a result, Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and our member associations have developed a bespoke disaster response programme: Just Play Emergency Response. The programme focusses on psychosocial recovery for children through delivery of messages on post-emergency safety and security, while providing opportunities to return to play. However, delivery in 2022 in Tonga was delayed by another emergency, the outbreak of COVID-19, which resulted in a prolonged lockdown for much of this year.
During this time, we focussed on providing support to the football administrators at Tonga Football Association (TFA). Consultation with staff at TFA highlighted a need for organisation-wide wellbeing support as part of a staged recovery process. A programme was delivered in collaboration with the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience. Content was co-created with the TFA Social Responsibility Manager, Palu Uhatahi Tu’amoheloa, and national stakeholders including the Tonga Women and Children Crisis Centre. The programme incorporated the Fonafale model, a Pacific model of holistic wellbeing, and delivered training on resilience, positive emotions, growth mindset, mental agility and avoiding thinking traps.
Having a series of sessions focussed on wellbeing and resilience bought the TFA together. Palu spoke about how engaging in the training has connected TFA: “It was very helpful; at first, I did not know that it would work...With the wellbeing approach, our CEO was keen to engage all of the staff. Not just on the main island, but the outer islands as well. So far, it has come out very positive… It has been an eye-opener for the upper levels, but also for all of the staff. It is a real eye-opener”
Palu further noted, “We were all having the same feelings of confusion, frustration, and feeling barriers between us. Even though we were all in the same building, we never connected before the programme.” Now staff use the tools from the programme and encourage each other to stay in a growth mindset.
Involving the whole football organisation led to different ways to work to support each other. For example, TFA’s Head of Referees, Tavita Vea, created a referee network to bring their referees together, as isolated individuals tried to cope with their own recovery. “The training made me think of brining back the referees to establish the first referee Academy, with the first session focussing on being resilient and breaking away from negative thoughts from the natural disaster,” Vea said.
TFA is now integrating aspects from the programme into the Just Play programme and broader football trainings, ensuring teachers and volunteers are aware of the signs of trauma and how to support others dealing with challenges. It is also creating conversations around how we can support each other more in this sector.
While the situation in Tonga is certainly unique, the lessons taken from the experience can be applied to a number of sport and sport for development organisations. If the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted anything, it is need for us to actively manage our wellbeing and create supportive environments. Indeed, the return to “normal” has been one of the most stressful times, as we scramble to get programmes back on track and meet donor demands after years on hold.
The sport for development sector delivers huge benefits to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Despite the benefits aimed at communities, too often we neglect the wellbeing of the practitioners delivering the programmes. I have seen staff and volunteers working under some of the most trying conditions with very little support.
If we want to truly help others, we need to ensure we are looking after ourselves and our colleagues.
This includes creating supportive environments, raising awareness of risks to resilience and strategies for support. In Tonga this has meant staff encouraging each other to take “positive emotional resets” during stressful times or inviting each other for a cup of tea if they see there are challenges. As Palu describes, “The positive emotional reset is the biggest takeaway. We go through a lot of things in our working hours… after a hectic day at work, I go out of the office and take a walk in the field and feel the breeze and look at the trees to take away my stress from things that have really stressed me out that day.” She now also gets regular texts from the referee manager saying “its reset time, come for coffee.”
While raising awareness of personal tools is incredibly valuable, there are also systemic changes in the sector that can better support staff too. This includes ensuring workers are aware of their rights, that they have formal contracts, are compensated fairly and are not overworked. It requires more open conversations around how our work impacts us and ensuring we balance the desire to deliver programme impacts with the wellbeing of individuals delivering. Effectively monitoring staff wellbeing would be a start.
COVID-19 continues to be a challenge, but as Palu notes in facing this “we need to be resilient and flexible to adapt and step up to support each other and our teams.” In the face of stress, she notes, “we laugh about it. But that is the kind of feelings that really connect us...we would joke about some of the things that we never did before.”
Mike Armstrong is the Head of Social Responsibility at Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). OFC is the regional body responsible for football and has been delivering football for development programmes in partnership with our Member Associations for over 10 years. This includes the Just Play Programme, delivered with funding support from the Australian Government (Aus Aid and Team UP) and the New Zealand Government (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and the UEFA Foundation for Children.
Palu Uhatahi Tu’amoheloa is the Social Responsibility Manager for Tonga Football Association. She has led the delivery of the Just Play Programme in Tonga since 2014, and is driving innovative delivery of new football for development programmes in partnership with the Football Division focussing on grassroots, women’s development and emergency response and recovery in Tonga.