The Roar
The Roar


Rugby Australia needs to treat its case of learned helplessness

Raelene Castle is the new Rugby Australia CEO. (AAP Image/Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
Roar Pro
11th May, 2018

In psychology, learned helplessness is a depressive mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with said stimuli.

This is the case even if the stimuli are ‘escapable’, presumably because the organism has learned that it cannot control the situation.

Does this sound familiar, Roarers?

Basically, it means an animal, person or organisation assumes through previous experience it is helpless and cannot control the negative situations around it, so does little to avoid them in the present or future.

The term was notably used by former Australian Defence Department head Allan Hawke to describe the prevailing mindset in his department’s bureaucracy around the excruciating bungles that kept happening in major defence capability acquisitions that cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

I watched Raelene Castle’s Kick and Chase interview, in which she represented herself very well.

The questions from the panel covered the hot topics of Israel Folau, Quade Cooper, the 38-0 statistic against New Zealand teams, Andrew Forrest and the future of SANZAAR. While most parts of Castle’s responses were well weighted and considered, she did little to convince me that RA or its board had any answers to their challenges – or any sense of urgency to develop solutions.

In fact, it struck me that RA was, and has been for a long time, still locked in its own iron grip of learned helplessness. That includes the other state union members and nominated individuals who make up the RA board.

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RA’s positions on Izzy, Quade, Twiggy, overseas player drain, and SANZAAR all show symptoms of an organisation that seems to believe it is powerless to do anything in situations that they perceive are beyond their control. And they keep ending up in these situations, especially when it comes to SANZAAR, where it seems the prevailing attitude is ‘we’ll just stay flex and go with the flow because we’ve been here before and nothing we do can change the situation anyway’.

That kind of helpless approach does not favourably shape any sort of outcome, nor fix the underlying decision-making structures that have resulted in negative decisions to shrink Australian rugby, isolate the grassroots, and pay millions to poach league stars or to pay high-profile players to not play Super Rugby.

There is clearly a pattern to RA’s behaviour and decision-making processes as an organisation that reinforces a learned helpless mindset. Until this is addressed, no CEO can do what they need to do.

As a life-long supporter of rugby in Australia, I almost yearn for the early John O’Neill days, when at least the ARU and its board members weren’t determinedly helpless passengers, but rather driving the situation instead of passively accepting it as beyond their control.

RA’s massively bureaucratic reaction to Forrest’s offers of grassroots assistance and his new competition exemplify the glacial pace RA now moves at as part of its learned helplessness, and that contributes to its struggle to manage and adapt to change. Why move quickly, decisively, and with agility when we ain’t got a hope anyway because SANZAAR and Fox are driving this bus, right? Twiggy who?

Can anyone believe that the New Zealand Rugby Union would be this passive, docile and slow in meeting the same challenges or opportunities? Heck no – and they haven’t been, which is why they are where they are now.

If Castle really wants to make an impression, she can call out this culture of learned helplessness in RA’s bureaucracy and start herding the cats to fix the organisation’s decision-making apparatus so it avoids short-term fixes and Australian rugby is proactively on the front foot again based on a sound vision.

There is not the luxury of aeons of time that it seems RA need to even address the most basic of issues. It is supposedly a competitive sports business now as we kept getting told, so stop acting like a big government bureaucracy and get on with urgently tackling the systemic issues crippling the game in Australia as a professional, competitive and agile organisation.


Maintaining a helpless, ponderous and unresponsive mindset is not an option for RA if it seeks to revive the game in this country.