Sam Burgess’ decision to walk away from Rugby Union and re-join Australian Rugby League club South Sydney Rabbitohs has been met with a great deal of anger, frustration and disappointment from those within the sport. Very few players make the switch between Rugby Union and Rugby League and of those who do make an attempt, even fewer transition successfully. However, having controversially been selected as part of Coach Stuart Lancaster’s England World Cup squad, there were high hopes that the talented Burgess could be Rugby Unions next big star.
Whilst the 26-year-old has cited family as the key motivating force behind his decision, questions will be asked about his inability to transition from the 13-man code. Specifically, considering the player’s athleticism, determination and ability to lead, it is worth asking the question ‘what would have had to be different for this talented player to realise his potential?’ And 'what could potentially lie at the heart of failed transitions generally?' The answer may have something to do with psychological flexibility.
Psychological flexibility refers to ‘the ability to be in the present moment with full awareness and openness to experience and to take action guided by values’1. Lane4’s research on Leadership Transitions highlights that successful personal transitions require a learning mindset, personal resilience (both key components of adaptability) and psychological flexibility. These components make it much easier to acquire critical capabilities such as the ability to see the big picture, achieve through others, build networks and influence via others; all of which contribute to one’s sense of identity and go a long way towards: a) ensuring smoother transitions; and b) creating a more effective ‘performer’.
Considering this, transitions are about developing new capabilities and displaying new behaviours/methods of getting ‘work’ done. In order to develop new capabilities, we need to stop doing what is comfortable today and start doing the things that will be valuable in the longer term. In other words, we need to get out of our comfort zone and into our growth zone. This is often easier in theory than it is in practice, as demonstrated by Burgess. Our comfort zone is just that, comfortable, and getting out of it feels uncomfortable. In reality however, despite this fact, it is essential for growth.
Having made the decision to move back to Rugby League, it would appear that Burgess may have experienced some of the ‘growing pains’ that accompany our growth zone, including a fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of making mistakes and fear of rejection. Whilst these feelings are understandable when competing in a World Cup, they are all actually in the service of maximising our potential. As such, developing the skills to regularly get into the growth zone, thrive in the growth zone and recognise when you’re stuck makes an enormous difference to how quick and how successful a transition is.
One way in which individuals can grow is to develop their psychological flexibility, particularly when they are stuck in a repetitive pattern of behaviour. Psychological flexibility, based on Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT)2, focuses upon acting in ways that are going to lead to valuable and fulfilling leadership transitions. The aim is not to belittle one’s fears or make them seem unworthy, but to empower individuals and increase the amount of choice that they feel they have over their actions. This is achieved by ‘opening up’, ‘being present’ and ‘doing what matters’. In contrast, psychological rigidity involves ‘closing up’, a ‘lack of presence’ and ‘unworkable action’.
Considering this, in the case of Burgess, it may be that a lack of psychological flexibility was a key factor in his inability to successfully transition and realise his potential within Rugby Union. The capabilities that made him successful at Rugby League may have become redundant as part of Rugby Union. Similarly, an inability to learn effectively may be the reason that his transitions has not been as successful as anticipated. Thankfully for Burgess however, learning is a capability which can be developed like any other, with the ability to learn quickly and effectively being one of the strongest predictors of performance levels. As such, Burgess should be encouraged to engage with ACT as he enters his next transition. As a mechanism for enhancing his psychological flexibility, the tool may yet ensure that he is remembered as one of the great rugby performers of his time.
1 ‘Lane4 Leadership Transitions: Personal Transitions User Guide.’ Lane4. October 2015
2 ‘ACT Made Simple: A quick-start guide to ACT basics and beyond.’ Russ Harris & Steven C.Hayes 2009