Pasifika Youth, Sport and the COVID-19 Pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand

Marhas, Pawan Kumar
Atkins, Denise
Naylor, Michael
Lakisa, David
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Master of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

In light of the national defence, government and medical efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Aotearoa New Zealand, a significant proportion of the population were impacted by the global pandemic. Given the predominantly Pasifika composition of the athletes and students under my track & field coaching (eight seasons in Aotearoa New Zealand) and preceding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a genuine intention emerged to explore youth experiences amidst the pandemic. This research intent stemmed from a desire to understand and address any unique challenges faced by this demographic cohort, recognising the intersecting factors of ethnicity, and cultural identity that shape their lived realities.

Central to this endeavour was a commitment to illuminating the voices and experiences of Pasifika youth within the broader discourse of COVID-19 impacts. By foregrounding their narrations/interpretations, the research sought to elucidate the differential effects of the pandemic on health and wellbeing of Pasifika youth. This research project therefore focused primarily on the sport and active recreation experience of Pasifika youth athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In aligning coaching practices and being culturally responsive with the evolving needs of youth athletes amidst a very unique time worldwide, a dual objective transpired: firstly, to facilitate their holistic recovery and development within the realm of sports and active recreation, and secondly, to advocate for system changes that will foster resilience, empowerment, and socio-cultural wellbeing among youth athletes in the post pandemic landscape.

This qualitative research study engaged eight focus groups – seven consisting of athletes & parents/legal guardians, and one, the athletes themselves. The youth participants of Pacific descent aged 13 to 19 were regularly involved in sport and active recreation in Auckland. The Talanoa approach was used to conduct eight Talanoa sessions over a year from December 2021 to December 2022.

This study provides insights and exposes challenges from the athletes, and their parents/legal guardians’ perspectives. It provides suggestions on how to improve the sport and active recreation experiences of Pasifika youth in any subsequent crises or periods of lockdown.

A thematic analysis of collected Talanoa data was undertaken and resulted in three key themes: participation, disconnectedness, and wellbeing. Findings included a lack of participation in regular sport and physical activity due to COVID-19 lockdowns, the consequences of which may lead to health and wellbeing challenges. Disconnectedness from school, friends, and sport was of concern. However, both participants and parents/legal guardians spoke of a greater connection with family. Finally, the impact of lockdowns on the Pasifika athletes and their families demonstrated the importance of nurturing the interrelationship between physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of wellbeing.

This study has identified that there were both positive and negative aspects experienced by Pasifika youth athletes and their families during COVID-19, concluding that the recognition of these, along with suggestions for enhancements may be useful in any future pandemic times.

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