The post a few weeks ago about “reciprocal determinism” prompted a reply from the son of very old friends. Ian Hincken (pictured with his Dad, Ed) shared how Albert Bandura’s psychological concept neatly explained how his family and rugby environment/situational factor in his childhood and adolescence impacted how he thought about the world and about himself (cognition), which in turn prompted him to spend a year studying and playing rugby in Australia (behavior).

Remember that cognitions include our perspectives, values, and beliefs. According to reciprocal determinism, those three factors take turns influencing the other two, a process than runs through our lives, if we only stop to notice it.

In our conversation, Ian went further in accurately applying Bandura’s concept to the path that has led him to where he is now: working for an international bio-medical research company in Finland and about to transfer to a different position in Switzerland. So much of his story involves rugby, the game I love.

I watched Ian grow up among the other children whose parents were part of southeastern Pennsylvania’s Blackthorn Rugby Football Club. When he turned 8 or 9, he began playing youth rugby, then played for Blackthorn’s high school program before enrolling at Temple University and playing for their club, but long before he pulled on his first game jersey, he’d spent countless hours watching his father and his “uncles” play, and had enjoyed club-sponsored Santa Claus events, picnics, and so on with his family and his rugby “cousins.”  

Asked to explain how rugby changed his life, he cited two things, the Mauri concept of “whanau” (faːnaʉ) and another perspective that sounds Zen-like and involves what psychologists think of as maintaining an internal locus of control—attributing our successes or failures to factors over which we might have some control, as opposed to dwelling on those that are beyond our control. Here’s how Ian put it.

“Growing up in an environment like the one Blackthorn provided very much blurred the line for me between friends and family. In the best possible way. Even beyond that, it instilled in me a belief that you didn’t even need to know someone very well at all before you could treat like them like family. A friend of a friend was as good as family. Anyone who joined the team was in. The Maori of New Zealand actually have a great word for this concept of community as extended family, ‘whanau.’ 

Ian with Maori teammate in Australia

“Anytime you join a rugby club, your whanau gets bigger. This belief has been a massive asset to me. I’ve been burned a few times, but really very rarely. And the rewards of living like this have outweighed the risks 1000 to 1.” 

Working the Barbie in Oz

I believe that by the time Ian transferred to Sydney’s Macquarie University, he already had developed that cognition. Little did he know that Maori teammates had a word for it, and that he would experience it again and again, reinforcing his behavior, building his trust, and inclining him toward exploration of more foreign environments.

He spent a year studying at Macquarie University, playing for the uni side and for Port Macquarie, a major club in Sydney, then returned to Temple to complete his degree and continue his rugby education. Degree in hand and rugby skills enhanced (and cognitions such as whanau further developed) by his having played Down Under, this highly talented player decided to explore options abroad to play at a high level.

A career in business could wait. But as dancers and athletes know, certain high-level and professional activities cannot wait indefinitely.

In time, he also would play for St. Ives in Australia, Amstelveen in The Netherlands, Sedgley Tigers in England, and Ponsonby in Auckland, New Zealand. Years of working on and off the pitch, learning about cultures and people.

Like Ian’s first example of how rugby changed his life, his other point also is a cognition that has stayed with him, and that impacts his behaviors and the environments in which he finds himself, even now that his professional rugby life is over.

“The more you play rugby, the better you get. But also, the more often you get flattened. There isn’t anyone in history who has played even 50 games of competitive rugby without getting humiliated at least once. Everyone eventually gets their ass handed to them, and the more you play, the more it will happen. As a result, all rugby players know that every time they take the field, there is a good chance that they will end up in someone else’s highlight reel. 

“But we keep lining up. Whether you are facing someone twice your size or half your size, you put your head down and you get to work. 

“These two lessons guide almost everything in my career. I can travel anywhere because I sincerely believe that anywhere I go I will be able to find family. 

“And I am not intimidated by any professional challenge at all. That doesn’t mean I think I will always succeed… far from it! I just mean, I know it won’t kill me. I know that even if I get humiliated, I’ll get back up. I also know that sometimes, despite all odds, the underdog wins, so I just put my head down and get to work. 

Ian working the ball out against Hastings in Australia

“I’ve walked onto rugby fields dozens of times where I knew with 100% certainty that my opposite was going to mop the floor with me for the entire 80 minutes. There were games where I was so outmatched that I honestly was sure I would be taken off the field before halftime, possibly on a stretcher.  But hey, what am I going to do? You can’t just play in the games where you know you are the best. You have to play all of them. So you head out there, you put your mouthguard in, and you get to work. And sometimes, the game would end and you’d still be standing and you’d realize you’d actually had a pretty good game. And a bunch of guys you only just met were now arm-in-arm with you, walking off the pitch to celebrate.” 

Ian works for an international bio-pharmaceutical company. Is anyone surprised that this aspect of his life also has involved life abroad?

Based in Finland, he soon will transfer to a post in Switzerland. Work meetings and functions involve people from around the world, and when he hears an accent from a rugby nation, he’ll make a note to approach the individual later about rugby. “And if I hear a Pacific Islander, forget about it. I’ll interrupt a meeting on the spot because with them there is like a 100% chance they follow rugby.”

That rugby Je-ne-sais-quoi always fits in, right?

Ian has made a comfortable transition from working in international rugby to international business, but not all his forays have been smooth. Working in Philadelphia, he joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Young Friends program, where, as the photo above shows, his rugby style didn’t immediately impress everyone. Nonetheless, he still loves and supports the organization, which he should, because he met his wife there.

With Wife Sarah in Finnish Lapland

Teaching my students about reciprocal determinism and other social learning concepts was one of the best things I did as a teacher, and I wish I’d learned about it sooner in my career! I write about that in Open Admissions, if you’re interested.  

I hope that folks who teach or mentor others, either formally or informally, will learn a bit about reciprocal determinism. I also hope they will consider their students/mentees as part of their own whanau.

Cognitions, behaviors, and environments (physical, cultural, and social) change through our lives. Understanding how these three factors already have influenced one another (to our benefit or detriment) and how they might work in the future can be a valuable tool in trying to understand our past and to plan for the future—and in trying to encourage the people who form our own whanau to do the same for themselves. 

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.