Change can sometimes be challenging. Change can also be confronting. Change may be happening quicker today than in years gone by, and many may be more open to change, but change can still be destabilising.
For years the Australian sporting landscape was very simple. In winter the boys played Australian Rules Football and in Summer they played cricket. In between these two sports there would be time for swimming, some athletics, field hockey and in a few schools even soccer, now known as football.
At the end of 2016 the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) released independent data that showed that Football was now Australia’s largest club-based participation sport. The ASC’s AusPlay survey revealed that more than a million men, women, boys and girls were playing football, a figure that was significantly more than any other club-based sport.
This should have come as no surprise. The one sport that a large percentage of migrants know and understand is football. So to help them assimilate into society they gravitate to a sport that they know, and this will in turn see them meet people and make new friends. To many migrants they will never have seen Australian Rules Football until they arrive in Australia, and cricket they simply find baffling.
Of all the sports football it is also one of the simplest games to play. Goals can be made from a jumper on the ground, or sticks stuck in the earth, a “ball” can be a tin can, a stone, or a rolled newspaper. It is this simplicity that sees the game played in open spaces across the world.
In the Ausplay report Football was the number one sport in every state and territory in Australia except for two, South Australia and Victoria, where Australian Rules was first.
Yet football’s new found status in Australia as the number one sport has not made it simpler for young children to play the game.
One of the reasons for this is that very few schools have evolved with the nation. Many have their staff skilled around the traditional sports, such as Swimming, Australian Rules Football and Cricket. This was confirmed in the Ausplay survey where in the activities participated outside of school by boys swimming came in first with 28.3% of participants, Football was second with 22.8%, Aussie Rules third with 13.6% and Cricket was fourth with just 10%. If we look at these figures overall including girls the figures still see Swimming come out on top with 30% Football falls to 14.7% and Australian Rules goes down to 8%. Cricket comes in ninth with 5.6%.
What is worrying is that only one in three children in Australia participate in 60 minutes of physical exercise a day.In addition 77% spend their spare time watching television and only half are involved in a sport. (Source:ASC Play Sport Australia)
Schools are trying to adapt to the changes that have been laid before them. However teachers from a footballing background are few and far between, so many schools have employed outside football academies to come in and run their football programs. There is nothing wrong with this, until these coaches start to push parents to have their child do extra paid for sessions outside of school.
In essence there is nothing wrong with a coach making such an approach, however some parents feel that it is inappropriate. Yet this is again a modern trend. In the Ausplay report 64% of the children aged 9-11 and 60% of those aged 11-14 were involved in organised sport outside of their schools as opposed to 26% and 20% in the same age groups at school.
Yet in football we have a situation where the Football Federation of Australia has come up with a long term plan by which the clubs in each state will develop young talent. National Premier League (NPL) clubs are the top clubs in the state. To be a NPL club every club had to meet a number of criteria, one of which was to have numerous junior teams at set age groups, and then to have accredited coaches coaching those teams. Now they want the cream of these young players to move from these NPL clubs to the A-League youth teams. This is the model that the FFA feels will best develop the next generation of A-League stars and Socceroos.
So if the cream of the crop at each age group is linked to an NPL club – of which the A-League junior sides are part of – and this is the premier junior competition then logically this is the tournament that every young player should be encouraged to play in. Yet once again it would appear that the powers that be who came up with this development of the game have failed to communicate the plan.
Young players are now being pulled from pillar to post. They are being expected to train at least twice a week with their club sides, then they have training at school and some have extra training with their academies. Not only are some young players struggling with three sets of instructions, but some are phoning up to say that they are too tired to attend their club training, or when they do turn up have no energy left to be effective.
As we have seen most of these juniors are playing more football outside of their schools than at school, yet the schools are now putting demands on their best players not to play in their NPL competitions in order to represent their schools. In these games those players who are any good simply waltz through their lesser opponents and are never truly tested. In truth their development stalls. The school may benefit from the results gained from these players steering them to victory but the big winner is the private academy running the school’s program, as their stocks rise if their school is successful.
We are heading for a time where the FFA, or their State representatives in player and game development need to sit down with the schools and look at the fixturing. The solution is an extremely simple one, that the schools be asked to no longer play their school matches on the weekends, that they play them in the week. This would allow those players with talent to participate for their clubs and play against a higher calibre of team and player and ultimately aid their development. In such an environment everyone wins. The player benefits, and will grow as a player, the club benefits as they will have their best players available, and the school benefits from the player being available to play, and also from his improvement playing at a level that aids his development.
If Football is to remain the number one sport it is vital that this be sorted out now. In time schools will employ teachers with backgrounds in football, and the standards will improve. Then the children will be faced with greater demands being placed on them by school and their clubs. Where do their loyalties lie? How will turning their back on their school affect their entry into university?
Children at that age should not have to make such choices. That is why there needs to be some form of intervention now to avoid young players becoming the rope in a game of tug of war between club and school. Hopefully, for the good of the game and the future of Australia’s next generation of players a solution can be found quickly, but as scary as it may be to some this is a change that has to happen.