G’Day ‘learners’.

Today’s blog will help sports coaches (and all caring adult stakeholders) to:

Consider the idea of dominant cultural discourses to better inform the practice and future of your own and peers’ efforts with learners…

Today’s piece is a lead-in reflection toward a soon report on the Queensland Sports Collective Forum run by Netball Queensland (NQ) and mentioned in piece#2 of the ‘365 Day project’. As mentioned in the earlier piece, I was looking at the collective’s presenters’ line-up with a bit of angst.  Indeed, I wear my heart on my sleeve for the grassroots and thus the schedule was full of ‘Big Dogs’…  Anyway the great Richard McInnes from NQ, allowed me to see past the massive chips on my shoulders through his great humility. He also had the ability to articulate that the Forum’s process was indeed part of an overall strategy to help navigate through the grassroots maze.

However, in order to see and make sense of my own thoughts regarding the need for ‘CHANGE NOW’, I thought it best to revisit a blog I wrote nearly 12 months ago below…

Gunny (June 2018): I THINK it's time to TALK more about 'Grassroots' footy!!! It's time to talk about all sport in Australia's development zone...

Renowned Australian football journalist, Martin Flannagan just days ago reminded us of the dichotomy that exists between the Australian Football League (AFL) corporation and the game of Australian football (Aussie Rules in slang).

As reprinted in 'The Footy Almanac' he gives a Norm Smith Oration toast, where he wisely explains these contrasting narratives:

a) "...the game has evolved into two very different cultures. Those at the top talk in terms of branding and product and market share, the language of corporate culture";

b) from here, when talking about the GAME Australian football the situation in his home state is described to him, as "...the ecosystem of Tasmanian football is sick";

c) and then, "If football is an industry, it is at the most basic level a primary industry, but everywhere I go in Australia, I hear the same – that industry is struggling";

d) until finally he provides a warning, " those who are responsible for its [the game, Australian football's] future – Ignore Grassroots Football At Your Peril".

Now, from the outset, let me state that Roy Masters could have written the same about Rugby League, or, Peter Fitzsimons on Rugby Union. Indeed, again I suggest SPORT in general in this country is struggling! However, Flannagan feels perhaps that the artistry of HIS game of Australian football is being contemptuously treated though his subtle suggestions about the power that is 'industry'.

It is a pretty thought provoking piece. Thus, I thought we could delve deeper here. Indeed, if Flannagan's 'intel' in Tasmania is correct, I now wonder, are we just at the 'tip' of the iceberg?

Before I start, with some information on stuff I consider as 'problematic', please know, that I will provide some possible 'solutions' on this very 'complex' issue facing Aussie sports in coming weeks...


1) The ‘Australian Government’s first round of the ‘AusPlay’ survey, released in December 2016 (Australian Sports Commission) - covers the period September 2015 to October 2016 -lists the AFL (not Australian football) as the third most popular club sport for Australian child-adult combined participants. Soccer is miles ahead and indeed looking at trends it seems that Basketball will soon take over Australian football for third place.

2) This neutral government data suggests that Australian football is hardly the ‘national game’ (which Gillon McLaughlin happily declared in 2016...). However, is this patriotic rhetoric just endemic of all sports as corporate systems within systems? This will be explained.

3) In any case, one would suggest that the rise of the AFLW (AFL Women) and massive growth in the girls' game has provided a good 'smoke screen' for what is truly happening. Would Flannagan say that the girls have helped support the corporation's 'market share' and 'branding'...? It certainly HAS helped but I would like to suggest that as Flannagan suggests there are market forces in overdrive! One thing that I can say is that previous participant figures posted by the AFL corporation and indeed, all sporting corporations, were often misleading when compared to the Ausplay data...

4) Again, is this just endemic of a system (the AFL corporation), within a system (Australian public funding for sport and recreation)? In any case, the old 'PE' teacher in me has suspicions when even Roy Morgan research (2015) was flagging what was going on...

5) Roy Morgan's Michelle Levine:

"“While more Australian children are playing sports such as soccer, basketball, netball and tennis at school than they were in 2010, the same cannot be said of cricket and footy, which seem to be slowly falling out favour in local school sports programs. Of course, participation rates vary among different ages, with 10-11 year-olds the most likely to have played cricket (26%) and Australian Rules football (18%) at school in 2014. Outside of school hours (and away from the obligations of Phys. Ed classes), participation has slipped across several sports, with football and cricket being among the casualties."

6) Then, we can take a look at the 2016 AFL Tasmanian Annual Report (2016) which provides some support for Flannagan's dire expression of the game's sickness. For example, 'Auskick' numbers were down by 17%!!!

7) As well, my own analysis of the Ausplay data (you find it yourself too) found that of the ‘top 10’ kids’ Australian ball sports, 'AFL' (as well as Cricket, Football and Tennis), had lost many participants who began as 5-8 year olds. This was especially the case when measured against the 12-14 year old's who remained. In fact, only tennis faced a larger attrition rate than AFL’s 43.9% reduction. In contrast, other sports show increases, with some like Netball, Basketball and Touch Football increasing by well over 50%!!!

8) At the time it seemed plausible to me that the AFL mirrors Rochelle Eime et al’s (2015) findings that amongst many things, modified sports programs, like 'Auskick' for children aged 4-12: were not developmentally appropriate for boys or girls, had little positive impact on children actually progressing to the club version of the ‘real’ sport, and, that perhaps an intermediate program was also needed as a stepping stone to better engage youth.

9) Yet, the 'Grassroots' remain very important!!! Indeed, a La Trobe University/AFL Victoria report, “Value of a Community Football Club” (2014), suggested that for every dollar spent on 'Grassroots' there is at least a $4.40 social return on investment for community benefits. Could this could explain the generous expenditure given by the AFL when it funds each AusKick participant’s backpack and welcoming merchandise? They are presently valued at $45 for each child a year and in total cost the AFL and its partner National Australia Bank $8.9 million in 2016. However, with data showing that 36% of Australian young people aged 5-17 not participating in at least weekly organized sport or physical activity (Active Healthy Kids Australia, 2016), one would consider that all organizations like the AFL could be better structured and better placed to engage their wider participants (including fans, parents, staff and the like). It appears that like others big sports, the AFL is struggling in retention of players. Certainly 'Ausplay' and Rochelle Eime and crew show this to be the case...

10) It is proposed that if societies encouraged young people to participate in two organized sports per year, we could see a 26% reduction in obesity (Drake et al., 2012). as a nation we are at times doing our part here, with Vella SA et al, (2015) presenting Australia and New Zealand as among the best in the world in attracting young people to organized sport. However, at the same time the authors stress that the serious health issue of the prevention of sports dropout amongst young people remains an important research focus. And again we don't need to look far to find helpful South Australia research...

11) South Australian football (SANFL) featured in research on young people, by Agnew, Pill and Drummond (2016). The findings suggested that, amongst other things, the coach is a most important determinant in whether or not children or youth continue involvement in sport. In particular, the authors noted that coaches were pivotal for South Australian junior Australian football in not only the participants’ retention, but also their enjoyment and feelings of inclusion. Indeed they have also called for more research on player retention in Australian football and amongst many suggestions said that coaches need better education around player inclusion, fun, enjoyment and enabling children opportunities to better engage with time on the ball. Education brings opportunity hey? I can't tell you how many times I have been castigated up here for mentioning that our juniors and youth need smaller fields and 9v9 or 12v12 opportunities... EDUCATION and SCIENCE may help Aussie sports CULTURAL ignorance???

12) In any case perhaps Drummond, Pill and Agnew (2016) put it best when speaking about the concerns of retention and dropout in Australian football: “It is clear from this research that there are some significant issues facing Australian Football in terms of retention rates of its junior participants.” Indeed, Cripps (2016) suggests that information on AFL player withdrawal is also scarce in the ‘talent pathway’ sector. Thus one would of course best consider potential solutions to the clear problem of player attrition numbers within the AFL. This will come next week... Yes EDUCATION is important (sorry but I am a humble teacher which I hope to continue through life).


I am a coach with a HEART and I care about young people. I don't just sit around whinging about systemic problems facing the beauty that is sport. And you know what, I'm not alone! As such, one of my first LinkedIn videos with the QLD U15s Australian football WOLFPACK was viewed by 5000 people including a Head Coach of a Dutch TOP tier football club, FC Utrecht called Jan van Loon. Jan humbly reached out to me with his Finnish legendary player/coach mate called Joonas Kolkka, to talk about Youth development and retention.

I met Jan on Friday night for a few ales but he too was very concerned with youth drop-out in The Netherlands, who once led all of us with their ability to retain through grassroots communities. However, to make sure that I shared the love, I got Jan to also meet David Rath (AFL's coach innovation guru). I am told by Jan that the Hawthorn coach called Alistair also came... "Our best coach!" I told him. Those at the top of the coaching game it appears are always learning!

On the topic of learning, myself and some great former peers at Australian Catholic University (ACU) Brisbane, like Gert-Jan Pepping and Matt Sweeney, are hosting some of the key stakeholders within Netball, Australian football, Soccer, Gymnastics and Rugby to share a coaches' roundtable with Joonas and Jan this week. We hope to share and learn from each other on 'true' youth ENGAGEMENT. It's being held this Thursday as a 'think-tank', June 28 for and the wonderful Shane Pill (Flinders University) and Rochelle Eime (Federation and Victoria Universities) are skyping in with their research on 'grassroots' coaches and sports clubs' importance. Not a bad start...

Now, if the true meaning of 'compete' is to 'strive together' then I at least hope that we can keep our eye on the prize: KIDS as PLAYERS not just VIEWERS... All sports leaders can work together on this. Mine and ACU's vision here is to at least start the conversation.

It is time for us to learn much more about this like Jan's amazing example. I will share some thoughts on our summit next week as a step forward.


Yours in learning,


Coach Gunny - BEd (PE), MEd (Sports Coaching)

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