Junior footy’s faux pa’s

As published by The Sunday Age, 3 August 2014

To mark or duck is the split-second decision amid the relentless barrage of low-flying scud footies during Auskick goal-kicking practice.

When an unseen green “brick” pummelled the end of my thumb (much to the amusement of the little blighter responsible), another thought crossed my mind, besides one starting with ‘F’.

Why am I the only goose standing here?

Notwithstanding the single parent paradigm, other sporting drop-offs and work commitments, precious few fathers were on hand to lend a hand besides the group’s coach. Or more pointedly, few dads were willing or able to share in their boys’ wonder years of learning and loving the game.

Yet, as a sign of the times, a 15-year-old from the local girls’ team volunteered her Saturday morning when most teenagers loathe emerging from under their doona before midday.

More mothers braved the chill and their children’s underdeveloped motor skills, appreciating a highlight of their kids’ week. But when the plaintive call went out for assistance on the cones, the mums were hardly dressed, nor conditioned, for exuberant seven-year-olds and mid-winter slop. Cue tumbleweeds.

Coordinator Chas Sauro has noticed the shifting parental dynamic at this particular Auskick centre in Melbourne’s northern ‘burbs.

“It’s funny when taking inquiries for first-time Auskicker, they’re almost invariably from – you guessed it – mum and not dad.”

Nevertheless, Sauro has just one female coach at his disposal.

“Kylie is a superstar. Great director by voice and a great teacher by action.”

Sauro believes that while spectating mums could be ‘naturally fantastic instructors and communicators’, confidence to demonstrate the skills is the sticking point. Meanwhile, most men ‘wait to be asked’.

Sauro considers the cultural diversity of the centre’s location a possible factor. “And some parents think it’s an ‘outdoor childcare centre with footballs’, whereby you drop off your child at 9am and pick them up at 10.45am. It’s not done with bad intention, but more so because they’re too busy.”

Auskick might be hailed as one of the AFL’s great triumphs, yet its Victorian predecessor, Vickick, thrived more than 30 years ago. Backpack full of goodies aside, to all intents the regimen of end-to-end skill drills, culminating in the much-anticipated game and BBQ, has barely changed (anyone remember the ‘we wanna match’ chant?).  Which compared to other codes’ use of inclusive game sense activities leaves room for improvement, to be picky.

The volunteer coaches are still tremendous and Auskick is a pleasurable time warp recalling a spindly legged self, loving every second. There was no shortage of dads either, back in my time, to hear the excited ‘did ya see my speccy?’ before providing the specific feedback and encouragement that only a parent or guardian can.

Vital to keeping Australian rules a vibrant football code, women’s contribution is at least receiving healthier exposure nowadays. Anecdotal evidence suggests at grassroots level their support has never been more critical to the sport’s ongoing viability. Although the sanitisation of the product is at times a contentious by-product, significantly females also account for about half the patronage at AFL matches.

The league’s move back to Saturday afternoons in 2015, as reported by Caroline Wilson on Saturday, appreciates the barriers confronting, and the significance of, both mums and dads’ willingness to take their offspring to the big game (as well as the little game). And to this end, twilight zone fixturing has been a logistical nightmare, particularly for mothers.

While the burgeoning presence and influence of women in football must continue to be recognised and celebrated, one can’t help but ponder the apparent drop-off in male involvement at some junior levels. Are fathers so time poor?

As a regular umpire of the “B-game”, the general inability to kick the ball and grasp the match scenario surprises me. Many appear to lack an available father, brother (or mother) to teach them the bare basics.

Various other theories abound. Is too much “screen time” to blame? Has the round pill bumped the Sherrin as the school lunchtime ball of choice? Are diminishing backyards and an unwillingness to allow kids unsupervised park play genuine factors?

Or perhaps in terms of role models, rather than pinning the job exclusively and precariously on AFL stars, can more effort be made by the one sharing the same name, if not the same abode, to grasp rather than duck the opportunity flying past?



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