SUMMARY: Cyril Rioli, Austin Wonnermari, Mathew Stokes… just some of the latest wave of Aboriginal players carving a name for themselves in the AFL. But have you ever thought about how hard it may have been for them to get to where they are today from their outback roots? We asked two coaches trying to make a difference in these areas to get a better understanding of the issues surrounding coaches and players in Indigenous communities today. And we were amazed at some of the answers.

Background

While many aboriginal communities in outback Australia are suffering hardships, including funding and education problems, one pastime is growing rapidly and is set for an exciting future.

Australian rules football is proudly giving our young indigenous players some real excitement and joy in the outback, along with a real pathway to the big time if they are good enough.

But while this situation offers us all some inspiration in our game, it also presents a whole new range of issues which need to be tackled by the various state bodies of the AFL.

And the importance of this issue goes beyond just wanting more Cyril Rioli’s and Austin Wonnermari’s in the AFL. It goes to the heart of helping address some of the social issues in our outback communities as well.

Football Issues In Indigenous Communities

So what are the issues facing our indigenous Australian rules footballers in the outback? And what is being done there to address them?

We asked two coaches trying to make a difference there.

Brett Claudius works as the Kimberley Football Development Manager in Broome (WA). Claudius was a 46 senior game player for the Perth Football Club before he retired to take up his post.

Jarrod Chipperfield is another former WAFL player (with South Fremantle) trying to make a difference. Jarrod is the current Talent and Coaching Manager for AFL Northern Territory. He is also a former East Perth Football Manager (WAFL) as well.

Between them both, these two development coaches have seen it all in the outback communities.

And here are the unique issues and challenges that they told us about.

Issue # 1 – Lack of Coaching Expertise

According to Claudius, the biggest issue facing football in the outback right now is the lack of coaching expertise available to the players. “Our players do not get ready access to quality coaches as players do in the big cities”, Claudius explains.

The same issue also happens in the NT, with Chipperfiled further explaining to us how many coaches thrust into the coaching position, “Are generally an aboriginal elder who may not have a football background.”

And while coaching courses are available in these areas, outback coaches just don’t have the same access to high profile players and coaches to mentor them and offer them knowledge and ideas.

This issue is certainly one that those in charge of football development in these areas want to address.

Issue # 2 – Lack of Club Structure

Another major issue in the outback is the lack of club structures, where the coach may have to do everything from coaching the team, to running the club and filling the water bottles. Equipment is also scarce, especially the numbers of footballs available for players to train with.

This also means that the coach rarely has the time and the resources required to adequately assist him improve as a coach.

Some of these issues are being addressed with various aid programs that assist outback clubs and players with equipment.

And according to Claudius, these issues will also be addressed over time.

Issue # 3 – The English Language

Another big issue that Chipperfiled made us aware of was the fact that English is not the first language for many aboriginal people. And unfortunately, this means that “Much of the coaching manuals and information available today culturally irrelevant.”

Issue # 4 – How To Prepare Them For AFL Footy

Another issue facing the indigenous players in the outback is the question of how to prepare them for the greater discipline and structures that exist not only in the AFL environment, but also at the elite Institute of Sport programs that are available to the very good players?

“It can be very tough for them” Chipperfield told us.

“In the case of Austin Wonnermari for example, he played in the NT state 18’s, but also spent time at Norwood in the SANFL. This helped him learn to adjust to living in a big city and exposed him to other professional athletes. To pull a player from the Tiwi Islands and place him straight into Melbourne is a huge jump.”

Looking Forward – The Future Of Football In The Outback

So what does the future hold in Western Australia’s Kimberley region and the Northern Territory? Well according to our coaches, here are two things to look forward to:

# 1 – More Stars From The Next Generation

Firstly, when quizzed on the state of football in NT, Chipperfield responded with a resounding “Strong!”

“There are a lot of exciting times ahead in the Northern Territory with many young players progressing onto careers in the AFL”, say Chipperfield. “Many hope to follow the lead set by players such as Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli and Melbourne’s Austin Wonnermari.”

Claudius also told us of similar excitement with some of the young kids in the Kimberley as well.

Further excitement is also being generated with the Northern Territory admitting a team into the Queensland state competition in 2009.

“The AFL is a religion for kids in the NT and a few trailblazers in recent years has made that dream seem a lot closer and more of a reality for many kids, and it has become a pathway that many want to follow”, states Chipperfield.

# 2 –  A Level 1 Coaching Course For Indigenous Communities

One of the initiatives the AFL NT is trying to implement is the formation of a Level One Coaching Accreditation Course that will be developed specifically for the indigenous community. This is being developed by Chipperfield with assistance from the AFL NT and Tim Lawrence, the Regional Development Manager for Central Australia. “This program will be culturally significant for aboriginal people all over Australia” says Chipperfield. “It will contain more practical components and less of the AFL sports sciences which our coaches do not have access to.”

The AFL NT hope to have the program up and running fully in 12 to 18 months, and it is receiving strong support from the AFL and other indigenous players already playing in the AFL. Strong support was generated from the recent AFL All Stars game in Darwin, along with Chris Johnson, the coach of the Aboriginal All Stars. Ex AFL champion Michael Mclean is also providing support via his role with the NT state team.

“Jason Misfud, the AFL Foundation chairman has also been very receptive of our thoughts and ideas” says Chipperfield.

All coaches need to seek out education opportunities to improve, but the value of having indigenous coaches accredited with Level One education is that the players will receive better coaching and therefore be better prepared for the next level via the development pathway that includes the NT state 15’s, 16’s and 18’s programs.

It will also expose these players to what is required at the next level of football, because generally, most football in the outback is unstructured and is played with a high degree of natural ability and flair. When players progress to the next level, the game is very structured and there is a greater emphasis on physical conditioning. The defensive aspects of the game are also stricter and they must be worked on and improved as Indigenous players generally play a fast flowing and open type of game.

Conclusion

With all these challenges faced by football administrators, their job appears to be a huge one, but it is being addressed by a core of dedicated and enthusiastic workers who believe the end results will be well worth the hard work.

Exciting times will be ahead not only for the NT, as football followers across Australia get to witness the sometimes freakish feats of the next Cyril Rioli or Austin Wonnermari.

To all those coaches doing it tough out in those communities – congratulations for a job well done so far!
Title photo by Tristen Murray via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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