Editorial: Remember to be an Animal

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Adam BaldwinTackle Your Feelings Program Manager

In a meet and greet with a newly appointed coach on the eve of a pre-season some years back he posed this question to the playing group: ‘Do you want me to coach you to win a flag?’ Or do you want to just have some fun?’

We insisted in unison that we were there to win a flag and implored him to lead us accordingly. That year with a talented playing list and astute coach, we did neither. We didn’t win the flag and we didn’t have much fun (on the field).

However, maybe things would have been different if our answer to his question was “Both”?

One of the great things about the VAFA is the passion, pride, history and that every single match matters. I got a reminder of this as I debriefed a round one loss with my brother-in-law on Sunday morning. He coaches a team that won the Grand Final last year but lost the re-match last weekend and the result stings despite having the flag in his keeping.

Early in the season, with all the hard work behind you and expectation ahead, its timely to remember that first and foremost community footy should be about fun. It is also about belonging, connection and of course, winning. However, this is often the by-product of a group of people enjoying themselves.

You do not have to look any further than Thirds Division 4 South to find a team that will prioritise fun above all else. While the Wattle Park Animals have ambitions to lift the cup in 2024, it is fair to say that putting smiles on people’s faces is more important to them.

You might say that it is easy to have fun at 9:20am with just a handful of spectators looking on, but the Animals also deal with expectation. More people will catch a glimpse of them this year than every other VAFA team combined. They are likely to be the most watched Aussie Rules team outside of the AFL.

Led by social media influencers Checkers, Srey, Will Taylor, Caden MacDonald and Connor Rogers, the boys jumped out of the blocks with a win and some viral moments that will reach 100,000 people on social media in the days after the final siren (300,000 + at time of writing).

I am not suggesting that coaches in the premier sections should pull out the tape from last week and go to school on how they move the ball, but inspiration can be taken from their approach to footy.

On the surface, it is all about torps, choccy milk and mullets but underneath all of this showmanship these guys embody everything that community sport should be. They promote mate ship, they hero the battler and the star players in equal measure, do not take themselves too seriously and look after their mates. They are also passionate about promoting mental health and in this regard, they have found the right league to partner with.

This year the VAFA will launch a new Mental Health and Welfare Strategy, including the introduction of a Member Assistance Program, which provides all players with an opportunity to tap into psychological services at no cost.

This is an incredible commitment from the VAFA, at significant financial cost, and I understand it to be a first for community football leagues across the country. This service sits behind Tackle Your Feelings, which is a proactive mental health education and has been available at no cost to all VAFA clubs since 2021.

Community sport is on unsteady ground in many regards and despite its popularity, football is no different. Innovation is a must and from afar there is a lot of good things happening at VAFA HQ.

If I circle back to the question that was posed by my coach all those years ago, I’m sure we would have requested he coach for the flag, but I hope we also would have challenged the binary nature of the question.

Community sporting clubs have such a great opportunity to influence the mental health of young people by creating an environment where people can be themselves, feel valued and safe, and ultimately have fun no matter where they sit on the ladder.

No doubt there will be moments during the winter where footy becomes a grind and priorities become skewed, so in these times remember to be an Animal.

Any club that wishes to bring the Tackle Your Feelings program to their club should register their interest with Pranav Menon via [email protected]

Tackle Your Feelings is a partnership between the AFL Coaches Association, AFL Players’ Association and Zurich Insurance, and the program is powered by the Z-Zurich Foundation.