Lack of cultural support for Indigenous AFL players

Posted on September 5, 2011

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Little understanding of family and community connections:

Indigenous athletes within the AFL need more culturally relevant and specialized support to maximize their performance according to a recent study by La Trobe University’s Centre for Sport and Social Impact.

Associate Professor Matthew Nicholson and colleagues looked at seven of the ten Victorian AFL clubs that agreed to take part in the study.  A total of 24 Indigenous athletes participated, which was equivalent to 54 per cent of Indigenous players within the Victorian based AFL clubs.

Participants underwent interviews and questions divided into three sections. The first explored the nature of challenges faced by the athletes; the second identified the effectiveness of support provided by the club; and the third dealt with ways to improve structures and support systems.

The interviews were led by an Indigenous researcher in an attempt to create a culturally safe space for the participants, says Dr Nicholson.

‘Research into social support within sport has largely focused on its relationship in assisting with injury recovery.  However, social support is positively correlated with physical health and athletic performance.

‘The study highlighted that the family and community connections held by Indigenous athletes are little understood by their non-Indigenous teammates, their clubs or the league, yet they form an essential network of social support that provides the foundation for Indigenous participation and success,’ he says.

Dr Nicholson: Unique and significant challenges

Australian Indigenous athletes arguable face some unique and significant challenges in becoming elite performers. Moving interstate at a young age, establishing professional playing careers away from usual family support networks, coping with possible covert and overt racism and adapting to new lifestyles and incomes far removed from their community upbringing are common challenges.

One Indigenous staff  member

‘The players believed that the support structures were deficient in several key aspects, the most significant being a lack of support to deal with the disconnection from family and community once they had been drafted, and a lack of cultural understanding and awareness among team mates and staff once they arrived at their new club,’ says Dr Nicholson.

The players in the study thought it was unreasonable for one Indigenous staff member within the Australian Football League Players Association to look after 16 clubs and their players. Many were also eager to have more contact with Indigenous players from other AFL clubs

‘The majority of the players believed that an Indigenous person employed in the football department within each of the clubs, with a specific role in the player development and welfare area, would significantly increase the level of support for Indigenous athletes.

‘Although coaches were identified as a significant source of support, fellow Indigenous teammates were the most important source of support within the club environment,’ says Dr Nicholson.

‘Provision of Social Support for Elite Indigenous Athletes in Australian Football’ was published in The Journal of Sport Management, 2 July 2011.