By Ellie Grounds
Burpengary, just north of Brisbane, will play host to 84 indigenous female footballers this week, all under the age of 18, and all assuming the role of young leaders amongst their peers and communities.
They will run on to the field from today, representing not only Australia’s seven states and territories, but positive leadership and increased opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people across the nation.
These are the pillars that underpin the National AFL Female KickStart Championships, an all-girl competition that started in 2013 to promote education, healthy lifestyle and leadership among female Indigenous Under 18 players.
While the male competition celebrated its fourth year in 2014, AFL Head of Diversity Jason Mifsud said the Female KickStart Championships were developed in 2013 to ensure the AFL isfurthering it’s reach and impact within Indigenous Australia, promoting inclusion of everyone in the game.
“The National Female KickStart Championships is the first targeted female Indigenous program to support the key objective of driving participation and talent outcomes,” Misfud said.
“It also enables the AFL to promote other social outcomes such as health, education, leadership and employment objectives with Indigenous females.”
Perhaps nobody believes in the potential of AFL as a vehicle of social change within Australia more than reigning 2013 Female KickStart Champions, the Northern Territory Thunder.
According to coach and AFL Central Australia Regional Manager Andy Hood, the success of their team is built upon a combination of raw football talent and emphasis on making conscious, positive and healthy lifestyle decisions.
“Last year we had a successful first year, we won the championship, beating Victoria, which was a fantastic effort, and this year we’re looking to obviously continue our success”.
“We base our success and team rules around discipline and healthy outcomes,” Hood said.
Fittingly, the Northern Territory Under 18 team’s jersey sponsor is Quitnow, an Australian government anti-smoking initiative, which Hood says ties in perfectly with their vision. As part of the 2013 team guidelines, Thunder players were declined in selection if they didn’t follow key anti-tobacco lifestyle choices.
“It’s really important for us to ensure we develop players, not only in their football, but with good healthy lifestyle choices, such as not smoking and eating nutritious food,” Hood explained.
“That’s part of the development of young Indigenous women in the Northern Territory Under 18 football club. And our sponsor, Quitnow, is a big part of our vision. We don’t want people smoking – it’s not tolerated.”
And the positive impact the KickStart program is having on these young women isn’t just confined to the AFL field. Like their coaches and mentors before them, it’s hoped they will spread the message of health when they return home.
“It’s important that we also develop role models to go back to the community and teach other young Indigenous women about football, but also very much about the lifestyle choices they make and the impact it will make on their dreams,” Hood said.
The communities the girls hail from are far and wide, creating a unique team atmosphere for the Northern Territory girls, especially compared with their KickStart Championship peers.
“I guess the Territory is such a unique place. We bring young women together from communities from as far as Tiwi Islands and Alice Springs and [everywhere] in between, and they all get together.”
“For them to be able to perform and play football and have success without training or really being together is really unique. Unlike other states – who can probably get together easier, and have broader development resources – our team is based on raw football talent,” Hood explained.
But promising athletic potential is only half of the criteria girls must meet to be chosen for the KickStart Championship team.
“It’s obviously to do with how they perform off the field with their lifestyle choices – their commitment to school and also leadership,” Hood explained, “but there’s also a Quit Cup Carnival (QCC) and from that carnival we also pick talent. So it’s talent we know is in the system but also looking at new talent at the QCC in Darwin. We have remote teams come as well as teams from Darwin.”
From that, a dozen 14 to 17-year-old girls were chosen for the 2014 Northern Territory team. And with a mix of experienced and fresh talent, Hood is feeling confident in the Thunder’s chance of once again coming out on top.
“It’s great to have four of last year’s winners [in the 2014 team], but also great for them to mentor the younger, new ones coming through, teaching them what we were teaching those girls last year and now [taking on] more of a leadership role.
“I’m really excited – to be honest, we’ve got probably a stronger team than we did last year. We’re better prepared, we know what to expect and we’re geared up for it more than last year now that we’re in the second year. We’re feeling really excited, and we’re very confident that we’re going to be a really strong team.”
If Northern Territory’s performance last year is anything to go by, Hood should have nothing to worry about. After losing to powerhouse team Victoria in the minor round games in 2013, the two teams met again in the grand final, with the Thunder coming back from trailing at half time to steal the championship by just eight points in the dying minutes of the game.
Their victory resulted in a domino effect of success: nine of the 12 girls were chosen for the initial AFL Indigenous Female Woomeras squad, with six eventually making it through to the final team, and the 2013 Thunder captain being named captain of the Woomeras, an extraordinary feat which Hood said really highlighted the talent they had. And it didn’t stop there.
“Based on that performance, we actually went on to win the Northern Territory Sports Award for Team of the Year, a magnificent and really prestigious award,” Hood proudly explained.
“It an incredible achievement which sort of highlights the achievement of the win.”
The Championships serve as an inspiring reminder of just how powerful AFL is as an instrument in bettering sporting, health, leadership, education and employment outcomes for Australian and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia. And, as Hood says, the sport is nowhere near a shortage of enthusiastic Indigenous players.
“We’ve got just such a massive amount of talent – raw football talent. That’s what the game is based on – that flair and skills. It’s incredible to see these girls coming from communities where they love football as much as the boys. It’s just exciting.”
The five-day Championships continue today at the Moreton Bay Regional Sports Complex, AFL Precinct.