Our elite and professional sportspeople no doubt offer us much motivation, inspiration and enjoyment whilst those that represent the country offer us a great sense of national pride. Similarly those demonstrating sporting excellence at the highest level also provide us with important lessons in leadership, commitment, perseverance and dedication.
But Australian sport in recent times appears to have lost some of its sheen and on occasions the integrity of sport has also been questioned. There is talk about a win at all costs mentality, arrogant attitude and even a disrespect for the game. Interestingly sports bodies are subsequently calling in cultural and leadership experts to undertake reviews and resolve the situation.
From the outside looking in it appears that elite and professional sport has “gone to another level”. The public and media scrutiny is greater than ever and sports bodies and organizations are competing fiercely against rivals not only for victory in competition but for survival, sponsorship dollars even government support. The need to succeed on and off the pitch or field appears suffocating. Elite sportspeople also say that their roles are as intense as ever, focused on success and driven by regimented programs that cover every aspect of development, preparation and performance.
Some though would argue that this shift has contributed to enormous pressure on sportspeople and administrators and the subsequent loss of the true ethos of sport at an elite level. Attempts are now being made towards restoration.
Highlighting and celebrating inspirational acts of fair play and sportsmanship at the elite level appear a positive if basic start. I note that the Australian Sports Commission has introduced the Spirit of Sport Award. This should be a great example to all and be something that all sportspeople should aspire to. Few people would also even know know that there is The FIFA Fair Play Trophy, a less famous prize that is also awarded to the team with the best record of fair play during the tournament. Ideally elite sport should value such awards and encourage athletes to strive for them. Similarly we as spectators and fans should value them more than we do
But to my mind the best way to to recalibrate and achieve a cultural shift back to the real values of sport is to take a good hard look within our own backyards and draw inspiration and learning from our grassroots and community participants. It is often at this level that sport is at its purest. It is there that kids and adults play for the love of the game. It is there that they value their sport and the benefits it brings them. It is often there that the true spirit of fair play and integrity abounds.
I would argue that reconnecting community with the elite could have some amazing benefits for all parties. In fact I have always believed that community arms of many professional clubs and sporting bodies can be the most important in any such organizations and would drive the culture and values of all departments from administration to the playing group or athletes themselves. These values and the resultant positive culture can encourage unity, appreciation, confidence and solidarity on and off the pitch or in and out of the arena.
My idea is definitely not new and there has been some great progress in this space in recent times. It has been refreshing recently to see that community sports have been integrated with the elite particularly at some major sporting events. Examples include the integration of disability sports into some mainstream sporting events like the Olympics and the recent Victorian Golf Open. I also note that some of the state and national sporting awards nights integrate the professional and community. These are a great start.
But the opportunities I would suggest lie more than at just large events and tournaments . Ongoing genuine connection, collaboration and interaction at the literal grassroots environments would see positive results for all involved. It would offer elite sportspeople regular opportunities for them to gain a true perspective and appreciation for the opportunities they have before them. It would give them opportunities to give back. It would give them an understanding of what they mean to their fans and the expectations that fans have of them when representing them. It would ideally demonstrate the value that people at this level place on fair play and integrity. It would hopefully keep them grounded.
It is also overlooked that it can offer athletes the opportunity to learn important community and people skills that are transferable across their career and post career transition. Those at community and grassroots level would naturally benefit enormously having their heroes inspire and motivate them to be more active and connected to their sports and communities.
Making it happen is not easy and undeniably sportspeople and administrators have enormous time constraints. But these barriers can easily be overcome. Formal yet flexible and structured programs could surely be achievable bringing the two together on a regular basis. In fact, many professional footballers I have met in recent times have spoken about a need and desire to do more community work and wanting help to make such a connection happen. Could these interactions reinforce the values of sport and help drive a more positive culture across elite sport?
You might ask but aren’t sportspeople doing clinics, visiting schools and signing autographs already? Sure there is valuable contact between parties like that happening but I am talking about structured personal and professional development programs in which athletes are connected with community groups and trained in a way to maximize their social and community impact.
I would also argue that elite women’s sport are the leaders in this space with these athletes significantly more connected with the grassroots and community level than their male counterparts. They show a great appreciation of the opportunities before them and a commitment to giving back. They play to win but also strive for respect for women across all areas of life. They are also driven by the motivation to create more opportunities for women to be be involved and succeed in sport. With the ever increasing coverage of women’s sport the contrast to some of male sport’s failings has become obvious and offers us refreshing and inspiring models on how we want our athletes to compete and conduct themselves.
The spirit of fair play and sportsmanship and the true ethos of sport has been intrinsic in the community sport initiatives that I have been involved in for almost 20 years. It has been the cornerstone of the nationwide Big Issue Community Street Soccer Program since it started as a pilot in 2005 and of the 9 Homeless World Cup Campaigns that I have coached in. These are community sporting initiatives that allow people from homeless and disadvantaged backgrounds to earn respect from themselves and from others in the community. Hundreds of homeless people participate across the country each week and use the sport to improve their health and well-being, overcome addiction and improve their mental health. The program and sport means everything to them. Conducting themselves in a respectful manner is a critical part of their development and rehabilitation. Sport allows them the opportunity to respect themselves and others once more.
To this day winning coaching teams to two Fair Play trophies at the Homeless World Cup are up there with my proudest professional achievements. Generally at these events the Australian players are bright beacons of sportsmanship and a credit to their country. They are alcohol and drug free on tour and most importantly play in a way that helps them turn their lives around. They’ll strive for victory as always but not at the expense of respect for themselves, their team mates, opponents or officials. Surely they can be models to all of us irrespective of the level we play at.
This fair play ethos philosophy runs through all the programs I deliver irrespective of the cohort. It includes the seniors playing walking football or the international students playing with City in the Community helping them connect with the wider community.
But fair play has all to often been been perceived as the domain of community and junior sport and only occasionally is it celebrated fully at the elite level. I sense that this is changing and the wider community is expecting a change at the top level. Reality is that without fair play there is no sport and definitely there are no winners without it. And the same should apply at the elite level. Winning at all costs and at the expense of the spirit of sport, one’s opponent or officials produce hollow victories that generally we as fans and fellow custodians of the game do not appreciate or value. Fair play is really a demonstration of respect. In life and in sport we seek respect from others whilst self-respect is a vital component of our inner life. And like anything in life it is in giving that we do receive.
Years ago, I was coaching a group of prisoners against a corporate team as part of the Big Issue’s Port Phillip Prison Street Soccer Program ( supporting the rehabilitation of prisoners with intellectual disabilities) and was asking the players to watch their tackles and respect the referee and their opponents. Things were heating up. “You don’t get it George. We have to win. We always lose. We’ve lost all our lives” said one prisoner. “Don’t worry about him George. I want to win too but I don’t want to win like that” said another.
Pretty sure we can all get it, irrespective of the level we play.
George Halkias, is National Coach, Big Issue Community Street Soccer Program, Special Projects City in the Community, Sports for Development Consultant and Motivational speaker