Suburban football clubs, the Australian variety, are an amazing microcosm of their local culture, a place that brings people together but where many of their unconscious prejudices and misgivings are given a place to camp and grow.
As my guest for this week points out, sporting clubs where historically created by their communities because they realised the important role sport could play in the character development of young people. What seems to have happened, perhaps through its commercialisation and professionalisation, is that sport is no longer about character development, but about dollars, about winning at the cost of values, and about selfish ambition. And many of the behaviours exhibited at sporting clubs, for example sexism, homophobia, racism and drug taking, actually pull in the opposite direction of character development.
Jamin Heppell grew up in country Victoria in a town called Leongatha, and played a lot of football for the local club. The football and netball clubs in country Victorian towns are the hubs of the community; the glue that brings people across the town together and unites them behind a common cause. Leongatha was no exception. Jamin was into sport his whole life, and aspired to be an elite athlete playing AFL at the highest level. And while he played sport, he also found himself drawn to leadership positions…football, school, debating. He wanted to know what it was to influence others and how to use this influence in a positive way.
A moment witnessed as a 16-year-old saw these two trajectories of sport and leadership combine in a sense of disillusion and questioning: Jamin was hanging out with his friends at a club social function when he saw a charismatic, young member of the senior team hand out ecstasy pills to four of his friends. Shocked, it made Jamin question what it was that grassroots football was really all about. He knew sport could serve a greater purpose, but he was not seeing it materialise in the club he was part of.
This played on his mind for a couple of years, and while his dream to become and AFL footballer did not come to pass, an experience as an 18-year-old lead Jamin down a different path. The YMCA Victoria put on a leadership program for 60 young leaders from around Victoria, and as School Captain Jamin was invited. For a country kid this six-day experience was a life-changing eye-opener. For the first time Jamin met people he had never before come across: a Muslim; a gay person who was open about their sexuality; a person with depression who was willing to talk about their experience. Suddenly a world of opportunity opened up, and Jamin wanted to tell everybody about it.
The response he received when trying to convey his experience to his friends back in Leongatha was not what he was hoping for. While people listened, they politely let Jamin know that it sounded like something that was great for him, but not for them. Jamin knew that more people needed what he had experience, and spent the next four years wondering and talking about how he could share this impact with more people.
Jamin identified that those who often held sway and influence at high schools where often the sporty types. He thought that if he could find a way to at least open the eyes of the Jocks to the world around them, they would in turn be able to impact those who looked up to them. He took the step of telling his mentors (Alicia Crawford, Michael Delaney, Ben Rogers) about his idea, and together they cofounded Game Changers Australia: an organisation that works with sporting clubs to build leadership and character development skills.
Game Changers currently has three offerings:
- Captains Camp: 15-17 young leaders of sporting clubs, taking them through a 4-month leadership development program
- Rising Stars: Taking the leaders of the senior teams of a club, teaching them facilitation skills, and then co-facilitating with them a two-day rite of passage program (as developed by Arne Rubenstein) for the junior members of the club
- Senior Player Development: combining strength and conditioning training with personal development
While Game Changers is doing amazing work at transforming young people and creating a culture that once again makes sporting clubs a place for character development, Jamin is also involved in two other social enterprises that are having a great impact:
- Headquarters: Running a program call The Man Cave, creating a space for school aged boys to be in a space that holds them in their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Jamin works with Benson Saulo, Hunter Johnson as cofounders in this business.
- Healthy Communities Australia: Group fitness for parents of primary school kids, hosted by the primary school they attend. Jamin cofounder this social enterprise with Rhianwen Seiter.
Jamin has emerging leader written all over him, and of course is a leader already. I admire his strength of character, willingness to speak-up, and ability to reveal all aspect of himself in a disarming way. His social enterprises are fascinating in how they are using existing institutions already embedded in our way of life, and through them are drawing out new and life-affirming behaviours. I hope you enjoy our conversation.