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Talking footy and feelings

Wednesday, 2nd June, 2021

By Emily Ferguson

The Tackle Your Feelings program was delivered locally from the Central Football Club on Monday evening, with AFL NSW’s Ryan O’Keefe and GWS Giants coach, Leon Cameron in attendance.
Tackle Your Feelings is a free program designed to eliminate the stigma of mental health, providing coaches with free access to tools and techniques to recognise and manage mental health within football clubs and the extended community.
Dual Sydney Swans premiership player and AFL NSW/ACT Head of Coaching and Education, Ryan O’Keefe said it’s important the figureheads in football clubs can recognise the signs of poor mental health. “What we’re going through tonight is just about helping start that conversation and get people to realise and pick up things, so it’s basically an education workshop to give tools to everyone.
“It’s in partnership with the AFL Coaches Association and Players Association, to give coaches and administrators tools to help identify if there’s any mental health issues amongst their players, or even other coaches and staff and I think it’s just a really good thing to help upskill.
“I think a lot of awareness has been made of it, but I think a lot of people aren’t sure if something does arise and what to do, so this is just to help make peace and help in that space,” he said.
O’Keefe believes sporting clubs have a big role in allowing social connections to encourage people to open up about mental health. “Look, I think it’s the social connection and that’s what a footy club does in any regional town, any suburban club, anything like that. It’s the community connection; footy clubs, netball clubs, cricket clubs - I think that’s what people love... Have a talk to your friends and just mix and mingle so, I think it’s really, really important what footy clubs and any sporting community clubs do around our country,” he said.
“If you can give everyone the tools in those clubs to help identify because it’s amazing the amount of people that don’t show signs or you’re unaware that they are really battling. So they maybe show the smaller signs and if you’re not trained or have the tools to pick it up, it might escalate and go down a path which is quite sad.
“Especially for males. We do find it hard to talk and maybe communicate...so hopefully, the more we can make it aware we can take the stigma away, that this stuff does happen and it is bad but, hey, could it have been prevented? Maybe, maybe not. But at least if we’re out there trying or giving people the tools or resources to be able to deal with it or have that conversation.
“It’s amazing the amount of stories I’ve heard over my journey about someone that had a conversation with someone that changed or saved their life, so I think it’s something we’ve got to keep working on and putting more time and resources into.”
O’Keefe spoke of how the AFL world’s reactions to mental health have progressed throughout his time in the game. “From when I first started, the stigma has been put away and it’s actually safe to talk. Football clubs are now really safe environments and not this macho sort of you can’t say anything or show feelings because that’s soft or that’s weak. That’s totally gone.
“It’s about vulnerability. It’s being strong and being able to tell, help and support. You can always tell your teammates that you love them, or you’re feeling sad, or anything like that. So to be able to display your emotions and also to be able to deal with and help people with those emotions and be there as a support, or be there just to listen,” said O’Keefe.
GWS Giants Coach and Tackle Your Feelings Ambassador, Leon Cameron said the progression of mental health has gone full circle.
“From me playing as a young sixteen/seventeen-year-old at Footscray Footy Club to now being the coach of the Giants, in the last nearly 40 years, I think understanding and accepting that people have challenges in their life and in dealing with them and talking about it, is the greatest thing I’ve seen an improvement in.
“Not everyone wakes up every day in perfect condition. And I’m not talking about physically - we’re talking about the mental challenges that people go through. and there’s so many of them and I think having platforms or having programs in place for people to be able to talk about it, has only been a good thing,” he said.
“I just think having a really good understanding of people and building relationships and having that person feeling really comfortable to talk about things that might be going on in their life - Or they might’ve had a bad day, or they might be having a bad month off the field, or it could be on the field as well. You’ve got to be able to create that environment for someone to talk, and that’s one of the greatest things you’ve got to be able to do.”
Cameron enjoys being an ambassador for Tackle Your Feelings and says it’s an important role, “I think being an ambassador means clearly, being a senior coach you can use your platform to spread the word but equally when I was young, I remember I was a really shy young kid and I probably wouldn’t talk about some things, so I would’ve seen a lot of things going on where I’m from back home in the country.
“Seeing some of the heartache that people go through when if only someone was there to talk about some things that they might have been challenged on and so when asked a few years ago it was a no brainer for me, and I don’t stand here and say that I’m the answer because I’m not. But what I am is that I have an ear from our players, our staff, the people around me, my friends, my family and I’d hope to think that they have one for me as well.
“So the more people that become less stoic and hide things away, the better off we are, and the more we talk about some challenges, then as I said it can only be a great thing.”
Cameron said it was “fantastic” to be in Broken Hill promoting the event, “It’s a privilege to be here with the people of Broken Hill. It’s a great turnout here and the people of Broken Hill from all the different clubs from juniors, women’s, men’s, seniors - I mean clearly it’s a really robust area for footy.
“But it’s not just about footy, it’s about life and I think it’s just reading cues, maybe an understanding of reading cues with some people that they might be coaching. You’re not just their coach, you can be a father figure to them as well and reading cues about their parents as well and helping them out through things that they might pick up on.
“There’s no doubt there are some tough conversations, I’m not saying you can’t have tough conversations about footy and about life, I’d rather have conversations than not have one. I think everyone is looking for a reward in their life, everyone wants to be part of any organisation, part of a club, wanted - Whether it’s family members, a footy club or a soccer club. We want to be accepted and the more we’re accepted because we can understand people, then the better off we are.
“There’s a lot of really good people in this world and a lot of really good people sitting in this room. So if we can pass on one thing about Tackle Your Feelings and how you can either coach or build a relationship a little bit better than maybe in the past, and as I said before it’s a great result.”

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