Transformation of mental health in AFL clubs: Implementing ‘Ahead of the Game’

In the dynamic world of sports, mental health can sometimes take a backseat, but within the Australian Football League (AFL), a transformative program is helping to shift this narrative.

‘Ahead of the Game,’ a mental health initiative funded by Movember and AFL is being implemented across Australia by organisations like Top Blokes. While the footy season may have drawn to a close for now, we took the opportunity to reflect on the program so far. We spoke with Reece Anderson, Top Blokes Regional Coordinator in the Sunshine Coast, who’s been working hard with the AFL clubs in that region.

“Top Blokes is among 15 organisations working to implement ‘Ahead of the Game’ in various regions,” Reece explains.”We’ve worked across the Greater Sydney region in clubs like the Sydney Swans, while also making a substantial impact across the other regions we work in like the Hunter, Lake Macquarie, Illawarra, Toowoomba, Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast.”

Fostering dialogue

The program’s primary objective is to equip young athletes, coaches and families with the tools and safe spaces to discuss mental health. Reece underscores Top Blokes’ commitment to this cause. “Our approach goes beyond advice-giving; it’s about initiating conversations in terms these athletes understand, using footy-related terms to address issues like anxiety, depression, and resilience.”

The initiative consists of two sessions tailored to the specific needs of the young players. The first session, ‘Help Out a Mate,’ focuses on laying the groundwork for understanding mental health, while the second session, ‘The Challenger,’ takes a more interactive approach. The program encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills by using a mobile app and athlete-guided challenges.

Partnerships in local communities are key

Collaboration between Top Blokes, the AFL, and Movember is crucial to the program’s success. “Our alignment with these key organisations ensures a robust program delivery,” Reece highlights. “The partnership enables us to facilitate important conversations and reach out to various AFL clubs across the regions we already operate in.”

Top Blokes doesn’t limit its impact solely to young athletes. Reece emphasises the importance of involving parents and coaches in the program. “We conduct sessions for young players and coaches. Older generations must normalise these conversations and understand how to support young people effectively. Coaches can play a huge role in mentoring young people and being a champion in their corner.”

Creating safe spaces and breaking down barriers

Delivering the program to teams has offered insights into the diverse dynamics between boys and girls. “Girls tend to be more forthcoming, asking questions immediately, whereas boys take a bit longer to open up. At Top Blokes, we work solely with boys and young men, so we know and understand boys. We know that being authentic and building trust are important. But also the ability to listen and validate them. Plus, it helps that we are already part of their community,” Reece observes.

At the onset of the sessions, there might be a hint of reluctance and hesitancy from the players, but as discussions evolve, the atmosphere transforms into a safe space for open dialogue. “The engagement and willingness of the clubs have been remarkable,” Reece notes. “The sense of community and support within these clubs, especially in smaller settings, has been a truly rewarding aspect of the program.”

Reece acknowledges the importance of normalising discussions and sharing personal experiences to break down initial barriers. “We always bring ourselves; we normalise things. We share our own experiences and we just be who we are. We don’t pretend. After the first week, we find the kids open up a lot more in the second session and are less unsure.”

One of the key advantages Top Blokes has when running these programs is that the organisation is already embedded in those local communities. “Some of the boys that came through already knew one of our youth workers. One participant shared how one of our mentors had helped him through primary school. The key to making a difference in these local communities is being embedded in them. We show the kids we are here. We show them we care and we are here for the long run,” adds Reece.

Reece recalls anecdotes where engagement delved deeper, encouraging openness and support among participants.

“One of the kids in the program shared something personal to them. The others explained that they had never known that. That openness laid the gateway for others to share.”

“One guy at the end of the program said, ‘Thanks so much. I really need to start looking after myself more.’ As qualified and experienced youth workers, we could tell that something was going on for him. He stayed back, asked more questions. You could tell something was hitting home.”

“In one session we ran, three kids came bolting through the door, ‘What’s this shit?’. For them, we were taking them away from their training. But once we’d done our introductions, they realised we were the real deal; we weren’t here to talk down to them – we were on their level. At the end of the second session, they shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you, that was great’.

Looking ahead to next season

Top Blokes is proud to be part of the initiative to transform mental health conversations in AFL clubs. We want young athletes to not only excel on the field but also thrive in their mental and emotional wellbeing. We hope the program’s impact resonates, on and off the field, driving conversations and fostering a supportive community in the AFL arena. We can’t wait for next season to start.

Want your local AFL club involved? You can register your interest directly with the AFL.