Authors: Deb Agnew & Shane Pill

Corresponding Author:
Deb Agnew, PhD
GPO Box 2100
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 5001
+61 8 8201 3456

Deb Agnew is a lecturer in the School of Education at Flinders University in South Australia. Her research interests include Australian football, masculinity, sports retirement and men’s health. She is a member of the Flinders SHAPE (Sport, Health and Physical Education) Research Centre and teaches in the Bachelor of Sport, Health and Physical Activity.

Shane Pill lectures in curriculum studies, physical education and sport studies and he is a member of the Sport, Health and Physical Activity (SHAPE) research centre at Flinders University. His research interests include curriculum design and enactment, pedagogy and instructional strategies for games and sport teaching, sport coaching, leadership and management. Shane is the author of four books on game sense teaching and coaching, and he was a major contributing writer to the Cricket Australia S’Cool Cricket resource, the Tennis Australia Hot Shots Tennis resource and the revised AFL Sport Education program.

“I think it’s going to save lives” Sport administrator perspectives on youth development through sport

This was a qualitative evaluation of a youth development program that was piloted in four South Australian Southern Football League clubs. It aimed to understand how the youth development program was conducted; to investigate the effects of the program on the health behaviour choices of junior footballers in South Australia and; to provide recommendations on how to improve the delivery of the program. Interviews were conducted with the club administrators of three of the four clubs involved in the program and were analysed through an inductive thematic approach. This research found that there is value in implementing youth development programs. However, in order for youth development programs to be effective in changing club culture a driver for the program is needed. Given sports clubs are often under-staffed and under-resourced developing partnerships with community organisations who have the skills to deliver the appropriate sessions is also a crucial factor in the program’s success.

Keywords: sport development, young men, Australian football

Concerns about youth problem behaviours (such as, drug use, suicide, etc.) have created interest in sport as a vehicle for positive youth development initiatives. Combined with changing social forces, such as dual income families, single parenting, “latchkey” children returning home from school to homes without parental supervision, concerns for positive youth development have looked to social institutions like sporting clubs as intervention sites to disrupt, eliminate or mitigate problems that are real or perceived for the community. Many of the programs are based on the belief that sport settings provide a context for the development of important skills and attitudes for “adult life”. However, sport organisations and clubs have to plan carefully as there are many factors that can influence sport as a possible setting for social, emotional as well as physical development (29).

It has been found that consistent participation in extracurricular activity during secondary (high) school is associated with positive outcomes, such as community volunteering and attending higher education (38). Participation in youth sports programs with a development focus beyond technical and tactical game skill development into a youth development focus can address several of the social and emotional needs of adolescents, such as having a sense of belonging, a sense of mastery, a sense of “mattering”, and reframing self and adult perceptions from the deficit “being a problem” to agents that can make a difference in their social worlds (22).

Fraser-Thomas, Côté and Deakin (2005) summarised the literature in youth development as demonstrating the powerful role of “developmental assets” in youth protection, enhancement, and resiliency. They summarise that youth high in developmental assets are more likely to “thrive” in school and community, showing caring and compassion for others and optimism regarding their future, as developmental assets play an “enhancement role”. These assets may be external to the individual (such as: supportive and caring adults as mentors, parent monitoring and involvement) or internal to the individual (such as: a clear and positive sense of personal identity, an allegiance to a valued social group) (2, 16, 29).

Involvement in youth sport may result in positive outcomes for the individuals who participate, but positive results cannot be assumed (5).While there is some evidence for the role of sport in movement skill and physical competence development and evidence to support belief in positive benefits for young people from sport participation, these benefits are interceded by space, place and culture factors (5). The evidence for positive outcomes for individuals who participate in sport reported in the literature do not show causality, rather an association between participation and the suggested benefits (17). There are potentially negative or deleterious effects from sport participation, such as injury and permanent or temporary disability during the period of participation or as a result of the chronic build-up of stresses of the body affecting one later in life. Children and youth can be negatively affected by angry, aggressive or “pushy” parents (18). Organised sports can also provide a venue to teach youth “some of life’s important lessons” (p.76), (28) where programs are explicitly designed to teach the habits and skills the coaches, parents and clubs wish youth to acquire. Perkins & Noam (2007) and Anderson-Butcher, Riley, Iachini, Wade-Mdivanian & Davis (2011) provided summarised of the essential features of positive development settings within sports-based youth development programs. Each summary is nuanced, but in common suggest that a key element of positive development settings is through the adults responsible for the program being deliberate and intentional in their actions to create learning experiences that are holistic (focussed on the whole person – physical, social, emotional wellbeing) and ecological (addressing the multiple realities of the individual, not just their role as a player at the club). Other important factors include creating contexts where youth can practice problem-solving and decision-making skills; ensuring physical and psychological safety is evident within session climates that are predominantly positive, and that sessions contain clear structures with unambiguous rules and expectations. It is important that youth can establish trusted connections with caring adults and that a positive group experience through inclusive peer relationships occurs. Positive social norms govern behaviour at the club, therefore reducing social isolation and allowing for the acquisition of improved social skills is paramount to developing positive development settings. “Capturing” and emphasising youth improvement, offering opportunities for recognition and to refine existing skills and/or develop new skills; as well as integrating with family, school and community initiatives and efforts have also been suggested as significant factors to consider (28).

Reviews of research concerning the relationship between sport participation and the value of sport in youth development are equivocal; however there is empirical support for the characteristics of the environment likely to promote self-esteem, persistence and skill development. These characteristics include a focus by adults on player effort, improvement and the development of intrinsic motivation within a task-orientated or mastery environment (29). However, research into social settings (including sports) that reduce risk factors and promote protective factors suggests such settings may contribute to academic achievement and general wellbeing (3).

Petitpas et al. (2005) characterise youth intervention programs as those containing a primary focus on sport skills while striving to intervene with or prevent negative or endangering behaviours, and those designed to make a direct connection between the skills and attitudes learnt through sport and academic, personal or career development by teaching sport skills and life skills concurrently.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Petitpas et al (2005), The spectrum of youth sport programs (p. 67)

Sport clubs may provide an avenue for improvements in what Anderson-Butcher (2011) called “the community system” (p. 2841). By this Anderson-Butcher suggest pro-social opportunities and experiences encountered at sport clubs may contribute towards positive youth outcomes via indirect pathways, such as the fostering of connections between community embers that otherwise would not have occurred.

Coakley (2011) summarised the research on sport and personal development suggesting “the relationship between sport and personal development is contingent” (p. 2). That is, developmental outcomes are related to and dependent on combinations of factors. Coakley (2011, p. 2) suggested that these factors include the type of sport played and the orientations and actions of peers, parents, coaches and program administrators as well as the culture and norms associated with that sport. Other factors include the socially significant characteristics of those who play sport and the material and cultural contexts under which participation occurs. In addition significance is given to the meanings associated with sport and personal sport experiences as well as the social relationships formed in connection with sport participation. The ways that sport and sport experiences are integrated into a person’s life, and redefinitions of sport experiences that become relevant at particular points in time are also important (7).

Sports are a socially significant activity for many people of all ages. In addition to sports being integrated into major spheres of social life, sport clubs and the culture of sport often reaffirm important cultural and social ideas (9). Sports can be a vehicle to promote values, foster assumptions about how social order and social lives do and should operate (8). The search of the literature undertaken to inform the analysis of this research project suggest to us that sport can be a setting for positive youth development but that there is a need for more research in all parts of the equation (3). Specifically, there is little research consideration concerning the implementation of sport development programs using Australian football clubs, which were the sites for the sport development initiative investigated in this research.

This research investigated key stakeholder experience of a project framed as a positive youth development initiative. The key stakeholder was the club individual responsible for coordination and implementation of a league initiative concerning the education of “life-skills”. It is therefore pertinent to define youth development through sport. Petitpas, Cornelius, Van Raalte and Jones (2005) suggest youth sport development programs can be identified by the programs primary foci and goals. Development programs focus on “growth” and skill acquisition, while interventions are programs introduced to stop participants from experimenting with, stopping or reducing negative behaviours.

The aim of the evaluation was to determine whether there is value in implementing youth development program across all Australian football clubs in South Australia.

The objectives were:

  • To understand the need for conducting youth development programs in sports clubs
  • To understand the motivation of club administrators regarding youth development initiative implementation
  • To investigate the constraints placed on volunteer organisations in implementing youth development initiatives

This was a qualitative evaluation of a youth development program that was piloted in four Southern Football League football clubs in South Australia. Weiss (1998, p. 4) defines evaluation as “the systematic assessment of the operation and/or the outcomes of a program or policy.” Pawson (2003) argues that programs are theories, therefore evaluation research is theory testing, because the common thread in evaluation research is to investigate if the program has been a success. Whether or not the program is deemed to be a success is determined by behaviour change in that programs aim to give people the resources to make the desired change (26). However, outcome patterns include both intended and unintended consequences of the program being evaluated, thus the success or non-success of the program is not dependant on a single variable. Pawson and Tilley (2004, p.4) argue that programs are “embedded in social systems.” Changes in behaviours, events and social conditions are influenced by the dynamics of the social relationship system, therefore it is imperative that the evaluation of programs considers the complex and layered environment in which the program is situated.

Coleman’s (1988) conception of social capital is used to frame the discussion. Coleman (1988) suggests three forms of social capital:

  • Obligations, expectations and trustworthiness of structures: Obligations will be repaid, obligations will hold, and obligations will be, creating what Coleman (1988) referred as “credit slips” which actors in a social system can call on. Obligations and expectations refer to the reciprocated nature of people’s interactions in social structures.
  • Information channels: Information provides the basis for action. In Coleman’s (1988) explanation, information provides a basis for action. Relations are thus not only valuable for the “credit slips” they provide in terms of the obligations one holds towards others, but also for the information that relations provide.
  • Norms and effective sanctions: Effective norms provide rewards for conformity and inhibit deviant or negative behaviour, thus facilitating certain actions and constraining others. Coleman explains “when a norm exists and is effective, it constitutes a powerful, though sometimes fragile, form of social capital” ( p. 104).

Purposive sampling in qualitative research is centred upon participants who will provide ‘information rich’ cases (33, 24, 32). Four football clubs from the Southern Football League (SFL) in South Australia were nominated by the SANFL to participate in the youth development pilot program throughout 2011. Three of the club administrators took part in the evaluation process of the program. All three club administrators were male.
The four football clubs were located in low socioeconomic areas in southern Adelaide. The focus of the South Connect Program for each of the clubs involved was for junior footballers, however one of the clubs also invited the parents of junior footballers as well as the senior training squads to attend the sessions. The four sessions associated with the program were organised around a shortened training session and a shared meal prior to the South Connect Program session.

Over the course of one year, junior footballers participated in education sessions focussed on four key areas which have been identified as challenges for youth aged 14-17 years of age; drugs and alcohol use; driver safety; depression and; showing respect to others (34). The club administrators of each of the four football clubs involved in the South Connect Program were contacted through the Community Engagement State Manager at the SANFL and invited to participate in the evaluation of the program. Three of the four clubs agreed to take part and were interviewed before the first program session began to determine their expectations. Following the completion of the program sessions towards the end of the 2011 SFL competition all four clubs were contacted again and invited to participate in a second semi-structured one-on-one interview to reflect back on how the program had gone. The same three clubs who had participated in the initial interview took part in the second interview. Unfortunately the fourth club was undertaking a change in administration and so declined to participate as the incoming administration team had little knowledge of the South Connect Program.

Each of the club administrators took part in a one-on-one, semi-structured interview on two separate occasions, before and after the South Connect Program was conducted. Weiss (1998) states the objectives of the program sponsors, managers and participants can become the criteria used for evaluation. Therefore, interviewing the club administrators before and after the program allowed for their expectations of the program to function as a set of standards for comparison at the completion of the sessions (36). Interviews were conducted in their respective football clubs at a time that was most convenient for them and lasted for between 30 and 60 minutes. The interviews were audio recorded and then transcribed verbatim by an external secretarial service.

The data were analysed through a general inductive approach, which allowed the themes to emerge from the data, rather than being preconceived (35, 25, 13). Following the principles of the general inductive approach the data analysis was directed by the evaluation objectives of:

  1. To understand the need for conducting youth development programs in sports clubs
  2. To understand the motivation of club administrators regarding youth development initiative implementation
  3. To investigate the constraints placed on volunteer organisations in implementing youth development initiatives.

These objectives allowed a focal point of relevance for the analysis process but were not a specified set of expectations regarding the finding (35). In an inductive approach the analysis process leads to the development of themes through a coding process (35). Smith and Caddick (2012, p. 68) state that a detailed thematic analysis is achieved through “identifying, analysing, interpreting, and reporting patterns (i.e. themes) within data.” This study utilised the Braun and Clarke six-step model (2006) to analyse the data through the researchers immersing themselves in the raw data, generating initial codes, and identifying, reviewing, and defining themes.

Trustworthiness in qualitative research is more often referred to as dependability rather than reliability and can be achieved through four areas as outlined by Ary, Jacobs and Sorensen (2010): documentation, consistency of findings, coding agreement and corroboration. Documentation occurred through the use of an audit trail whereby the raw data gathered in interviews, records of the investigator’s decisions about who, what and why to interview, working hypothesis developed from the raw data and subsequent refinement, testing and coding were kept in a well organised and retrievable form. Stepwise replication was used whereby the two investigators divided the data, analysed it independently and then compared results (4). The coding agreement consisted of an initial coding of the data by one member of the research team to develop preliminary categories and findings. Simultaneously, a second member of the research team independently coded the raw data and created a second set of categories. This was then compared to the first set and subsequently merged into a combined set of categories, which was then refined to develop the overall themes (35). Corroboration occurred via the use of two analysts to review the findings (25).

This study was an evaluation of the youth development program which ran over the period of 12 months in four amateur league football clubs in South Australia. Each of the four clubs made the South Connect Program sessions compulsory for the footballers to attend, arguing that the players accepted the obligation to participate in educational programs, while also inviting the families to be included. It was common for the sessions to be run in the designated usual training times so as to not inconvenience individuals and families, or to provide a shared meal after training for everyone while the session was being held. The program was run in conjunction with one of the South Australian National Football League clubs and the State Government’s Office for Youth. While the timing of the sessions across the year varied, each club participated in forums on drug and alcohol misuse, respect for others and depression (34). Two themes emerged upon analysis of the data; Participant motivation and; Sport for youth development. Each of these themes had several sub-themes and will be discussed in detail below.

Table 1
Table 1. Major themes and sub-themes

Participant motivation
Many justifications were offered as reasons for participating in the South Connect Program. Primarily clubs were motivated by tragedy, the desire to attract new members and change the traditional perceptions of football clubs in the community, a perceived duty of care to players and the recognition that football clubs are like family therefore have a responsibility in the development of the footballers.

Touched by tragedy
A key motivating factor in adopting the youth development program for all of the clubs was that they had each been touched by tragedy. Club officials all recalled circumstances where the club had experienced the death of one or more of their young footballers and at least two of the participating clubs had multiple experiences with mental health related concerns including several young men attempting suicide. These issues were not solely related to the young football players but extended to their families as well. While the clubs were nominated by the SANFL to participate, each saw it as a necessary program given the experienced they had shared. When reflecting on the reason their club agreed to participate in the program common responses included:

    Essentially what we’ve done is out of a necessity of the club, we had some situations here that we needed to address. We had three suicides in four years, and then in 2009, I think it was, we had a young boy who was playing in a football team that was brilliant, won everything and ended up winning the grand final, and he attempted suicide. So, from that perspective, as a football club and as a runner at that time, I thought that we needed to do something.

It was commonly argued that football clubs have a duty of care towards the footballers and that it was part of their responsibility to address issues such as suicide and depression to try and prevent further tragedy. It was also acknowledge that historically the culture of football clubs has not adequately addressed these issues. As one of the club officials stated:

    We knew that there was an issue, so we could have just buried our head in the sand and said, “Nup not us,” and that’s been the tendency in the past 10, 15, 20 years to do that, but we decided that, no we need to act, because we’re losing kids, we’re losing kids to all sorts of things, and if we can just inform them and let them know what’s right and what’s wrong, not necessarily preach to them but just give them the information, then I believe that they’ll make the right choices in life, and sometimes they’re going to make mistakes but you’d hate for them to make a mistake and it costs them their life, you know, it doesn’t – you know, no mistake’s worth that.

The perceived responsibility of the football club to provide opportunities for personal development through sport was argued to be significant because of the location of each of the four clubs. Participants acknowledged that their football clubs are situated in low socio-economic areas and many of the young men come from disadvantaged homes where there may not be opportunities to develop skills and knowledge around appropriate behaviours towards women, safe drinking practices and managing depression. Therefore, it was suggested that the football clubs were an appropriate place for the young men to be given this information. As one club administrator stated:

    We have a lot of kids here that have come from single parent families, or no parents at all, fostered children, all the rest of it. So if they don’t get it here, then sometimes they’re not getting it at all.

Football club as family
The recognition that many of the young men playing football at their clubs came from broken homes with little family stability led to the perception that the football club members form a family to which the young men can belong. This furthered the perceived responsibility of the football club leaders to play a significant role in the development of the young men. It was argued that football clubs should provide an environment in which care towards each other is encouraged. One club official argued that this is part of being a family:

    So, for us it’s about making sure that they are getting that best possible care because you know, we’re all a big family in this football club and we all look after each other, and if one of us is sick we want to help him or her, and that’s what we do at this football club.

The football club as family did not just extend to the young men playing football in one of the teams, but to the wider club culture in that the administrators expressed a desire for their football clubs to be family friendly environments. It was recognised that traditional perceptions of football clubs as places where heavy alcohol consumption takes place was not a welcoming environment for families with young children. According to one club administrator changing the club culture to be more family friendly would not only attract new players but would change the perception of the club in the local community and that this was one of the aims of participating in the program:

    We’ll look a lot better around the community I believe and that all will help attract new players, new people and that’s what we’re about really, getting a lot more people here.

Changing perceptions
One of the driving forces behind the football clubs welcoming the inclusion of the South Connect Program was the desire to change community perceptions about football clubs. Club administrators acknowledged that football clubs are often branded with the reputation of being places where alcohol consumption is high, the footballers are rowdy and even where misbehaving occurs on a regular basis. Through promoting the South Connect Program the club administrators hoped to be able to change the reputation of their clubs in the local community through the development of responsible behaviours. When asked why their football clubs were involved in the South Connect Program one club administrator admitted:

    Oh look, we had some issues – I guess we had some perceptions out there that we needed to change.

Similarly, the four clubs participating in the South Connect Program were located in low socio-economic areas and it was recognised that the location of the clubs in these areas also led to a poor reputation within the wider metropolitan area. Therefore, in order to change these attitudes the clubs were motivated to be involved in programs which were positively reflected upon by the community:

    Just to be, not looked upon or shunned upon, just because of our area that we live in and play in. So if we change that attitude completely I think it just changes the whole outlook on our football club.

Each of the four club representatives expressed the desire for their club to be recognised as a family oriented club, as this was perceived as being significant in how the club was viewed by the community. Being involved in the South Connect Programs allowed the clubs to invite participation not just from the footballers but also their families and carers, which was hoped to encourage continued involvement of parents in particular:

    The overall projection of our club is a lot better if we’ve got families here rather than just a bunch of footballers who carry on every weekend, we don’t want that, we want mums and dads here alongside them encouraging them.

An important part of changing perceptions in the community for the club administrators was through making connections with local organisations and community representatives. Not only was this perceived to improve the overall reputation of the football club, it enabled the administrators to provide the appropriate referrals for the footballers who were experiencing difficult periods in their lives. Without participating in the South Connect Program, one club administrator suggested it would be very difficult to collaborate with the required organisations in a timely manner:

    Those community collaborations are really important because they actually enable me to point those people in the right directions. You know, some of the workshops that get sent to me, as a result of the collaborations that we’ve got, I’ve passed on to people and people have gone to. Now, if we didn’t have this program, then I wouldn’t be able to do that because those programs are held kind of close in-house, but just by running this program and working closely with the people at Health SA, I’m able to actually get them involved and get them, possibly the help that they need sooner, and that’s a good thing for the program.

Doing the right thing
The success of the club was a key motivating factor behind the uptake of the South Connect Program. Success was linked to being more than on field premiership wins and included the club being a strong base for the dissemination of health related information. A strong sense of obligation towards the wellbeing of the footballers was evident with club staff stating they had a responsibility to “look after the blokes.” Developing young men at the football club was perceived as ‘doing the right thing’ as well as being a strategy to strengthen the club financially and cohesively. Club administrators expressed the desire to be able to offer resources and referrals for a range of health related issues through their clubs having the ability to offer such services. Participating in the South Connect Program was perceived as being an appropriate way to both provide information as well as an avenue to take care of the footballers. Common responses from the administrators included:

    I’d like to see it help build a stronger club and help build a more financially stronger but, also stronger in terms of being able to deal with stuff and get the information that’s required if someone’s struggling.

Administrators acknowledged that it is important to take care of the footballers’ well-being from an individual player perspective but also because the football club strives to be perceived by the footballers’ families and broader community as doing the right thing. It was apparent that through the South Connect Program the wellbeing of the footballers was promoted as being of upmost importance which reflects well on the club to the broader community. Participation in the program was therefore linked to both doing the right thing by the footballers but also their families, the football club and the broader community:

    I think the outlook of the place, we’re doing the right thing. Parents have all taken it on board that we’re actually trying to help their lads, that’s always a number one, that’s good.

While the clubs declared they were “100% behind the program” it was recognised that they are still a football club and ultimately the focus remains on the running of the organisation and being successful in the football season. The program was argued to have many benefits and club officials stated their belief they were “doing the right thing” with assisting in the development of the young boys, which may have the knock on effect in progressing the junior footballers into a successful senior squad. However all four clubs recognised that football was their central focus, through comments such as:

    We’re here to teach them football and we really need to be heading in that direction.

The concept of ‘doing the right thing’ through the introduction of the South Connect Program was also linked to changing perceptions in the community which would then lead to increased participation at the football club. Given one of the key goals of each of the clubs was to build their club and strive for success on the football field it was hoped that changing the current culture of amateur football clubs would attract new players as well as volunteers which would enable the football club to thrive:

    We’ll look a lot better around the community I believe and that all will help attract new players, new people and that’s what we’re about really, getting a lot more people here.

Sport for development
It was not just through participating in programs like the South Connect Program that was argued to be contributing to the development of footballers but sport itself. It is widely asserted in the literature that the link between sport and the development of personal character traits is strong.

Benefits of the program
One of the more significant benefits of participating in the South Connect Program for the football clubs was the perception that it would improve the clubs’ reputation in their local communities. It was suggested that the program could highlight what football clubs are doing to change traditional cultural practices that have not been looked upon favourably in the wider community. The flow on effect of this was argued to be more people being attracted to the football club which would provide an avenue for more volunteers and more people being involved. Another clear benefit was the link that was created with the local SANFL club as this was an area most administrators felt had been lacking in the past. Having a strong link with the SANFL club in the area provides more opportunities for the footballers to play the sport at a higher level which was an outcome all four clubs strived for. When asked why their football club had decided to take part in the South Connect Program one administrator stated:

    It will guide some kids in the right direction, certainly bring about community awareness about what we’re up to, how family orientated we are perhaps, if we can have a connection with our kids that play at this club, with SANFL, even better, because I believe unfortunately for [club] it hasn’t been happening in the past, and they’re probably missing out on a lot of, well everything, from supporters to players to volunteers to everything, just because of that. So that will certainly help the community get more people involved, that’s just at another level, that takes it to another level I think.

One administrator recognised that risky behaviours were not unique to their club, nor to the sport of football but that sport provided an avenue to address these issues. Given most club administrators do not have a professional background in the area of psychology or counselling they reiterated the importance of the South Connect Program in creating opportunities to identify the issues footballers might be facing and providing information on what help was available. Being able to provide this information was one of the motivating factors behind participating in the program for this administrator who specified:

    That’s the way it works for us, and that’s why this program’s really important because there’s going to be kids there that are going to struggle. Every football club is going to have [people] that are going to try drugs, or drive irrationally and kill their friends, or something, there’s going to be some sort of community issue that they’re going to have to deal with, and this club connect program, or the South Connect program actually enables clubs to be better suited to deal with those problems when they occur; so, that’s why it’s important.

Barriers to participation
For all of the football clubs the benefits of participating in the South Connect Program outweighed the barriers. However, the program was not run without any challenges. In order to gain approval for some aspects of the program the football clubs were required to liaise with the local council. It was argued that given the football clubs were ‘doing the right thing’ and trying to improve the health and well-being of the young men at the football clubs that the local councils could have been more supportive. One participant recognised that not all local councils operate in the same manner, however still felt they could do more than they currently were to support the program. The processes involved in gaining approval from the council were also thought to be arduous and time consuming which added to the burden of the club administrator. It was suggested that participation in the program would be easier if the council shared the perception about the significance of the program and reduced the barriers around gaining approval:

    I had to fill out 200 pages of work for the council, and they – just hurdle, upon hurdle, upon hurdle, rather than jumping on board and saying, this is a great thing.

It was also suggested that the governing bodies such as the SANFL or Southern Football league (SFL) should be more supportive of the decision to participate:

    It was like, oh what do you want to do that for, you know, and that sort of stuff, that kind of stereotype kind of old guard, doesn’t really like change, and kind of that’s through all organisations. So, when you go to the SANFL or the SFL and you say, I want to do this, you do have that old guard going, nah that’s not going to work, or, nah you can’t do that, or whatever.

One of the more significant barriers faced by all four of the football clubs was that amateur league clubs are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers. It was evident that for a program such as South Connect to be successful it needed someone at the club to be the driver of the program. This role largely became the responsibility of the club administrators who participated in this research. Some argued it was important to bring in assistance in the areas where they had no experience but because the roles are on a voluntary basis it was a challenge to manage who the best people to assist were. All of the club administrators who participated in this research were also volunteers and admitted being conscious of burdening other volunteers within the club through the addition of the South Connect Program during the football season. This inevitably led to the club administrator taking on much of the responsibility of managing the program as highlighted by one participant who stated:

    You are always mindful about – I am terrible with that – I think I don’t want to burden anyone else with it I will do it and end up taking on too much.

However, despite the increased demand on their time to run the program all participants described being involved as important because they need to know where to refer club members, players and families who are in need of further assistance.

Building young men
A prominent theme that emerged from the research was that football clubs are not merely developing footballers in terms of skills but also building young men. Building on the concept of the football club as family, the role of the administrators was argued to involve education and guidance. The purpose of the South Connect Program was perceived to be linked to the development of men:

    If you can give them a little bit of education along the way that they’re not getting elsewhere I think it is good and as people we are trying to build young men as well as good footballers so that’s all part of it I guess and we’re going to give them information about certain things in life about what goes on and what are the consequences, so they all need that.

It was also argued that the football club environment was more conducive to providing education and guidance to develop appropriate characteristics in footballers than school because often the young men are disinterested in school:

    When they go to school they switch off. When they come here they’ll listen because it’s their football club, they feel comfortable here, they’re prepared to get the information that’s what we do here.

The building of young men was strongly linked to the succession plan for the sustainability of the club. It was argued that if the young footballers developed a sense of respect it could create an opportunity for the young men to take of the running of the club in later years. This was perceived as being an appropriate direction path for the boys to take and was linked with the clubs’ desire to be family friendly in that instilling these values now would lead to these footballers continuing their involvement with the club when they eventually had children. All football staff who participated in this project had a vision for their football clubs that included developing the young men into being their successors and continuing their involvement at the club once they stopped playing football. The South Connect Program was viewed as an integral component in the development of boys into the type of men the current administrators wanted to see running the club in the future. Typical responses from administrators included:

    You are trying to develop people not as much – as well as footballers so if they’re a bit more well-rounded and level headed and informed they are going to be better footballers down the track as well and if they’ve got a bit of sense of community and pride about themselves and what they do then the club will benefit in the long term.

The South Connect pilot program was run in the four football clubs over the course of one year. However, the hope of administrators was that the benefits of participating would be long term. There were argued to be clear individual health benefits for the footballers who participated as well as long-term benefits for the football club. As stated by this club administrator, the program was thought to be a way to sustain club membership through keeping people involved through generations:

    I’m hoping that we’re steering them in a direction our club wants to go, because eventually these guys will be the ones running this place. So we want them to take it on board that this is perhaps a good way to go, you want to do these things with the kids as they get older, and one day these guys will be having their own children playing here. So yeah I think definitely will help.

While the succession plan for the club was a significant motivator for participating in the program, it was clear that ultimately the driving force behind the decisions being made was football. Club administrators were unapologetic in admitting that the development of boys into men is important but in the end it always comes back to football and developing footballers who would benefit the club. This suggests that junior sport, and football in particular is not solely about the development of sport related physical skills but a holistic development of both sports skills and personal characteristics which leads to success as an athlete:

    I think it’s personal development of young men – if they’ve got a bit of community respect then they’re not going around trashing the joint or spraying things or vandalising or breaking the stuff. We want to be good solid lads and come up here and play some good football for us. It always comes back to the football.

Saving lives
The most significant benefit of the South Connect Program was argued to be through participating the lives of young men would be saved. Given the clubs had been touched by tragedy, the importance of providing these programs were not underestimated by any of the club officials who argued even if it only saved the life of one young man it was worth participating in:

    You know, if the programs just save one kid, for me the program’s worth it.

While the club administrators admitted there was no measurable way to determine if the South Connect program directly saved the young men’s lives, the perception was that it would. Officials recalled instances where footballers had attributed the football club with saving their lives:

    I think it’s going to save lives, and we’re not going to be able to test that but, certainly people have come to me and said things like that, you know, you saved my life, you saved my relationship, you’ve saved that.

Strongly associated with the concept of the club being like a family for the footballers was the belief that the South Connect Program would save lives. Administrators recognised the importance of sport as a positive aspect of young men’s lives; sometimes one of the only positives. Therefore the potential to make a difference to the boys’ lives through sport is significant:

    We’ve got kids that do need help, and sometimes all these kids have got left in their life is their football club, you know, sometimes in their life their families might have abandoned them, or they feel abandoned, their school might have kicked them out, they might not have any money; all that sort of stuff, but what they do have is sport, and we’re 100% behind kids and supporting kids, making sure that they are playing sport, even if they are in trouble it’s important that they do play sport because it gives them that discipline it teaches them all those core values that we want as human beings, you know, it’s something that you can’t teach in a playground and you can’t teach in a school yard, they teach it – they learn it out on the football field, they do learn it out on football.

Club Culture
One of the more significant outcomes from participating in the South Connect Program was that it had a noticeable effect on the footballers’ behaviours with regard to responsible alcohol consumption. Club officials reported the since completing the mandatory sessions the young men had been designating a driver when they socialised together on the weekends which had not previously been occurring. All of the clubs attributed this change in behaviour directly to the South Connect Program sessions. As noted by one of the administrators, the change occurred immediately:

    Especially with the driving and drinking, I notice that all the boys now always have designated drivers and that’s something we like to push on, because there’s a lot of – I’m talking the over 18’s obviously – but at least if they have that organised, a lot of them all go to the city and do the night clubbing and all the rest of it, but nowadays they have a fella who is their driver. So he’s one of their teammates, it’s his week off and he has to do the driving. So I’ve noticed that straight away, it’s good.

Changes in behaviours towards alcohol consumption were not the only positive outcome from participation in the South Connect Program. Previously considered a taboo subject, club administrators conveyed an increase in the number of discussions they had with footballers around mental health issues; depression in particular:

    I have guys talking to me all the time, old players that will talk about depression now, whereas before it never happened, you know, so that’s what happened. And we’ve seen a decrease in our older guys, actually getting drunk at the club because they’re getting help and they’re getting support, and they know that their help and support’s there.

Noteworthy is that the South Connect Program was aimed at the young men at the football club but changes in behaviour were noticed in the older men at the club as well, thus the ability of this program to reach a wide audience and make a difference to individuals of all ages through sports clubs is significant. It was recognised that the traditional attitudes in football clubs fostered a cultural acceptance of behaviours that were unfriendly towards families and disrespectful towards women. However, since participating in the South Connect Program these behaviours are no longer being tolerated in the clubs. Club officials noticed a cultural shift in attitudes, even in those who had previously demonstrated disrespectful behaviour:

    You know, we get people that, normally would have turned a blind eye to stuff like that going, that’s not acceptable, that’s not happening at our football club, see you later, and we don’t want that happening, you’re out of the club. And that’s how it changes, and that’s what I’ve seen in the last couple of years in our football club, people are more respectful of women…

The administrators in all four clubs that were involved in the South Connect program expressed the belief that being involved in the program would positively impact the football club in terms of changing current practices that are not conducive to well-being. Having been involved in this pilot program, administrators could see a positive change in attitudes and behaviours. While there may have been some initial reluctance to change the practices that were traditionally in place in football clubs, the decision to participate in the program was argued to be a step in the right direction. The following quote summarises the perception about the changes that would occur as a direct result of being involved in the South Connect Program:

    Sometimes people just need to be pointed in the right direction to make change. So, I think that’s what we’re going to see, I think we’re going to see people’s attitudes change, I think we’re going to see sporting clubs become more friendly, there’s going to be less, probably less violence, less alcohol abuse, less drug abuse, less domestic violence…”

Coalter’s (2007), Sport Plus programs emphasize traditional sport development objectives such as increasing participation and building sport skills, but they are organized so that participants learn information and strategies for effectively dealing with challenges faced in their everyday lives. Hartmann and Kwauk (2011) suggest this is an “interventionist approach” in which sport is used as an avenue to facilitate fundamental change. Through the South Connect Program, the development of young boys into men was seen as an integral part of the club’s responsibility to their players. While the program lasted for one year, the guiding principles for best practice around drug and alcohol use; driver safety; depression and; respect for others were adopted by the club administrators. It is through this overall change in club culture that a change in the behaviour of the young men was argued to occur. It takes time for individuals to adopt and internalize new behaviours, and for this process to occur, program participants must experience the benefits of the new behaviour through multiple trials over an extended period of time (29). It was anticipated that this pilot program would lead to an extension of the program in subsequent years but due to changes in staffing, club structure and resources the expansion did not eventuate. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain whether a sustained change in behaviour has resulted from participation in the South Connect Program.

Viewed through the lens of rational action (12) as a conceptual framework for sport development and the acquisition of what we earlier referred to as the “assets” of the individual, we must question the transferability of social capital “taught” and “caught” in one social context (such as a football club) as social capital can be considered context dependent. That is the desirable behaviour (such as allocating a designated non-drinking driver to transfer players from the football club to town for the players “night out” after club obligations have finished, an action described as an outcome of the sport development initiative examined in this research) may not transfer into action in another social setting. Coleman (1988) explained that social capital can be considered a resource available to an “actor” inhered in the structure of relations between and among actors, however, not lodged in the relations between and among the actors (and in this framework, the football club can be considered an “actor”) but in the changes in the relations among persons that facilitate action. What becomes necessary then, is the identification of the functions of the social structure that account for different outcomes at the level of the individual actors.

Where this leads us is to question whether the “ends” ambitioned for this sport development project located in junior football club settings would have been impossible without the context specific social capital of the football club. Further, the capacity for “sport plus” projects like the one examined in this research to make the “micro-macro transition” from the football club to other social settings and the “habitus” of the individual is also open to question.

The youth sports clubs as a health promoting setting for youth are studied (18), but the youth sports club could also be a health promoting setting for the coaches and the dedicated parents who have the chance to volunteer and acquire a new social network. Through the South Connect Program club administrators hoped to facilitate a change in not only the young men but the overall club culture. Geidne, Quennerstadt and Erikson (2013) and Crisp and Swerissen (2003) suggest that in order for youth sports clubs to create healthier, more supportive environments, the key personnel in the club need to support the proposed changed which is supported by the current research. The participating football clubs reported observing a change in the older club members with regard to alcohol consumption in particular even though the program was aimed at the younger men. Poland, Dooris and Haluza-Delay (2011) and Wegner (2006) suggest the broader community can also assist in creating more supportive environments and that by learning from other sports clubs both local and non-local who may be encouraging similar practices conducive to health promoting behaviours is an appropriate method for success. The idea that learning to do things better together through a shared goal refers to the concept of “communities of practice” and can include additional external parties such as the governing sporting bodies and educational organisations (18). In the current research the club administrators highlighted the need to involve the community in the program and demonstrate the football club’s efforts to “do the right thing.” It is clear that for sport development programs to be effective and have an impact on the lives of participants, a driver for the program is crucial. In this research, the responsibility to drive the program fell to the club administrators. Amateur sports clubs are mostly staffed by volunteers and so the addition of such programs can put a strain on an already understaffed volunteer group. This further emphasises the need for a program driver in order for it to be implemented in the club in the first place.

Education through sport is not just about the development of social capital, but also the development of individual capability. Coleman (1988) stipulates that social capital is comprised of multiple entities with the common links being the relationship to some form of social structure to the facilitation of certain outcomes within the aforementioned structure. Furthermore, Coleman (1988) argues for the concept of rational action which within a social context can explain the actions of individuals. Traditionally football clubs have been linked with detrimental health outcomes such as heavy alcohol consumption (21) which in the experience of the four clubs in this research have led to undesirable outcomes. All four clubs had been touched by tragedy, thus through the social structure of education sought to bring about a change in these behaviours to more health promoting attitudes. In this way the clubs hoped to shape and redirect social ‘norms’ through educating the young men in the social context (12). Through increasing the resources available to the footballers their social capital can also be increased. However, there appeared to be inflated promises and assumptions of outcomes by participants, and there was a lack of intellectual clarity in the explanations of the project design and implementation at the clubs. The main aim appeared to be “alliance building” and concern to be doing the “right thing”.

Coalter (2013) frames the question about sport development programs generally, that is relevant to analysis of the sport development project examined in this research: “Are the solutions the sport is offering relevant some of the problems that it seeks to address?” (p. 574). Coalter describes social issues that football clubs may be interested in, such as drug and alcohol use and suicide, as “broad gauge” problems, where the immediate impacts of well-intentioned but limited scope programs such as those described in this research are of little long term use as they are “fragmented, one-service-at-a-time programs, disassociated from people’s total patterns of living” (p. 574) and therefore the complexity of the individual within a complex social network (11). The need for the South Connect Program was argued to be heavily influenced by the tragedies which had occurred in each of the four participating clubs. Therefore, it can be argued that in this instance the sport development model was addressing the immediate needs of the club.

Community sport programs can serve as a site for the development of protective factors that may cushion, shield or safeguard against the effects of some negative life events, it appears that it is the quality, solidity and density of the social interactions and relationships formed with adult mentors that is the factor important in the development of positive assets and characteristics (29). Pickup (2012) uses the metaphor of sport as a “Trojan Horse” to reflect upon sports potential as a means through which positive educational outcomes can be implemented and delivered, particularly where other social contexts like school and family have failed. The physical provides the way in – the Trojan Horse – in this case the football club.

From the data presented in this paper it is evident that those involved in the pilot program perceived there to be value in implementing the South Connect Program at their football clubs. The importance of sports clubs in young men’s lives is significant. Belonging to a sports club is about more than just playing sport; it is apparent that football clubs have a significant role in the development of young men. As evidenced by this research, development programs such as the South Connect Program can make a difference to changing traditional sport club culture, therefore it is recommended that it would be worthwhile expanding this program to other clubs in the Amateur Football League in South Australia.

Governing bodies in sport provide crucial support and resources to enable programs to be offered. The clubs participating in this pilot program expressed a concern that more support could be offered to enable the South Connect Program to continue to be provided to the young men at their clubs. There is a clear need for programs such as this to be made available but given amateur football clubs are staffed by volunteers and are often under financial strain more support from the SANFL would increase the viability of the program.

This was an evaluation of one year of the South Connect program, therefore it is difficult to assess the long-term impact on the development of young men and whether the program has facilitated a change in behaviours that are not conducive to good health. A longitudinal study following several years of the program would therefore be an appropriate avenue for future research. In addition, the participants in this research were the club administrators who were responsible for bringing the program to the sports club. To further investigate the impact of the program on participants, research with the young men at the football clubs participating in the program is also warranted.

Linking development programs with sport is important because sport hold great importance in many boys’ and young men’s lives (16, 1). Given sport has a significant role in the engagement of young men, sports clubs are an appropriate venue for the introduction of development programs. However, community programs require a driver in the participating clubs, often this will be the club administrators who become a key factor in the success of the program. Given sports clubs are often under-staffed and under-resourced and that the club administrators may not have the qualifications and skills to adequately deal with the social issues faced by the young men, developing partnerships with community organisations who do have the skills to deliver the appropriate sessions is also a crucial factor in the program’s success.

It is clear that for clubs in low SES areas in particular, family dynamics may contribute to the social issues faced by the participants in this research. Therefore, the opportunity for sport to contribute to youth development is significant as this may be one of few positive factors in the youths’ lives. Acting as a “Trojan horse” to deliver information on these social issues, the football club appears to be able to contribute to the development of knowledge and skills in your men that are not being learnt in more traditional settings such as family and school environments. Therefore, providing programs such as the South Connect Program through sports clubs is particularly important in low socio-economic areas where resources and opportunities to participate in such programs may be low.


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