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Australian community sport can survive coronavirus challenges through volunteer spirit

Australian community sport can survive coronavirus challenges through volunteer spirit
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For organised sport the advent of National Volunteer Week can be heart warming and also somewhat problematic.

It is a time when administrators reach out to their grassroots workers and acknowledge some of the glowing examples of the dedicated volunteers who keep community clubs on the field.

The legendary local coach, the bloke who runs the bar or the canteen, the family that washes the jerseys, the high school kid who operates the all-abilities program and all those who perform one of the many tasks required to keep the most important level of sport ticking along.

But, increasingly, the acknowledgement of volunteers can also unwittingly emphasise the widening gap between well-funded professional sports administrators and participants, and those at the base of sporting pyramid reaching into their own pockets to support their communities.

Given the challenges created by the COVID-19 shutdown, this month’s National Volunteer Week comes at an even more delicate time in the sometimes tense relationship between professional and community sport.

As ever, most of the media’s emphasis on sport over the past few months has been about the urgent attempts to get the major football codes back on the field to provide content for media partners whose rights deals fund sport — at least notionally — from top to bottom.

Given this trickle-down economy, making professional leagues the first priority is justifiable, assuming these sports have demonstrated a genuine commitment to their grassroots competitions and clubs.

But sport must be more dependent then ever on the commitment of volunteers over the coming months, even years, as local clubs confront the various financial and logistical hurdles they must clear to get back to training and playing in the midst of the pandemic that has flattened their economies.

These challenges have become more stark in recent days as clubs across various codes grapple with the strict protocols they must follow to safely conduct even limited non-contact, small squad training sessions in preparation for still hypothetical seasons.

In most cases this involves appointing a safety officer for each group of 10, recording the names and taking the temperatures of participants, ensuring squads are correctly spaced, keeping youngsters who’ve been cooped up for weeks from climbing all over each other and sanitising equipment.

This is after club officials have calculated funding shortfalls from lost sponsorships and matchday revenue, renegotiated ground hire with local councils, considered any further fine print imposed by their leagues and associations, and factored in the health and reputational risks should their club create a COVID-19 outbreak.

And before the players kick, throw or a hit a ball they will have to convince residents now using grounds as outdoor gymnasiums to exercise elsewhere, which is potentially the most confronting task of all.

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This is why a local club president or coach might consider with envy the supposedly “heavy burden” of an NRL or AFL official forced to choose which of several expert assistant coaches, fitness and medical staff will be excluded from their pods and bubbles.

This is not to trivialise the plight of those in professional sports who might lose their incomes, rather it is merely to illustrate the very different lives of those well-paid coaches and stars who sometimes suggest “I love the game so much I would do it for nothing” and those who do.

What this presents is a test of good faith for those sports administrations who this week lauded their local volunteers.

Those peak-level sports administrations that genuinely appreciate the efforts will not just be uttering hollow sentiments about their volunteers. They will cut shrunken cloths in a way that ensures their grassroots commitment is maintained or find other imaginative ways to support clubs suffering hardship.

Particularly, they will acknowledge the local clubs — with vastly varying levels of expertise — that were already struggling with the complex challenges of local government red tape, grant applications and other administrative issues before the pandemic put a hole in their funding and pool of volunteers, and threatened club membership numbers.

At the same time local clubs might also find out during these even more testing times something about the calibre and the motivation of their own committees and volunteers, and — particularly — their commitment to their broader communities.

Volunteers can be local heroes

The best of local volunteers will champion their club’s efforts to get players — and particularly juniors — back on the training track despite the tough regulations.

They will understand the importance of maintaining relationships with members, particularly kids who might be lost forever if their connection with the sport is broken during the shutdown.

Children playing soccer
Junior sport will be subject to protocols that coaches and participants must observe.(ABC News: Jonathon Gul)

This in itself provides a test for coaches: are you willing to supervise modified sessions that might only be recreational, or is your interest purely in training for competitive games where your own ego is invested in the outcome?

While recognising the difficulties of dealing with the new protocols, I suggest the junior coach throwing his or hands in the air because non-contact skills sessions will not be rewarded with trophies and medals at the end of this season might not have been the right coach anyway.

What we do know is that the volunteers honoured at this time next year after guiding their clubs through the toughest of times, and in some cases ensuring their survival, will be genuine local heroes.

Offsiders will cover all the major issues from across sport, including the football codes’ return to play in detail, on Sunday at 10:00am on ABC TV.



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