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AFL Disability player playing with their hoop.

You might notice barriers to a young person's participation during a session. The below sections provide strategies you can use to support young people in areas that may prevent participation.

With all the fun of an Auskick session, it can be a challenging environment to keep young people’s attention while giving them instructions and young people can differ in their capacity for listening and following instructions. Often when a young person becomes distracted, isn’t listening, or doesn’t follow instructions, it’s not because they mean to. Here are some tips to help:

  • Have a consistent routine at each session, and give a visual schedule on a whiteboard or flipchart. Adding visual instructions to spoken instructions can help engage a young person’s attention.
  • Reduce background noise and other distractions while giving instructions so everyone can hear. Call the young person’s name or make eye contact to help players pay attention.
  • Repeat and simplify your instructions. You could divide the activity into small parts and teach one part at a time. Only move on once players understand the previous part.
  • Ask them in a supportive way to tell you in their own words what they have to do for an activity to check they have understood. Try to do this in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the player.
  • Slow down an activity the first few times it is played, so young people have more time to learn. Let players do more repetitions, if needed.
  • Keep activities short to help with focus. Using a clock or timer that players can see can be useful to help players know when the activity will finish. It is also helpful to provide warning of when the activity is going to end, for example “We will stop this activity in 5 minutes”.

Young people might not join in with an activity for a number of different reasons (eg. they are feeling unwell, overtired, unmotivated, nervous about others watching them, overwhelmed by noise or large groups, or are unsure how to join in). As a coach, stepping back and observing can help you identify what might be going on. Look for patterns - is it all activities they don’t join in for, or only some? What’s their body language or facial expression telling you? What do they enjoy doing? Here are some tips that might help:

  • Ask young people what activities they enjoy the most. You could ask: What do you like about footy? Is there anything at footy you like best? Which parts of footy do you not enjoy as much?
  • Allow them to join the group in their own time, which may or may not be at the start of an activity.
  • Understand that it might take a couple of sessions for a player to feel comfortable enough to join in, and that is okay! You could discuss this with the young person and their family.
  • Begin activities at a level that allows young people to be successful, and gradually increase the level of difficulty over time. Success and improvement can act as motivators.
  • Choose the teams yourself to reduce the chances of anyone feeling left out. Match young people of similar skill levels and use small groups to help them feel more at ease and confident in their abilities.
  • Give players the opportunity to perform other roles, such as umpiring, if they don’t want to join the game as a player.

Young people might need support to say hi and chat to others, make new friends, share items, and play in groups. Sometimes it can look like they don’t want to talk or play with others, but they might actually be nervous or worried. Lots of things can impact the way we interact with others (eg. being shy versus outgoing, feeling sad versus happy, our communication skills etc.). Some of these things may make social situations more difficult to navigate. Here are some tips to help make social situations easier for young people:

  • Allow young people to join the group in their own time, which may not be at the start of an activity.
  • Understand that it might take a couple of sessions for players to feel comfortable to interact with others. Involvement may be gradual, and this is okay!
  • Activities such as fun structured ice-breakers can help young people connect with others with similar interests.
  • Pair young people with a buddy to help them feel more confident during activities.
  • Use smaller groups, which can help some young people feel safer.
  • Choose the teams yourself so no one is left out. Matching young people of similar skill levels in small groups can help them feel more at ease and confident in their abilities.
  • Avoid games where young people are eliminated. Have full participation for the players who are joining in at all times.
  • Ensure the Player Code of Behaviour is followed to make sure everyone is treated with respect.

Behaviour always serves a purpose. It’s a way of communicating feelings, or a need or want. Things like differences in communication, social and cognitive abilities, and feeling anxious or scared can all affect behaviour. Sometimes, young people may behave in ways that could place themselves or others at risk of harm (eg. overly rough play, shouting, running away). Here are some tips for supporting young people’s behaviour:

  • Set and teach clear, simple rules for attendance, behaviour and sportsmanship. Teach parents the rules too, so they can reinforce them with their child.
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the young person, and frame the rules in a positive way. For example, “Don’t shout at others” could be phrased as “Always use a calm voice”.
  • Consistency is key. If rules are set, it’s important they’re followed at all times. Encourage the behaviour you want to see - this can be more effective than discipline.
  • Have a consistent routine and a clear visual schedule that is also explained verbally to provide predictability and support young people moving from one activity to the next.
  • Communicate clearly and calmly, making sure you have the young person’s attention before giving instructions. Use short sentences, and only give 1-2 instructions at a time. Check if the young person understands by asking them what you have said. Try to do this in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the player.
  • Consider what the triggers (lead up to) of a behaviour might be so you can change or avoid them. Also consider what the consequence (outcome) might be, so that you can provide the player with another option.
  • Have an agreed activity that the young person can do if things become too overwhelming. This would be an activity they enjoy and do well. Or, let them have a break and rejoin the group when they’re ready.
  • Interrupt carefully. Some young people might get upset if someone interrupts the way they do something. Try to understand why they are doing something in a particular way. Allow the young person to keep doing things their own way or give them a break.
  • Involve parents to help support young people with their emotions.

Young people are still learning how to express and manage their emotions. Footy activities may bring up lots of different emotions for some young people (eg. excitement, frustration, anxiety). Some may experience big emotions. They might feel so overwhelmed or overstimulated that they have a ‘fight or flight’ response (which can involve yelling, distress, running away, or shutting down). This response isn’t typically something young people can control. When they’re distressed or upset, young people need support and a safe space to manage these big emotions. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Speak with the young person and their parent about what works best for them when they feel distressed or upset. Communication between coaches and families can provide useful strategies to support emotions during a footy session.
  • Be aware of the signs of a player becoming distressed or upset. Look for these signs and reduce what is asked of them in these situations.
  • Think about what their triggers might be, and change or avoid them. For example, if a young person becomes distressed by changes in routine, providing notice in advance of a change in activities and providing a clear structure for each session could help to reduce distress in the future.
  • Sometimes, young people might become angry and upset without a clear reason. Giving them a break and getting their parents to help can assist them in settling their emotions.
  • If a player has become overwhelmed, provide a couple of simple choices. For example, allow breaks, and provide a quiet, safe space that young people know they can access whenever they need.
  • Have an agreed activity the young person can do if things become overwhelming. This would be an activity they enjoy and do well, and could be encouraged if they need a break or time to manage their emotions.
  • Be calm, warm and support the young person with acceptance, eg. “It’s okay if you feel upset”, and finding a solution, eg. “Would you like a break?”. Talk about what happened without laying blame, and plan for how to manage things differently next time.

AllPlay Footy is a joint initiative by Monash University and the AFL. AllPlay Footy was founded at Deakin University in 2015 and has been part of Monash Education since 2021. The AllPlay Footy content and resources presented here have been developed with people with lived experience of disability, consultants from National Sporting Organisations for People with Disability, psychologists and researchers, and are brought to you with funding from a Department of Social Services Information, Linkages and Capacity Building: Social and Community Participation Stream (2020-2024) grant. We aim to use language that is respectful to everyone.


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