No Country for Fit Kids (or Old Men….)

Ah, back in the day, when hair was long and shorts were short. I would never fit in those shorts any more and the hair is now short and grey, but the picture from the local rag is me competing at a country tennis tournament in the late 70’s. Even in this grainy old newspaper cutting, you can see that I was totally into it!

In my last article I discussed how important it was for sporting clubs and organisations to connect with current generations in contemporary ways. Regional areas have felt the pinch due to the increasing urbanisation in Australia (the rural exodus). There is also the “obesity problem”. According to the Australian Health Survey, you are even more likely to be obese if you live in a regional or remote region. This seems completely at odds with the image of the fit country kids that I remember.

For anyone growing up in regional Australia during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the local sporting club was a vital component in the fabric of those communities. Playing sport on the weekend was part of the weekly cycle of life. If you didn’t play your part in this essential ritual, you were missing out on much more than your chance to develop your sporting prowess. At our local sports club, we competed, we socialised, we BBQ’d and we even danced our way into each other’s lives. We worshiped our local and national sporting heroes and we obsessed about our sport and honing our individual skills. Heck, we even obsessed about the local paper arriving on Wednesday so that we could scour the sporting results and see how we fared relative to our mates. It was all simple but wonderful fun, our personalities were forged by these experiences and, even despite that curious alliance of smoking and sport, we were very fit kids.

Our sporting heroes represented our vision of how great life could be. To realise this vision you needed to attend every practice session and show up at your chosen sporting club to do battle each and every weekend. Local politicians knew that their attendance at awards nights supplanted by the occasional token grant or donation was a crucial stop on their road to re-election. The local sports store was almost a shrine of splendour and we all coveted the goods made by household names such as Slazenger, Dunlop and Kookaburra (as proudly used by our heroes).

Our clubs were kept alive and vibrant courtesy of an army of energetic volunteers, all keen to be part of their micro-community. Clubs enjoyed a healthy stream of membership subs and fixture fees supplemented each week with the ubiquitous chook raffle and, if your club was lucky, sales of XXXX and VB to slake that hard-earned thirst. Our regional sports clubs were the original community hubs and one wonders how many children owe their very existence to their parents having met at the local sports club. It all seemed so permanent.

So how come sporting clubs are suffering existential crises in 2015 with declining membership and deteriorating facilities?

Somewhere in the 90’s it all started to go pear shaped – although we didn’t realise it at the time. Prior to that point, the children of the baby boomer generation had caddied for their dads, tagged along to their parents’ choice of AFL & rugby matches, tennis fixtures and social sporting afternoons as a family. Sport was an important status symbol and we all wanted to be involved. Not only because of their devoted participation, but the baby boomers had done organised sport a massive favour as they had inadvertently created incidental but important sporting pathways for their children.

Rather than a family being devoted to simply a single winter and a single summer sport, helicopter parents then started to follow their children’s many and often fleeting interests – an environment that is not necessarily conducive to fostering a strong club culture. Suddenly the doyens of our local sporting clubs became the aging custodians of needy, expensive and often underutilised infrastructure. Local councils decided that sporting clubs needed to be self-sustaining and running costs soared. Clubs had to worry about incorporation, audits, safety and insurances. Well-meaning and tireless volunteers could easily be liable for losses and injury. Today’s world had well and truly started to rain on the parade.

Whereas steady urban population growth can mask many structural cracks, dwindling permanent populations and shrinking social infrastructure is creating stress for our regional sports clubs at a time when they are arguably most needed. A community culture that revolves around physical activity would obviously be a helpful tool in our fight against the bulge and its many health implications. Additionally, sporting clubs can also provide essential role models and support networks for isolated teens. As I certainly experienced growing up in a small country town, strong community networks provide a tuning fork for behaviour and can re-orientate things when they are perceived to be going off the rails.

The researcher Johann Hari has suggested that the root cause of addiction is a disconnection from positive and meaningful social and community bonds. His compelling argument contends that drugs and other forms of addiction fill voids left by disassociation and lack of purpose. Perhaps the well-publicised “ice epidemic” afflicting our towns is symptomatic of a social void that sporting clubs can help fill?

So, is there a solution or should we give up hope for the ideal of the country sporting club of yesteryear? Relatively small investments in this area by government have the potential to reap handsome rewards and defray future community costs. Governments have recognised this and the 2013 report by CSIRO on ‘Megatrends and the Future of Australian Sport’ is a mandatory read for anyone involved with organised sport. Supportive programs such as Good Sport and Get Going Clubs seem to be heading in the right direction.

However, simply throwing money at the problem won’t be successful in the long run unless the community itself makes a firm and demonstrable commitment to co-invest social capital to reconnect in new, inclusive, contemporary and sustainable ways. Club closures and amalgamations will be inevitable as many will be unwilling or unable to adapt. However, for the sake and health of future kids, we should all give our regional sporting clubs our best shot.

After all, who doesn’t love a good chook raffle!!


About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. really perceptive piece Robbo

    and yes I’d recommend reading the CSIRO report after you’ve had a long run, swim, bike ride or game of tennis!

  2. and labour market deregulation would be part of the explanation for fall in hours spent on sport and recreation

  3. Thanks Tim,
    I had a crack as the falling numbers and opportunities in my previous article ‘No Time to Play?’, which was a bit dry at times I suspect. Personally, I don;t entirely buy the ‘Time Poor Society argument.

    I think Labour market deregulation is an interesting point and not one I had not considered. However, it has probably been a major cause in fueling growth in less structured and 24/7 options at the expense of some more structured clubs and their historical consumption times. Great comment.


  4. I blame the selfie. It says an enormous amount about modern society. The camera is now pointed in.

  5. Another good read Robbo.

    There seems to be many factors at play, it’s difficult to draw conclusions on declining participation at grassroots level in the country. Besides social explanations such as drugs, sense of community, perceived lack of time and technology addictions, comparing today with 20-30-40 years ago is tricky considering how diluted the potential participation pool is due to;

    * Population shifts – many young people move to the city as soon as they can
    * Different cultures not as inclined to play traditional ‘Aussie’ sports
    * Options – from half a dozen commonly played sports kids now choose from dozens of organised sports and recreations

    Another factor imo is the time demands on kids now with VCE. Many virtually feel compelled to give away sport for a couple years. Some don’t come back until their circumstances with study/work are more settled.

  6. Thanks Robbo..good reading. Things vary in suburban pockets as well as country v city. Here’s a link re waiting lists at some eastern suburbs basketball clubs

  7. Hey Kate,
    I have a two follow up articles on some thoughts on city/urban sporting challenges almost finished. The link you sent is right on point of this article.
    I am mindful not to bore the living daylights out of everyone, so small dose’s!!

  8. Just caught up with both your pieces PR. More please.
    They touch on so many issues – diverse, deep and profound. Not quite sure where to come in. But to pick one – the value to society and the individual of sport for emotional growth and social connection. I reckon Dips is right on the money with his tongue in cheek comment about the “selfie” as the measure of our self absorption.
    We put so much emphasis on success, achievement and being the best. If we don’t get drafted we don’t want to play footy any more. Just join the rest of us couch potatoes watching from the stands. “Only the best will do” implies that the rest is somehow not worthwhile.
    I have always liked the Russel Banks comment that we are the first generation to have colonised our kids. Sold them products and distractions (to extend our own adolescence and economy) at the cost of time and engagement. What we like is not always healthy, and sporting clubs (I grew up in country SA) were partly structures for keeping a watchful eye and moulding young people (particularly risk taking males full of insecurity, testosterone, piss and now worse). Not always good role models, but at least there was a sense of belonging rather than islands of self realisation (indulgence)?
    Rebuilding connection is the long term path out of addiction and alienation (better still not to venture down that path, but we mostly think we are bullet proof). Its why 12 Step Programs are alive and growing despite the cult of the individual consumer. We all need a soft place to fall, and mentors for how to bounce back.
    Two thoughts I have been musing a lot on recently (both copyright):
    “It takes a village to raise a recovery.” Can sporting clubs be a centrepiece of that village or are we so fixated on winning and fitting in that participation no longer counts? How to make insiders of outsiders through sport.
    “Addiction is God’s way of telling you that you’re not.” The professionalization of one to one “therapy” as “best practice” treatment is hijacking/handballing what is best done by reconnecting community in all senses of the word.
    A while ago I worked with a group of parents at a leading private school. Several of the FIFO dads were saying “I work so hard to provide for my family, and when I get home from 3 exhausting weeks I just want to sleep and chill out for a while with a beer watching sport on TV. Isn’t the house and the plasmas and the school fees that I never got given, enough to show them that I love them?”
    Hope to hear more from you, Peter. The sport as social glue idea needs to be reinvigorated before we lose more to ice and addiction. A teacher told me recently that most of his Year 12 boys had online gambling accounts on their phone.
    Technology in all its forms has sped up the pace of our deliverance or destruction ten fold since I was a kid. Same human struggles and faustian bargain as ever, but ice and on-line accounts can do more in 3 years than I did in 30 with booze and the bookies ring. Scarey.

  9. Thanks Peter B, some great comments and observations there. Thnaks for taking the time to post your insightful comments that certainly add to the conversation. I suppose that the main message I had in those pieces is to face up to the changed world and stop pushing the same old stuff down the necks of a generation (or two) who have well and truly moved on. Who is to blame is another story and perhaps I pulled my punches on that – an earlier draft was more direct. It would be sad (and bad for our society) if some of our clubs and sports reach the critical point where they are not sustainable or recoverable – when they could have been saved. Some won;’t be told or saved, so focus and investment (both limited resources) needs to be available to those who want to.

    As a director of a private school, there is always massive focus on buildings and hard infrastructure. Soft infrastructure is equally important – but doesn’t give the same ‘monument fix’. the same can be said for our sporting clubs and particularly our regional clubs. In my own small town, I could always point to a couple of people who kick started things and their energy was picked up by everyone else. These people were highly respected and valued by our small town – part of the vital soft infrastructure. I am thankful for them.

  10. Robbo, (will have to get used to your moniker)
    I agree that time in and of itself is not the issue. It is more the disruption of time. Whether it be FIFO, flying in and out either 4 weeks on and 1 off or 2 and 2 if you are lucky. Either way this does not fit well with traditional sporting clubs where you play every weekend. Shift work in the cities, means Tuesday night practice or Saturday/Sundays are no longer sacred.

    Really the disruption of the routine 9 to 5 Monday to Friday is an impact on sporting clubs that depend on it. Even if it is just a boss or a wife being able to contact you on the phone and tell you are needed when you want to play sport.

    I was talking to a CBD hotelier and he believes that Friday drinks returns have worsened as more people take Flexi fridays and work from home. So the disruption of the routines whether good or bad have impacts on social activities.

    There is also an issue with what I call “higher fences, nicer homes and bigger screens”. A social disruption. When you used to talk to your neighbour and be a part of a community now people are turning into their homes, renovating, extending, getting big TVs and making it paradise at home so that they don’t have to go out into the real world. Information fed through TVs or the internet rather than through social meetings.

    Then look at all the other celebrated disruptors e.g. Facebook, twitter, Uber, digital photos, internet pornography, online shopping the world is changing very fast and now so many things can be done on screen there is hardly a need to go out the door. These changes are having impacts on traditions such as sport, religion, community clubs and political parties.

    Whether it be more screen time, a media fear of paedophiles stopping parents allowing children to catch buses or ride home from sport or school, or just parental exhaustion from trying to keep up with changes. There are so many multiple complex reasons it seems impossible to put it down to any one thing, but it is not just sporting clubs that are hurting.

    I don’t think there are any easy answers. The soft infrastructure you are talking about is being disrupted as is the hard infrastructure. How to harness these changes and turn them to your advantage requires young entrepreneurs. I hope we find them. The world as we know it is changing and not always for the better. Unlike dinosaurs we can see the dangers and opportunities, but I am still not sure if any of us are really adapting fast enough.

  11. Hi Andrew,

    You make a great point about the the disruption of the 9-5 life and the creation of hermetically sealed and virtually connected boxes for us to live our lives in. I think that this is a critical change that will keep going. In terms of sports and physical recreation, I lumped this into ‘convenient solutions’. Gyms have tapped into this. I think that, as we are used to online instant solutions, we expect our social and sporting solutions to be similarly online at a time and place to suit us. This is past the point of no return, so the challenge is for sports to take account of this and build solutions that tap into this shift wherever possible. In some cases this will not be possible. Others are well placed to offer more convenient options – if the incumbents don’t keep wanting to relive the 50’s.

    Lastly, I personally don’t think we will shift kids off their screens until we offer them viable alternatives. Part of this involves understanding what is so addictive about their screen time and tapping into this. Many sports think it is all about the sport/craft itself and have forgotten that sport is another form of social connection played out via a shared pursuit – be that playing, watching, cheering or whatever. Don;t for a minute think that screen time is all about a connection with a computer – as the computer is merely the portal to a massive set of connections. My problem with this is that many of these connections are at a very shallow level and this has the potential to distort value systems that are important to our societies. It also has the potential to augment of societal structures and add to our connections – the Footy Almanac is an example!

    Thanks for the great and insightful observations.

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