We initiated and grew three programs that increased participation of under-represented groups.
Our foundation StarKick program is for boys and girls with special needs who by circumstance or choice may not be able to participate in a mainstream football club.
We use existing Auskick football infrastructure—venue, equipment and communication channels—to run StarKick alongside junior football Auskick sessions.
When it started in 2015/16 the program attracted more than 50 special needs junior footballers. Such was the level of interest, that we work with other junior clubs to expand the program. There are now three additional junior clubs running Starkick programs, and more than 100 special needs footballers regularly participating, including in interclub events.
We have also initiated ‘buddy days’ where older club youth members pair up with a StarKick member to help with skills and drills.
The program’s success comes off the back of our other successful inclusive programs that include cultivating a dedicated girls program; partnering with Clontarf Aboriginal College to provide opportunities for Indigenous boys, and with the Edmund Rice Centre to organise friendly games for new Australians and refugees.
We wanted to provide a bridge for children with special needs to participate in football, and have the opportunity to move into the mainstream if appropriate. We did not want to create a ‘one-off’, but something that was easy for parents, and for children and could be permanently embedded into our club culture. A place to play football for children with disabilities was the goal. Improved welcoming communities is the outcome. Communities that are more compassionate and more loving.
We had a 100% increase in StarKick program participants between the start and end of the 2015/16 year, with the program model moving into three other district clubs and the introduction of inter-club games. Additionally, we had our first footballer transition from StarKick into a ‘mainstream’ team.
The Australian Football League (AFL) has also taken a national interest in the program. On the basis of our demonstrated success, the AFL has modified its rules relating to constraining players to age groups, allowing a small-statured 12-year-old Bombers club member with autism to play in a team with six and seven-year-old players.
Through its partnership with Deakin University, the AFL is now studying the Coolbinia model as part of a wider review to create further opportunities for participation and inclusion.
The Bombers also worked with disability services provider Ability Centre and Curtin University to research StarKick’s benefits.
Data collected has part of the study include those centred on physical outcomes (football skills, physical fitness, strength and agility); psychosocio-related outcomes (participation in home, school and community); perceived self-competence, enjoyment and goal attainment.
Preliminary findings show that children’s strength and fitness have improved during the course of StarKick and enjoyment levels are high. Parents’ perception is very positive with themes around support, engagement and social benefits for their child and family.
The research has been presented at a number of forums in Australia, and at the European Academy of Childhood Disability Conference in Amsterdam.