Learn About Anxiety
We all worry or feel scared at times, but some young people have feelings of worry and intrusive thoughts that don't go away. Anxiety can impact young people so much that they stop having a go at things.
Anxiety can look different from person to person, and many off- and on-field factors can contribute to how a player feels, so it is important to understand the specifics of how to support each player.
During a footy session, a player with anxiety may look nervous or restless, keep to themselves, and avoid others around them. You may find that they won’t participate in the activities you have planned for the day. If it becomes too much, a player with anxiety may even stop coming to footy all together.
A great way to support a young person with anxiety is to help them feel comfortable to safely face their fears. With a little planning, and by providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help keep players engaged so that they have enriching opportunities to make friends, learn new skills and participate in the footy fun. Speaking with the player’s family and support network (eg. allied health professionals) can also help identify strategies, if further support is required.
My name's Elise, and this is my story.
I'm First Nation. I'm part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I'm proudly autistic, and I also have ADHD and anxiety.
I really love footy, especially because, living with anxiety, I perform well when I have certainty and consistency. And knowing at the end of the day or on certain days I've got training, knowing that when I show up what the process is gonna be, that really provides that for me. And it means that I can do something with my body to let that out as opposed to just sitting in my thoughts.
Anxiety doesn't feel very good to live with. It's feelings in your body and how your body is also affects how your mind thinks. It's struggling to leave the house, staying on the toilet that little bit too long 'cause you've got an upset stomach. On the footy field, it's feeling anxious and thinking that you're not good enough. It's thinking about the future and worrying about the day ahead. And it's also thinking about your last encounter that people don't like you or that you've done something wrong.
Anxiety means I really care about doing the right thing. When the communication is done well, and I know what I need to do to perform means that my anxiety is of purpose. The anxiety doesn't get in the way. I'm not in my head. I'm responding and reacting to what's in front of me.
When I was playing for Essendon, I would desensitise myself before the game. The other thing is with the huddles, I'll be on the outside of the huddle, so then I'm not feeling overwhelmed. There's a lot of strategies that I've learned along the way so that I can perform my best. I didn't know them for myself when I was younger. What I found was, as I implemented the strategies, my anxiety around having that went down. So I was able to, bit by bit, step that little bit closer.
I have autism. I have ADHD. I have anxiety. I have these labels, and the disability doesn't live in them. The disability exists when the environment, approach and system isn't created with me in mind, and my needs get left behind. They're not supported and therefore, my differences is a limitation.
What I like about footy is the camaraderie. The feeling like you belong. It's the first time in my life where I felt that I was wanted.
This is my story, but everyone's story will be different. In the next section, you will learn tips of how to support young people with anxiety to participate in footy. For example, you could have a consistent routine at each session to help players feel confident to join in.
Strategies and Tips
Prepare young people for footy and get parents involved
Parents will be key to help slowly expose young people with anxiety to the wonderful world of footy. Encourage families to attend ‘come and try’ days, or to visit the footy field ahead of sessions so they become familiar with the facilities and environment. Parents could also find a friend for their child to attend footy with before it starts. Ensure parents of players with and without disability are aware of the valuable parent resources available, so they can learn how they can play a part in making sure all players are included.
Encourage families to arrive early
Arriving early for the session can help a player with anxiety to adjust to the environment before the activities begin.
Use footy stories
A footy story story can help encourage young people to play. These are stories with text and pictures that you can find on our Parent Information Page.
Have an agreed back-up activity
Have an agreed activity ready to go that the player can switch to if things become too overwhelming. If you recognise that they need a break or time to be calm, gently encourage them to switch to their back up activity. Try to choose an activity that they enjoy and are able to do well.
Create a visual schedule
Make a visual schedule for each session and verbally explain the session plan so everyone knows what is coming up. This can support young people when transitioning from one activity to the next. You could use a whiteboard or flipchart.
Joining in may take time
Allow players to join the group in their own time. It’s important to remember that this may not be at the start of an activity. For some players, watching the activities might be their way of participating.
Try small groups
Vary the sizes when arranging group activities, and be mindful of players attending who might feel more comfortable playing in a smaller group. These players may also benefit from being paired with a buddy for activities.
Match groups by skill level
Matching players of the same skill level in small groups may help them feel more at ease and confident in their abilities.
Have a consistent routine
Make things predictable by creating a routine at each session.
Use a large clock or timer that each player can see at all times to know when the session or activity will finish.
Offer all roles
Players can perform other roles on the footy field (eg. umpiring) if game play is overwhelming or difficult at times.
Allow players to use their own gear
Players may feel more comfortable using their own equipment. This may be a particular-coloured football they feel attached to, for example.
Let parents or siblings help
Ask the young person with anxiety if they would like a parent or sibling to help. This might encourage them to be more involved and feel safe at play. Sometimes, young people might become angry and upset with others and the reason for this might not always be clear. Giving them a break and getting their parents to help might assist them to feel calm.
Some players might need a break from the group or activity to calm themselves when they get overwhelmed. Let them do this whenever they need to.
Model ‘brave’ behaviours
It can help to acknowledge that we all feel worried at times and model brave behaviour. Watching others demonstrate helpful coping behaviours can support a young person to learn how to overcome their own worries. Pairing the player with a buddy who can model brave behaviours could help.
Acknowledge how someone is feeling and provide warm and calm support when they seem worried or anxious. Remember to be discreet, don’t draw attention to a young person with anxiety.
Learn to recognise signs of anxiety
Sometimes, you can see anxiety (eg. clear signs of fear or distress). Other times, it can be subtle or invisible (eg. irritability or not participating).
Understand that some young people like things to be perfect and get upset if they don’t get a task right. Consider talking to the whole group about how even AFL professionals don’t always perform perfectly, and mistakes help us learn.
Don’t raise your voice. Speak to the whole group.
Do not raise your voice or shout, and be careful not to talk down to any young person. Avoid correcting or drawing attention (including praise) to a player who is nervous in front of others. Instead, talk to the whole group about some of the tips for performing that skill, or provide discreet feedback.
Check in with the young person and their family
A discreet and brief chat post session with a young person with anxiety and their family can help identify what activities they enjoyed, and whether some activities can be further modified for 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.