Leadership gets its best start when children take to the country's sporting fields

SAM DUNCAN, THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN

Gen X is the gaming generation and if we don't do more to entice them to play sport, we’ll pay the price, says Essendon captain Dyson Heppell.

Recently returned from a holi­day in Fiji and ready for pre-season training, Heppell told The Weekend Australian that reduced participation rates, especially where he grew up in country Victoria, are concerning for the health and leadership ability of future generations.

"When I came through, our footy club was thriving," he says. "But there's been a steady decline in the past 10 years. We're a strong sporting town in Leon­gatha, but across Gippsland, as a region, participation levels have really decreased."

The Bombers midfielder says the best way to learn about leader­ship and teamwork at a young age is by playing sport.

His path to captaining the side didn't start when Essendon secured him as a draft pick in 2010; he had learned the funda­mentals of leadership and decision-making as a junior with the Leongatha Parrots.

Forced to sit out the 2016 sea­son because of the club's supple­ments debacle, he was named captain of the side in 2017.

Head coach John Worsfold said of Heppell at the time: "He backs up his words with actions and does this on a consistent basis, which is a true mark of a leader."

When kids learn these things early on, says Heppell, they aren't isolated to the sporting field. "They take these skills back to the school environment where it helps with a whole range of activities."

Leadership ability develops with time, and he says his style is now taking shape. "I'm beginning to find a healthy balance between being assertive when I need to be, but also being caring and sup­portive of my teammates. I drive elite standards and try to lead by example."

One of Essendon's star players, Tiwi Island-born Anthony Mc­Donald-Tipungwuti, typifies how sport develops leaders for the bet­terment of the broader commun­ity, said Heppell.

He first played with "Walla" before his time at Essendon, when the pair played for Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup, Victoria's elite under-18s competition.

Heppell says: "Very shy kid when I first met ‘Walla' who didn't speak much English at the time. But just watching his development and growth, coming out of his shell in that team environment and the respect our teammates showed him, it was enormous.

"Now he's a star of the AFL that speaks up in meetings and is a real leader, not only in the indigenous community but in his local region and around Australia as well."

If you want to encourage young kids to play sport, says Heppell, it is important with this generation to focus on quality facilities.

"You go to a lot of regional and country towns and they just aren't up to scratch. I can easily see how that's a detractor from kids want­ing to participate."

Parents and schools also played a part Fundraising days and infor­mation sessions are important but "getting a ball in their hands for Christmas instead of a Play­Station" is a simple measure that will make a huge difference.

Born in the early 1990s, the 26- year-old remembers a world before internet on phones, a time when people were less consumed by technology.

"I think kids are now more drawn to computer games and PlayStations," he says. "When I was younger it was about getting outside, kicking the footy and get­ting involved with your local sporting club."

The problem, says Heppell, is that we are now starting to see the consequences of not playing enough sport.

"It's certainly leading to chron­ic health problems."

Obesity rates are also hard to ignore. "I think it's about 25 per cent of kids that are overweight or obese," he says. "We need to get more kids more active, more often, and the best way to do that is to get them participating in sport."

With Essendon in good shape, he says be is looking forward to leading the Bombers again in 2019. "The competition is so open now that anyone can win on their day. We're going to hit the pre-season in a pretty healthy space with not many blokes in rehab. That's the key, keeping as many blokes on the park as you can. We’ll see what we can do in 2019."

Dyson Heppell is an ambassador for the Prime Ministers' Sporting Oration. The inaugural event will be held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on Wednesday evening, raising tax-deductible funds for the Australian Sports Foundation to invest in grassroots sport.

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