On Thursday night, the AFL world finally faced a reality it had been avoiding for many years.
Okay, so this article isn’t related to the trials and tribulations of any given day in the AFL.
It doesn’t offer any likely-to-be-heavily-criticised opinion on celebrating the champions or condemning a self-perceived poor performer on any level. It doesn’t offer any finals, Brownlow or trade period insight at all.
This article is less AFL, more footy – so please keep reading.
So I am part of a group of about 12 blokes that play AFL 9s on a Wednesday night. Nine-a-side non-contact footy (in the way basketball is non-contact I suppose) and based around skill – hitting targets and converting chances.
Our team name is the ‘Slippery Gypsies’ and we take it bloody seriously. We video record all our games (you can find them on YouTube. Seriously), mostly for the purposes of counting stats. And count stats we do. Not just kicks and handballs, but anything meaningful to us.
We count score assists and score involvements, we record all scoring shots, we calculate disposal efficiency (it is a game of skill after all). We record clearances, clangers and ‘turnovers resulting in scores against’ and a whole bunch more.
I’m renowned for being an accumulator in midfield that can seriously butcher the footy. It’s a hard-earned status of racking them up and turning them over that provides year-round banter. We have a back pocket that hits chest 88 per cent of the time, we have a full forward who has pinged his calf seven times in 36 games.
We have customised guernseys, we have a Fairest and Best Medal (the coveted Ty Zantuck). We award a medal for intercept marks too, given it’s a huge part of the 9s game (of course called the McGovern Medal).
I am 35 years old – our age profile is 30-39, with half a dozen guest appearances from one of the guy’s 72 year old dad to make up the numbers. It is both a major highlight of the week and an important outlet in our lives.
We used to go out on weekends, and have massive nights in our twenties. Some still do, to an extent. But most of us are married now, many with kids. Mortgages need paying, kids need raising, and jobs need doing. Life has taken over. This outlet brings us together for 40 minutes of footy a week and a few hours of beers afterwards.
A Wednesday night playing 9s provides the check and balance in our lives that isn’t just too much work, too much home. It both calibrates the week and breaks through the grind.
In footy, one-percenters are important, and an underrated stat. Do you know who leads the league in one-percenters this season? Didn’t think so (it is Dougal Howard with 230).
For the Slippery Gypsies, one-percenters of a different kind are equally important. 99 per cent of our conversation is about sport – footy, cricket, basketball – anything really. The 99 per cent includes a mass of banter, a bit of trivia and a healthy dose of nostalgia about nights spent out. But 1 per cent of our conversation cuts through to the challenges of adulthood.
Statistically speaking of the 12 of us, many of us are likely to experience mental health issues in our life – either as an individual or in a family member or friend. The outlet 9s gives helps to break down barriers. Got a problem? It may not be announced at the bar to the entire squad, but the space is there.
Marriage hard? Work insecure? Kids sick? We find a way to discuss these things, on the side of a pub table or in the carpark afterwards. One to one, or one to a few. These chats give the space for vulnerability and can be the simple remedy for what might otherwise become major issues.
I like to think if they become major issues, then these chats will help things to be overcome. We haven’t had that challenge yet, thankfully.
Today is R U OK? day.
R U OK? Day is a national day of action in September dedicated to reminding people to ask family, friends and colleagues the question, “R U OK?”, in a meaningful way, because connecting regularly and meaningfully is one thing everyone can do to make a difference to anyone who might be struggling with Mental Health issues.
I wrote this article to bring a few major things together – footy, mateship and mental health. For too long there has been a stigma attached to mental health issues, and men in particular struggle to overcome this when doing things tough. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Slippery Gypsies connect each week, and it keeps on giving. After my wife and I welcomed our first child in 2012, my wife had severe post-natal depression.
Incredibly hard for her, and hard for me too. This group played a huge role in helping me get through each day.
It’s not always easy to organise people. Even harder to connect. But the Slippery Gypsies emerged from a simple idea, and escalated quickly. It is now a firmly established part of our lives, and will be for winters to come.
I encourage anyone reading this to take a leaf out of the Gypsies book and try and engage with your mates regularly and meaningfully.
It might be something as simple as kicking the footy at the park or watching the footy together. It could be the thing that saves a marriage, saves a breakdown or simply saves a bad day. Or it could save a life.