Chaplains filling a need in sports like Australian Rules

The blokey, beer-swilling reputation of the local football club is gradually becoming a relic of a past sporting era across Australia.

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And across many sports, local clubs are increasingly providing social and emotional support to men and women embracing the shift in attitude.

Adam Baird was a star in four senior premierships with the regional Victorian Australian Rules football club Golden Square.

Radio commentary captured one of his more memorable plays.

“Handpass out towards Adam Baird, who’s got space. He can run and gallop … has two bounces, thinks about a third … won’t want to bounce in the middle of that mud pile … handpass over the top’s good … the one-two … Baird kept running … looks like … (Goal it, son!) … goes all the way … tries it out … (Sharp!)”

But off the field, things were far from rosy.

A failed relationship thrust the 25-year-old into what he now describes as the “dark times.”

“Drinking on Friday nights before footy and things like that were starting to occur, and during the week, and (I) just wasn’t coping with it. (It) could have ended up really bad. Like, real bad depression could have come into play.”

Fortunately for Baird, Golden Square had appointed former player and accredited sports chaplain Bruce Claridge to oversee the welfare of the players.

The chaplain says he began regular catch-ups with Baird.

“The real role of a chaplain, I think, often is just to be someone who’ll listen — and listen more than talk — so that they’ve got someone to offload to and maybe get perspective on their challenges.”

Bruce Claridge says the voluntary chaplaincy job combines his passions.

And he says seeing young men like Baird realise their on- and off-field potential is extremely rewarding.

“It’s like you’re a net in a trapeze artist’s performance, where you’re just hanging around and, hopefully, just watching the performance — and I love being at footy — but sometimes someone falls, you’ve got to catch them.”

There is a growing demand for sports chaplains around Australia.

There are currently around 800, but Sports Chaplaincy Australia has requests for 5,000 from a range of local sporting clubs.

Cameron Butler heads the organisation and regularly presents to clubs on the virtues of having someone oversee the health and wellbeing of their players.

“When someone’s going through a tough time, it’s really hard to know who do we turn to during those times.”

Cameron Butler was chaplain at the Melbourne Football Club when Troy Broadbridge died in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and when club president Jim Stynes was diagnosed with cancer.

He says there is a stigma which still exists among Australian men.

“I reckon most Aussie blokes want to hide some of the real pain that they’re facing, and it’s hard for them to talk about it.”

But he says he has detected a shift in attitude among the demographic — and among the clubs themselves.

Adam Baird, who now has his life squarely back on track, says he agrees, for several reasons.

“More knowledge, a new face and just someone to talk to, just someone to ask, ‘How you going? How (have) you been?’ Just to get through some tough times, yeah.”

All sports chaplains are vetted and undergo an accreditation process.