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When it’s the players teaching the coach, everybody wins

Action from a FIDA Football League game. FIDA provides people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to play at a competitive level.

When it’s the players teaching the coach, everybody wins

Ian Wilson    

As a semi-professional footballer and coach for 30 years up to VFA/VFL level, I just assumed the great game of Aussie Rules was the people’s game and therefore no one would be exempt from experiencing its great qualities and values.

Sadly, this hasn’t always been true. People with intellectual disabilities have always found it difficult to experience the thrill of the sport at mainstream clubs, often demoted to roles such as running water and assisting with property.

But that is no longer the case. What in 1989 began as a lightning premiership in conjunction with Hawthorn Football Club has now become FIDA (Football Integration Development Association).

The man behind FIDA since its inception has been Peter Ryan, who continues to work tirelessly behind the scenes after handing over the administration to the AFL in 2015.

There are now four divisions of competition, with the level of ability generally ascending and players from all divisions eligible to wear the Big V in a national carnival, held annually.

I bumped into the Mt Waverley Demons during a Sunday morning jog. They were having a pre-season run at an oval near my home in Chadstone, so I stopped out of curiosity.

Les, their president, came over and said hello, I said hello back, and offered some help if they needed it. Two weeks later, the coach was banned for bad behaviour and they threw me the keys.

Three years down the track, we have lost three consecutive grand finals, but been on one hell of a ride!

My players have a range of intellectual disabilities from ADD to OCD to bipolar to clinical depression to autism and many strains of learning disabilities.

Coach of the Mt Waverley Demons Ian Wilson (front row, centre) surrounded by his players.

As a middle-aged experienced people manager for global companies, these past three years have taught me more in terms of coaching than the previous 20.

I’ve cried, laughed my head off, and had some serious outbursts of anger of which I’m ashamed. I love these guys and they unwittingly have taken me on a ride covering the full gambit of emotions.

I’ve heard stories of such wretched childhoods from these boys and girls that it’s difficult to comprehend we are a civilized society.

We have players that are managed by the DHS (Department of Human Services) with whose staff I have a great relationship.

One of these boys opened up to me after building trust over a couple of years and described how his parents bullied and abused him because of his disability to the point he was thrown through a door by his father. It was at this point DHS stepped in and made him a ward of state.

We have had instances in the past couple of years where social media and general misbehaviour has inflamed relatively minor disagreements among certain parties, so this year we introduced a code of conduct that each player had to sign.

This has been a success, and we had two players banned for a year as a result of serious breaches of the code. Both these boys will be welcomed back next year provided they abide by the code like their peers.

For the most part, our club is a fantastic place to come and enjoy footy as it should be, positive, energetic and fun. We have a strong team of people behind the scenes who volunteer their valuable time to provide an inviting, warm environment for players of all abilities.

What have I learned? Well, I tried to resign in January this year, which was an unmitigated failure. I took the secretary and treasurer for a coffee, looked them in the eyes and said: “I can’t do this anymore”. There was silence. They stared back at me like cows over a fence. I then said: “Disregard that, I’m coaching this year”.

Coach Ian Wilson gets his point across to the Mt Waverley Demons during a quarter-time break.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 31. To discover you have a problem is a relief because up until that point you just think you’re a bit crazy.

My behaviour up until that point of discovery had been haphazard and risky, much of it compounded by alcohol and marijuana in the early days. I’m lucky to be here when I look back on some of the idiotic antics I indulged in, particularly when “high” with the bipolar.

On a footy trip to Hawaii in 1989, I jumped off a ninth-floor hotel balcony to a balcony below to chat to a German girl about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It so easily could have been curtains.

Despite consultations with many psychiatrists over the years and taking my medication, I still made poor decisions. The turning point came in 2007, when an old friend in WA took his life. A funnier and kinder man you would never find and his death was a shock to everyone.

What we didn’t know was that he suffered depression and liked to binge drink. After the funeral, I made the call to stop drinking and smoking. I ran the marathon a year later in his honour, and I’m pleased to say I’m coming up to 10 years of sobriety this month.

Our club is a “dry” club and it’s made a big difference to the behaviour and culture. The players have embraced it wholly and we haven’t had any pushback. I just tell the players they are way more interesting sober and don’t need any more fuel!

My experiences with mental illness have put me in good stead coaching the players and they have helped me step back from my more serious outlook of the game and be myself.

I’ve also taken some lessons from this experience into my team at work and have become a better manager as a result. I’ve said all along to the players that they have given me so much more than I have given them … although a bloody premiership would be nice!

All FIDA clubs are looking for more players. For more information go HERE to find a club near you. If you are interested in playing for the Mt Waverley Demons please contact secretary Peter Willoughby at peterwilloughby77@yahoo.com.au

You can read more of Ian Wilson’s work at his blog HERE.

  1. Thanks for publishing this article Rohan. Hopefully, will go some way to getting more players to our clubs.
    Kind Regards

  2. Fantastic article.
    Through the VAFA I have had the privilege to umpire many FIDA games and also the final of the National Carnival a couple of years ago.
    This is what footy is all about. Umpiring FIDA games was some of the most enjoyable football that I have been involved in and the growth of players from season to season is inspiring. In my first season, there was a player who didn’t even realise that the ball was near him, a season later this same player is asking me if he can contest the ruck. I’m sure that without the opportunities FIDA provided, this player would have remained insular and in the background.

    FIDA opens up football clubs to new experiences, and breeds an inclusive culture and at the end of the day, that should be the goal of all of us.

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