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Jamin Heppell is a good sport
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Jamin Heppell is a good sport
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"I respect and acknowledge the work that the arts do in creating social change, and music and dance. But for me, sport is such a beast."
Conversations
11 March 2015

Jamin Heppell is a good sport

Interview by Jane Nethercote
Photography by Nadia Raineri

Meeting Jamin...

Jamin Heppell sees sport as the ideal vehicle for social change—and he’s doing something about it. I first met him at the Nexus Australian Youth Summit, where people were invited to pitch their big idea for social good in 90 seconds. Jamin took up the nerve-wracking challenge with a quick spiel about the organisation he founded, Game Changers Australia.

I really liked Jamin’s pitch—which surprised me given my serious unsportiness—but mostly I was impressed by his brutal honesty. He talked about growing up as an aspiring footballer who loved the game but felt at odds with the boozy, chauvinistic aspects of the culture. Game Changers is his answer to that, a way of changing sporting culture at a grassroots level by running leadership programs with young sportspeople, including Captains Camp and the Female Youth Leadership Program.

Chatting with Jamin was a great reminder of just how unstoppable we’d be if all the best traits of sport—camaraderie, courage, resilience—were harnessed for the good of the community.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

JANE NETHERCOTE: What were some of your experiences that made you see a need for Game Changers?

JAMIN HEPPELL: So I grew up in Leongatha, a little country town an hour and a half southeast of Melbourne. It’s your classic country Victorian town. Heavy sporting scene—footy and netball are massive. And if you’re a part of it you’re cool. If you’re not, you’re in a different crew.

What do you do if you’re not into sport?

Well, I guess you might be a muso.

[Laughs].

Or you might smoke pot down at the Pines. [Laughs].

You must be defined in some way.

Yeah. I guess like in a lot of country towns, those dominating in the schoolyard are often the jocks and the popular girls. They’re the ones dictating culture. I grew up with a really, really sporty family that was always pushing health and fitness—my parents were quite good athletes in their day—and we were well-known for that. So as a Heppell growing up in Leongatha the expectation was, “You’re going to be good at football and basketball and all of that.”

So I played a lot of it and much of my identity was attached to being good at sport and being a leadership-type dude. I often gravitated towards roles like house captain. And I don’t think it was necessarily because I was the best leader, it was just because I was the “pick me, pick me guy” who always wanted to be at the front.

How did that evolve?

At 16 I was captain of the under-16 footy team but I really just wanted to play elite-level sport. I began looking up to the senior players—I wanted to be as good as those blokes who were 24 years old and killing it.

What I found was a really challenging set of values being imposed on me: racist jokes, homophobic jokes, a hugely sexist culture.

You’d finish training and be offered beer. And you know, I’m 16! I’m going, “That’s illegal, that’s not good for your football!” [Laughs].

I started to question whether my values were aligned with the footy club’s. Was this a path that I wanted to go down? And I think I’ve got a clear set of values that I really stick by, but I was quite conflicted because all my mates were just going with the flow. I never spoke about it but it was always something that…

Didn’t sit right?

It just didn’t sit right. Anyhow, in 2008 I was the school captain of Leongatha Secondary College? and I was invited to take part in a week-long leadership program run by YMCA Victoria called “UNO-Y” and it was the first time I’d ever been taken out of my little bubble of Leongatha. There were 59 other leaders from all across Victoria in this one space. And most of them came from the city.

It was the first time I’d ever been in an environment where there was no one else from Leongatha. And it was also the first time I’d ever been immersed in such cultural diversity. The first time I met a Muslim, the first time I met someone who was gay and my age and proud about it. I’m just like, “Whoa!” [Laughs].

“Whoa!” [Laughs].

“You’re gay? What is that? What’s it like being 17 and gay?” And the first time I met someone who had depression and was happy to talk about it.

I was just like, “Man I’ve been living under a rock.”

There’s so much going on in the world outside of my little sphere. Everybody should have an opportunity to experience something like this. It was a real game changing moment for me. I thought I want people to experience what I’ve experienced. This has just opened my world up, there’s so much opportunity out there. The city is awesome. And if there’s anyone who really needs this, it’s young sporting leaders or just sporting clubs in general.

So that was how Game Changers came about. It literally started with me planning this six-month program called “Captains Camp,” which was all about recruiting the captains of under-16 footy and netball teams, bringing them together in one space, and running a program that was very similar to the one I experienced at YMCA, but with more of a sporting flavour. I knew that it was going be so much easier to market because sport is a cool thing. So you say, “This is going to improve your game, this is going to improve your leadership on the field.”

Team building, Captains Camp-style.

Okay. So that’s the angle you take. It’s not, “We’re going to teach you about diversity!”

It’s about personal growth. It’s not about diversity at all! We just say, “You’re going to run faster! You’re going to jump higher!” And then get them in.

Three quarters of it is actually around cultural awareness, understanding self, understanding your ability to influence, understanding personality differences and how you can communicate more effectively. How you can resolve conflict. How you can start to create a cultural shift within your club if you’re challenged by some of the culture there. So it introduces them to all this stuff and they just love it. They really buy into it. And it’s delivered with such authenticity and passion because the volunteers I recruit to run the program stem from a sporting background and really connect with this vision of creating sport for social change.

Do you find there’s a big difference between men’s and women’s clubs?

Yeah, without a doubt. To be honest with you, I think it’s a lot easier for women to engage with this program than it is for guys. ‘Cause guys are at that stage where it’s all about being cool. Girls are far more open to personal growth and things that are a little softer around the edges, so to speak. Which is where we just really need to get our marketing right. So it’s pitched as something that’s straight down the line, something blokey.

Once you get them in they realise, This is amazing. This is changing my life. Our intention is to expose them to new opportunities, to the fact that there’s a lot more out there.

So you feel like that will do half the job?

From that point they’ve got a choice. They can say, “I want to lead my life the way I was because that’s great.” Or, “There are other ways to do life.” The anecdotal evidence that we’ve received from the process so far has been amazing. But now it’s just a matter of getting some really solid data to say we’re actually having an impact on these guys and changing club culture.

Is that what you’re working on at the moment?

We’ve got Deakin Uni on it. We’ve done two years of the current work and now they’ll be able to tell us, “Right, this is the impact you’ve had.”

So how did you get Game Changers off the ground?

It was Captains Camp and then it was Game Changers, and now the organisation Game Changers facilitates a range of different programs with Captains Camp being the flagship program.

Got it!

The way we got Captains Camp off the ground was by me literally phoning up the presidents of the three most significant footy and netball leagues in Gippsland and saying, “Hey, this is who I am. I want to borrow 15 minutes of your time at the next board meeting to present my idea.”

One of my most memorable moments was the very first pitch—12 months before Captains Camp even ran—standing in front of a bunch of 50- to 70-year-olds, talking about creating inclusive, empowering footy-netball clubs. And they’re all like, “Mate, that sounds awesome. Go for it.”

From there I started a journey of pitching the program to 30 separate footy and netball clubs in the space of 10 weeks. That really built my network. It got people talking about it. It recruited participants. The moment I first welcomed the participants—we call them “Skippers”—to Captains Camp was really significant for me. “Whoa there are 30 kids sitting in front of me right now!”

“Shit!” [Laughs].

We’ve got a six-month program ahead! All the talk and road-tripping for the last six years has got us here.

That’s what it took? Six years to get from idea to the first camp?

Yup. Six years to get from me coming off the YMCA program, developing the idea, recruiting, building the confidence and then getting stuck into it.

I was at university during that time. But I had this little book and every time I had an idea around what Captains Camp would look like, I’d scribble in it. So when it came to actually programming, I had two to three years’ worth of notes that I was flicking through going, “Yep, scrap that, keep that, keep that, scrap that.” And that was actually what shaped the program.

And when you pitched to the older guys at the clubs, did they reflect on what things were like in their day? Did they feel like the culture was messed up?

I think it takes a lot of boys until they’re the parents of 15-year-old sons to actually look back on their life and go, “Whoa, that’s what it was like.” Or, “I don’t want my son to grow up in the same environment.” And so I find that connecting with a lot of these guys is great. They’ve reflected on what life was like back then—when they were drinking shitloads and smoking at half-time and all that kind of stuff—and gone, “I’m so glad that doesn’t exist anymore. But I understand there are still some really significant cultural issues that exist in our club.”

I think even sometimes me just speaking with them opens them to the idea that change is possible. ‘Cause for them it’s just the way it’s always been, the way it always will be. They’re not necessarily cool with it, but they’re like…

What are you going to do?

“What do you do?” Change doesn’t happen.

It makes you wonder how many people are just going along for the ride. Like in that situation where you said you weren’t comfortable, I wonder how many of your friends were feeling the same way, thinking, I don’t know how to challenge this.

Oh massive! And that’s the beauty of Game Changers. I’ve had some really authentic conversations with guys I used to play footy with. And you really get some solid heart-to-heart around what it was like for them at 16 being part of this super-masculine environment.

Oh really? What do they say?

Just like, “Yeah man, I used to have heaps of anxiety turning up to footy training sometimes. I didn’t want to get shit hung on me so I didn’t speak up.”

Or, you know, “There was a time where I thought I might be gay, but I wasn’t. But, you know, there’s no way I wanted to be gay in this club.” And even for girls it’s like, “Goddamn some of those A-grade girls were bitches. And I was so intimidated by them.” That’s a huge driver for me. Why not create a phenomenal culture at sporting clubs so then it becomes a space for character building and empowerment for anybody who joins the club?

Captains Camp volunteers in 2013

Did sport used to be better?

Look, I think it’s always been a bit of a boys’ club. But at the same time I think committee members want the best for their club and the community. They also want to be winning because winning brings about more success. And I’ll tell you what I’ve found. Clubs that have a president who understands the reason why their club exists support what we’re doing. And clubs that don’t understand the deeper reason why their club exists don’t support it.

What I mean by that is presidents who are only focused on the present season and winning a premiership that year think I’m wasting my time. Presidents who are part of a club that understand the significance of their role in the community—of creating a safe space, an inclusive space for young people to grow and become rounded community members, but also push for a win, are the ones who go, “Mate, I love what you’re doing and think your vision’s fantastic.”

That’s really interesting.

Yeah. There is a very obvious divide between those that actually sponsor their players to go to Captains Camp and those that choose not to be part of it. And it’s not funding, it’s 100 percent attitudes of the committee that determine whether they get around it or not.

It’d be great with the data if you could show whether team success is based on the current culture of the club.

Absolutely. Big time.

So it seems you’ve got a very clear moral compass. Have you always? Where does that come from?

To be perfectly honest I’ve always just really wanted to make my parents proud. As a young guy, that was a real driving force. And for me that was reflected in working hard at school, working hard at sport, always trying to beat my best. Because all I wanted was the pat on the back from my dad, really.

Was it hard to get?

Absolutely. He wasn’t giving it out easy! And even on this journey, it took him about three years to actually come around and understand the significance of what I’m trying to do and what I’m creating. Now, he’s a massive fan. But it’s taken a long time.

So your parents have strong values.

They do. And it was my desire to be a good person. I wanted to make the school better. I wanted to break all the cliques at the school. I wanted to create an inclusive community within it. I wanted the footy club to not be so judgemental.

I guess it was something innate in me. I just remember at 16 how emotionally connected I was to wanting to change the world. I had this vision of doing something amazing. I didn’t know what it was then, but it was around the time I was starting to be really challenged by the culture at Leongatha, and I just wanted to fucking make a difference. [Laughs]. You know? I think there was also a bit of a hero in me. “I want to be the guy to do it.”

Put on the cape.

Yeah! And I think my biggest growth in the last four years has been putting ego aside and going,

“What’s the greater good here? Is it having my name in lights or is it actually having a social impact?"

This is why being so much more open to partnerships and involving outsiders to do work with us has become such a liberating journey.

I want to talk about partners actually. Because Game Changers runs out of YMCA.

Yeah, so we’re structured as a non-profit and auspiced by YMCA Victoria. So they take a small percentage of our total revenue and that gives us their name—there’s a huge amount of credibility that comes with being affiliated with YMCA Vic.

Actually YMCA is a bit of a black box for me. It’s massive and I don’t understand what actually happens there.

To sum them up simply is a difficult thing to do. Because they do quite a lot! YMCA Victoria is one of the most reputable YMCAs in the world. It’s led by a phenomenal CEO, Peter Burns, and their youth empowerment space is only just gaining recognition as an amazing part of what they do.

At the moment you ask your average person what YMCA does and they’ll say: “Run gyms, swimming pools and teach kids how to swim.” But they do stacks more. And fortunately for me and youth services, they really want to be recognised as being at the forefront of youth empowerment alongside Foundation for Young Australians and other social enterprises.

It’s “YMCA” because it was traditionally the Young Men’s Christian Association, right? But is it now for everybody?

The language that they often use now is just the “Y.” Some people still perceive it as having that old-school reputation, but it’s completely not that. I think it was founded with the right set of values and intentions, but it has moved with the times in terms of being open to men and women and being super-inclusive of all backgrounds.

What are some other examples of great partnerships you’ve made?

So The Huddle is an incredible community department in the North Melbourne Football Club. North Melbourne is a massively multicultural place, big commission housing around it. They’ve got lots of disadvantaged families. So what they’ve created is this “Huddle” which is about engaging local young people in football.

A lot of them are refugees who come to learn about footy and have access to technology. And mentors are brought in to help them with their schoolwork. It becomes this place of real vibrancy to empower these newly arrived people. And to also, like, give them a North Melbourne jersey. [Laughs].

Why not?

So then they become a fan. It’s a win-win relationship. On one of our Captains Camp programs we’ll actually bring all of our Skippers to the city, take them into the Huddle and have them run a footy or netball clinic for the refugee kids who are between eight and 12. For them to have that interaction is massive. ‘Cause there’s no diversity back home.

So again it’s not saying, “You’re going to learn something about refugees.” It’s saying, “You’re going to come and teach these kids.”

“You’re just going to hang out.”

Exactly. And a real push for me is to have 30 percent of our participant cohort from minority groups. So some refugees, some Indigenous guys and also some people with physical disabilities. If we have 60 participants, which is our target this year, I’d love to have six from each of those three minority groups to be participants on our program.

Not the tokenistic black guy, but the guy who’s a young leader in his footy club and just so happens to be Sudanese with a story we can learn from.

Right.

We also have a mentor component to the program where the Skippers identify a senior player within their club who they respect and admire and would like to learn from. We then work with that mentor on a one-day training session teaching them about our values and our vision and what activity they’re going to be running.

What’s been your proudest moment?

Probably our “Community Action Project” which we first ran in 2013. That time we got all the Skippers to recruit a team of five people, including their mentor. They had to get the team together in front of a computer at 9AM on a Sunday where they’d receive an email from me with a video telling them what they had to do for the day. They had no idea. They just had their team gear and a car ready. And they were asked to collect as much second-hand sports gear as they could from their local community in six hours and bring it all to an oval where we would count it up, compile it and celebrate the winner.

I was in the city watching stuff go nuts on Instagram and Twitter like, “We just got a bike!” “Yeah, we just got a whole bunch of balls!” “We’ve got some hockey sticks!” And I’m going, “What!? This is really happening!”

I make my way to the footy ground in this town and at about 3:15pm this four-wheel drive comes up with a giant trailer filled to the brim with bikes and hula hoops and balls and bats and surfboards and bloody javelin sticks.

Just some of the haul from the Captains Camp Community Action Project

[Laughs].

I’m seeing the trailer thinking, This is great! But you’re one of 30. Crikey, what’s to come?

Totally not prepared!

Next thing you know another four-wheel drive comes in. And boom, it’s filled to the brim! And then another! By the end we had about 4500 items.

Wow.

And we ended up keeping all the stuff in the away footy rooms because we physically couldn’t cart it.

That’s madness. Were they pretty proud of themselves?

They were just like, “high fives!” It was a real highlight for each of them to go, “Right, I was able to put into practice what I’ve learned.”

Amazing. So I want to understand what it was like for you when you returned to your community and club after experiencing that first YMCA leadership camp.

Super challenging. And this is why we run Captains Camp over six months. Because when you come out of a program like that, where you’re immersed in a completely different environment, there’s a real dissonance going back into one where nothing’s changed.

The beauty of it was I went home with a whole new set of skills, a different way of looking at the world, and remained incredibly inspired. And I was the school captain so I was able to put a lot of it into practice.

But I think the key stepping stone for me was getting invited back down the following year to be a facilitator on the same program. That’s what then reconnected me with that experience and people on the same wavelength as me. And it actually introduced me to the art of facilitation. I had this idea of inspiring all my mates to get onto this sort of program.

Did you find it challenging to be with your friends and the things they were talking about?

Absolutely. I mean I think I’ve always been of a different ilk to my mates. Growing up I never really had a best friend, just from not being on the same wavelength as others. [Laughs]. But now having been through the journey of starting something up, I’m just constantly connected with people who are inspiring. I couldn’t tell you how many best friends I’ve got now.

Did you feel like it would come?

I was anxious. Especially through years 11 and 12 when I was acknowledging that I had different values to a lot of my peers and the environments I was in. With that brought a lot of anxiety and a lot of “I don’t belong.” The only reason I was able to survive and remain upbeat was because I was good at sport and I was acknowledged for that.

I was going to say—isn’t it amazing that you’re playing sport, you’re a classic part of the crew, you’re leader of the school and you’ve still got that internal conflict. Did you try to have conversations with your friends?

The hardest thing was talking about my experience. ‘Cause they didn’t give a shit. They didn’t care at all! And so to go back and say, “Let’s create an empowering culture here at the footy!” And they’re like, “It’s fucking great the way it is mate. Let me go and drink some beers!” It’s hard.

What I was mostly challenged by was the fact that I had a degree of influence but I never had the charisma some of my mates had. They were just the cruisiest blokes ever. And so the influence they were having on their followers was just channelling energy in any random direction. Whereas for me it was like, “Fuck mate, if you could get where I’m coming from here and work with me on this you could channel your influence to enable your followers to follow you in a positive direction.”

I realised I couldn’t do that at the time. But eventually I would.

And what are your mates doing now?

Some are on board. Actually most of the girls are. [Laughs]. Funnily enough.

Do you know what? Girls are great.

Girls are great. Girls are fricking awesome. A lot of them are super supportive. What are my male mates doing now? Three quarters of them hung around and got a trade. The other quarter went down to the city to study. And they just continue plugging away, playing local footy, just doing their thing. My best mate—who was never one of those influential charismatic blokes—he got married in January. He’s now pregnant with his wife.

Aww!

He’s my age. He’s got a house. He’s got stuff going on. But the beautiful thing about him is that, while he doesn’t get on board with his time, he loves to hear me talk about it. You know? “How’s Captains Camp?”

That’s the first question people ask me actually. Which is an identity that I’m really proud to be building locally. Especially ’cause my brother plays AFL. He plays for Essendon and he’s one of the most well-known people in not only Gippsland, but probably Melbourne and Victoria. So he’s a strong role model for the type of thing that we’re trying to create here—a real ambassador.
The beautiful thing is the connection between me and him and what I’m trying to create and what he represents. Because people know that Dyson is a really great person, and Jamin is this weird guy who’s trying to create more Dysons. [Laughs].

Can you imagine if he wasn’t on board!

[Laughs]. No.

They see him as a strong role model, and they see me pioneering social change within sport, and it’s a beautiful kind of synergy. And then also to have my youngest brother who’s super influential in his own right playing semi-elite football but also being a volunteer at my organisation sets a good example.

And so in the community you’ve got all kind of heads sticking up. I imagine it requires a bit of resilience to take that.

Look, we’re not successful yet. But I think the movement that we’ve created has stemmed from courage and resilience.

Where do you get that from?

YOLO.

[Laughs].

Like, seriously!

Have you had a lot of detractors?

No. But it’s an interesting one. Because I get a lot of “mate you’re tackling a pretty big beast here.” Now I don’t know if that comes from a place of disbelief in the vision but I think it comes from a place of “I don’t think you quite understand the significance of what you’re trying to change or how big.”

But I know my time to do something is when my heart’s beating really fast. That’s when I make the phone call.

Beating fast in a passion way? Or just getting a little bit scared?

It’s just like, I’m here, right in the moment. I know within myself if I don’t do this I’m going to regret it. And it is, it’s fear. For me this concept of fear is such a motivator. Because I hate being scared. The only way to get over it is to face it.

So what is it that makes sport so important? I’m not sporty. I used to be wing defence in a netball team but I was very bad.

It’s my least favourite position. That’s probably why you were put there. [Laughs].

Shocking position! Just wanted to be Centre or…

Goal Attack! Give me something significant!

Sport is so highly valued in Australia. It’s prevalent in every community. It engages thousands and thousands of young people every year in so many different capacities. And it’s so good for people.

There are communities of sporting clubs that are already built, and so if we can embed a leadership framework into these communities that already exist, that has the scope to influence not only the individuals who are part of the club, but also everyone they impact. Because my experience growing up was it’s the sporting jocks who have influence in the schoolyard. If you get them channelling their influence in a positive direction, that’s going to have a positive flow-on effect to the broader community.

I respect and acknowledge the work that the arts do in creating social change, and music and dance. But for me, sport is such a beast. And so if you can tame that and get it working towards the betterment of society, that will have such a massive, massive impact on every local community. Indigenous communities, people with physical disabilities, newly arrived, homophobic, alcohol abusing, gambling, footy clubs!

It’s the whole thing. It reminds me of the TV show Friday Night Lights. This incredibly inspiring coach comes to an insular small town in America where they live and breathe footy. And he has this ability to change kids’ lives.

Bang. Bang.

And it’s just beautiful because it shows a community growing.

I might get on that. It sounds like it would be good inspiration for me.

I love it. I wanted to know finally what you think a good man is?

Someone who has the courage to acknowledge mistakes and apologise for mistakes.

A good man is someone who sees women as equal, especially when it comes to searching for a partner—they’re looking for an equal, not someone to take on the mother role.

That is such a key part of this whole gender discussion we’re having. A good man is someone who takes responsibility for their actions, has enough self-awareness to make good choices when in the public eye. And acknowledge and respect that they have followers regardless of how influential they are. And also has a sense of humility and ability to laugh at themselves and not take life too seriously. I think that would wrap it up for me.

“YOLO.”

Big time. [Laughs].

Jane Nethercote

Jane has LOVED Dumbo Feather since she spotted it in the magazine racks at Borders. Most of the Dumbo Feather team would be too young to understand this reference. She’s worked in online publishing for a wee while at places like Crikey, Lonely Planet and World Vision.

Photography by Nadia Raineri

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