When Pete Rourke played country football over 20 years ago, most of the focus was on the field — and there was not a lot of conversation about issues affecting players outside the game.

“Back in our day … no discussions were had,” he said.

“It was just you’d go to training, you’d kick the footy, and you’d go home.”

But at the Wangaratta Rovers Football Netball Club, that’s changing.

Mr Rourke, a father of two, was recently appointed as the club’s inaugural wellbeing and development coach.

A man smiles behind the microphone

Peter Rourke is the Wangaratta Rovers’ new wellbeing and development coach. (Supplied: Pete Rourke)

The role was created this year, as the club began to see a need to help regional adolescents tackle the everyday issues beyond the footy field that come with growing up.

Mr Rourke said in particular, under 18s coach Ben Talarico had been pushing for the role to be created.

He said since the COVID-19 lockdowns, adults at the club had noticed young people venturing out less, spending more time on rapidly evolving technology, and facing more digital peer pressure.

“We need to embrace what these kids may be hearing and seeing and putting someone there … to say, ‘Rightio, let’s deal with issues if they come up,'” Mr Rourke said.

Three boys and two men stand in front of a football club logo

Harry Nolan, Wally Gemmell and Will Ashton with under 18s coach Ben Tallarico and Pete Rourke. (Supplied: Pete Rourke)

“Because obviously kids are learning a lot more than we were when we were little kids.”

It’s a role that Mr Rourke wants to see rolled out to all sports clubs.

He keeps an open-door policy for young players, providing a safe space to chat about all things on and off the field — a sure sign that times have changed since he was a young footballer.

“Now it’s a lot different, we have one-on-ones with our kids on a weekly basis,” he said. 

Boys huddle together smiling on the football field

The Wangaratta Rovers are working to provide better support for young people off the field.  (Facebook: Wangaratta Rovers Football and Netball Club)

“We touch on certain issues that we want to make sure they are clear on, or they can touch base with us on things that they’re not clear on.

“I believe it’s another tool moving forward … that’s important.”

The Wangaratta Rovers Football Netball Club is just one of an increasing number of regional sports clubs working to build a positive culture off-field, in towns where mental health issues are common and support services can be limited.

Building positive culture

The influence held by country sporting clubs is not underestimated by organisations like the Centre Against Violence.

It has just hosted its first Tackling Consent workshops at sports clubs in Wodonga and Wangaratta, teaching more than 200 people about consent, setting boundaries and respect.

A woman smiles at the camera with a tree in the background

The Centre Against Violence’s Jaime Chubb says country sports clubs can play a leadership role. (Supplied: Centre Against Violence)

It is just the start of what Centre Against Violence chief executive Jaime Chubb hopes will become more common-place in sporting clubs.

“Prevention work is something that’s emerging in this space and so this is the first time that we have held workshops like this,” Ms Chubb said.

“We hosted them deliberately within sporting clubs so people who were coming along felt like they were being conducted as part of the ordinary day-to-day lives … of sporting club members.

“We all know sporting clubs, particularly in rural and regional areas, play a particularly strong role in community leadership.”

A man smiles with two girls in front of a banner

Former AFL player Alex Rance with Hannah Carroll and Harper McGrath at a consent workshop. (Supplied: Centre Against Violence)

Ms Chubb said working with sports clubs not only targeted young people, but also better equipped adults to help guide and shape the culture locally.

Most of the people who reached out after the north-east Victorian consent workshops were parents, who were also learning to navigate discussions about consent and evolving technology with their children.

“Things have changed so quickly,” Ms Chubb said.

A phone with several messaging apps

Young people are spending more time on social media and some are unaware of consent laws. (Unsplash: Adem Ay)

“Every year there is [new] technology out there and platforms in which information and photos can be shared.

“So we need to make sure that we are keeping up, not just from the legal perspective, but in the conversations we are having with young people.

“Things are changing so rapidly [and] we are not keeping up.”