The sport stars inspiring a new generation

THERE'S never been a shortage of talent in Australian sport.

What sets apart top athletes such as the GWS Giants star Josh Kelly and cricketing great and former soccer star Ellyse Perry, world number two surfer Julian Wilson and star Olympic medallist swimmer Mitch Larkin is a their desire to foster the next generation.

Each member of this famous quartet is keen see their sport grow and to encourage more kids to find a healthy focus in staying active.

This is an especially prudent message given a report this year by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found a quarter of Australian children are now overweight or obese.

Each one is also an embodiment of sportsmanship on and off field.

GWS Giants AFL player Josh Kelly at the CrossFit Infinitum Gym in Chiswick. Picture. Phil Hillyard
GWS Giants AFL player Josh Kelly at the CrossFit Infinitum Gym in Chiswick. Picture. Phil Hillyard

Wilson, who achieved hero status after paddling towards Mick Fanning in J-Bay in 2015 during that infamous shark incident, is also vocal on causes close to him, such as raising breast cancer awareness - while continuing to take out titles, including the 2018 Quicksilver Pro Gold Coast in March.

Netballer Laura Geitz is another great prepared to put back into her sport. She has represented Australia in 50 international test matches with the Diamonds, a side she's also captained, won two Commonwealth Games medals but she's also renowned for the training camps she has run in regional areas for young players.

Larkin is at the top of his game at age 25 - winning five gold medals at this year's Commonwealth Games, just one medal shy of Ian Thorpe's record - and shows no signs of slowing down.

Aussie swimming sensation Mitch Larkin is a great role model for kids. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Aussie swimming sensation Mitch Larkin is a great role model for kids. Picture: Nigel Hallett

He vowed at the end of the Gold Coast games that his best is yet to come and he has his eyes firmly fixed on Tokyo 2020.

"I haven't reached my full potential, I don't think yet and I love the sport," he said at the time.

"There hasn't been one day in training over the last six months that I've hated. It's been hard, it's been tough but it's been awesome."

In AFL, Buddy Franklin has been again proving his worth recently as the Sydney Swan's $10 million man, kicking his 900th goal.

GWS Giants player Josh Kelly in action. Picture: Robert Prezioso/AFL Media
GWS Giants player Josh Kelly in action. Picture: Robert Prezioso/AFL Media

Meanwhile, Giants' star Kelly is arguably one of the sport's best young guns after his swift rise through the ranks. The 23-year-old, drafted in 2013, made his GWS debut in their 2014 season and is already a co-captain.

Last season was particularly impressive for the Melbourne-born midfielder, who won the club's Kevin Sheedy medal for the "best and fairest" player, set GWS records in disposals and tackles and finished fifth in the Brownlow Medal. Other clubs are taking note, too: Kelly knocked back a $10 million, nine-year contract from North Melbourne - the club he grew up supporting and where his father Phil Kelly played.

His off-field leadership is winning him just as many fans as his on-field exploits. Kelly says his own behaviour has been affected by the chances the Giants have given him to be coached by players he looked up to as a kid, such as his midfield coach Lenny Hayes.

He says it keeps him aware that kids may be looking to him the same way he looked to the players he admired. Team visits to schools and junior teams in western Sydney have also proved great personal motivators. And he's quick to share advice to younger players with big ambitions: keep believing.

"Above all enjoy what you're doing and have fun with it," Kelly says.

"Just continue to work hard and if you see yourself as playing and have a goal of making AFL at whatever level, have the confidence in your ability and believe you're a good player and you can make it - because I think one thing that's kept me going when maybe I missed out on teams or opportunities that set me back a bit. Stay true to that confidence."

 

Fellow AFL star Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin is an inspiration too. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Fellow AFL star Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin is an inspiration too. Picture: Phil Hillyard

 

Social researcher Claire Madden says young people look to athletes as role models of success and in their formative years they play a significant role in shaping their narrative of what's aspirational. This, she says, is especially important given the rising sedentary lifestyles among young people.

But we're looking to them for more than just their skills on the field. And now, with social media, we have unprecedented access to their lives outside the game.

"Young people are observing their lifestyles off field as well," Madden says.

"They're looking at how they are living, if they value a healthy lifestyle, nutrition, do they have a noble character, a healthy lifestyle, it's a full package of what does make a hero that makes someone great.

"I think role models have a more profound effect on our lives than we probably realise. They frame a lot of thought patterns and beliefs of what is important or how to live."

Another strong role model can be found in Ellyse Perry. The sport star holds the incredible distinction of having made both the Matildas soccer team and the Australian women's cricket team, the Southern Stars, at just 16.

Ellyse Perry is a talented athlete. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Ellyse Perry is a talented athlete. Picture: Jonathan Ng

And her advocacy of women's sport, more than inspiring young girls looking for female sporting heroes, is helping drive the momentum that's bringing it due recognition and pushing it into the mainstream.

It has been particularly visible in the past 12 months, with more boys and girls sticking around after games to chat with players and ask for autographs. Perry sees this as particularly positive for showing parents that women's sport is worth supporting.

"It's such an exciting period for women's sport; the last couple of years there's been a watershed moment where it's developed and progressed and the attitudes around it have evolved," she says.

"More than anything it's offering the opportunity for girls to get involved from an early age and to see a future. It's almost like a second career (for me) in terms of the way things have changed. Young girls now can turn on the TV and see women competing and doing what we love, so there is a role to positively influence them and that's really cool."

Netballer Laura Geitz has represented Australia in 50 international test matches with the Diamonds. Picture: Adam Head
Netballer Laura Geitz has represented Australia in 50 international test matches with the Diamonds. Picture: Adam Head

Another link between Perry and Kelly is their dedication to their own fitness and nutrition, which each credits for helping them to stay at the elite level.

While Kelly says he's been conscious of eating well since his days playing in junior clubs, he's taken it more seriously as his understanding has grown. While putting in extra sessions as a junior doing weights and long distance running helped advance his game then; today, he makes use of the club's dietitian and balances workouts with recovery.

"Putting the right food into my body is part and parcel of being a footballer," says Kelly.

"But the mental part as well is huge, when you're putting the right food in you know you're putting everything in to get your body into the best position. It's more than getting the right energy levels."

Advanced sports dietitian Lisa Middleton - who has worked with NRL, AFL, netball and top basketballers - says the dedication to nutrition varies between players, but it takes considerable sacrifice at the top levels.

"Being an elite athlete isn't just turning up to training and competing," Middleton says.

"There's all the prep that goes on 24 hours a day, the sleep patterns and nutrition - they have to eat a fair few times a day. But it becomes easy once athletes get into a routine."

Middleton says those who put that extra effort in are often looking to better their game across all areas, and nutrition provides an extra edge they then want to share with fans.

"Once they start to make changes in their nutrition they feel the benefits. And once they've felt the difference in eating well and having good nutrition they want to spread that message so you see them in the community spreading the benefits of eating well and staying fit."

* Watch Josh Kelly and the GWS Giants when they return to Spotless Stadium to play the Sydney Swans on August 18. Tickets at Ticketmaster.