It’s Friday afternoon and a group of students from Kaleen High school are focused intently on the man in front of them. He’s saying they all need something to believe in, asking what their dreams are, and telling them to believe in themselves. Aside from his voice, there’s total silence. To anyone whose ever taught high school or even been to high school themselves, this kind of focus on a Friday could seem miraculous, even unbelievable.
Former Canberra Raiders Captain, Alan Tongue is at Belconnen Youth Centre, leading a group of students through their third session in a six part program called ASPIRE. The program encourages students to work hard towards their dreams, overcoming any obstacles that may distract them. This term, with generous sponsorship from Lions Clubs across Canberra, Alan is running five ASPIRE programs in school across Canberra and Queanbeyan.
In a few minutes, he has them up on their feet, forming a circle. Their focus doesn’t falter. He’s talking about a time when he was young like them and wanted to join a football team. The coach said he needed to be able to play in multiple positions including in the centre where he would need to keep passing the ball to other players. Alan tells the group of his doubt about his ball passing skills, and shares a story about how he went down to Mawson Oval alone every night to practice passing the ball, a hundred times to the right and a hundred times to the left, before he finally joined the team.
“It’s not meant to be easy,” he says, “it’s meant to be challenging.”
As he talks, he passes the ball back and forth to one of the students in the circle. He’s a polished performer who’s still keeping it real.
Tongue retired from the NRL at the end of the 2011 season. Since then he’s become a certified fitness trainer and discovered a passion for working with young people to help them find their own kind of success. This work began when he paid a visit to Bimberi Youth Justice Centre to attend a church service with young offenders. Very few of the detainees attended the service and someone commented that if Alan had brought a football, they would all have been there. He returned with a football and found a new way to make a real difference in the lives of young people.
Through the ASPIRE program, Alan uses football as a metaphor for life. He says, “You don’t focus on the grand final on day one of pre-season training.” So he encourages young people to set themselves small, achievable targets.
In the first session of each program he lays down the ground rules for the physical challenges in the program. He says, “It’s not about winning or losing – just do your own best effort.”
Later on in the afternoon, the group is in the Sports Hall at Belconnen Community Centre and the team work couldn’t be more apparent. There’s a circuit of physical challenges, push-ups, squats and other drills. The catch is that the group members perform all these activities tied to one another – first in pairs as in a three legged race, then adding more members until finally, groups of five, all of different sizes and abilities negotiate the circuit together. High school can be a high-pressure time as everyone develops physically, emotionally and intellectually at different rates. But in this room, everyone is on the same level, working together to be their personal best.
The session ends with some tough love motivational speaking. The group is relaxed, exhausted, playful and still attentive.
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