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Sport volunteering was my life-changer

17 May 2021

Up to a quarter of sport’s 3.1 million volunteers are considering whether to return as the COVID-19 pandemic challenges life as we knew it. For National Volunteer Week - 17-23 May 2021 - Sport Australia Acting CEO Rob Dalton is urging Australians to consider the positivity volunteering brings, benefits he’s experienced for more than 40 years.

As part of National Volunteer Week, Softball Australia umpire Kyira Cox, Water Polo Australia referee Nicola Johnson, Australian Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Australia soft-tissue therapist Bernd Adolph, Sport Australia Acting CEO Robert Dalton and Surf Life Saving Australia official Jenny Kenny share their stories on volunteering in sport.

By Rob Dalton

The job that changed my life didn’t come with a salary, but it has helped me earn everything I have.

I was 17, quiet and shy, a butcher’s son from South Oakleigh arriving for my first day of training after being recruited to the biggest hockey club in Victoria, Camberwell.

The club president threw out a handshake to greet me in his customary way. “Hello Prince Charming, which team do you want?”

I was confused, I’d been playing first grade against men since 14 so naturally assumed I’d be in the top grade.

“Yeah, that’s a given,” he said, “but it’s a requirement at our club for all the best players to coach a junior team.”

This was my sliding doors moment. I’m almost 60 now and Acting CEO of Sport Australia, but this was the day I discovered one of the most important jobs in Australian sport – volunteering.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit sport hard, and vital to the survival of clubs right around the country will be the return of 3.1 million volunteers who are the heartbeat of Australian sport. It’s the biggest volunteer base of any industry in Australia and estimated to be worth $4 billion a year to sport.

At Sport Australia, this is an immediate focus. Our early research indicates we are at risk of losing as many as 25 per cent of volunteers, some wary of health risks or others having filled their free time during COVID with other pursuits.

I’ve heard of competitions forced to cancel, not because they don’t have the participation numbers, but because they don’t have the volunteers to support them. The people to mark the lines, run the water bottles, manage the canteen, keep scores – those who simply keep sport running.

It’s understandable in these circumstances that people may be wavering on whether to give their time to sport. So I wanted to share what sport volunteering has given to me.

Everything in my life has been structured around volunteering since that day I arrived at Camberwell Hockey Club and chose to coach the Under 10s.

As I invested time into the children, teaching them about skills, teamwork, winning and losing, their parents started to show interest in me too.

I’d graduated Year 12 with marks of 206 out of 410 – I’ll let you do the maths. It didn’t concern me much because my ambition was to play hockey, which I did for my state and at international level. But at 23, I ruptured two discs in my back in an on-field collision, spent six weeks in hospital and was told I wouldn’t play again.

Everything in my life has been structured around volunteering since that day I arrived at Camberwell Hockey Club and chose to coach the Under 10s.

Rob Dalton

Thankfully, the parents of my original U10s team had earlier seen some potential in me and pointed me towards University. I passed in the top five per cent of my accounting class, got job offers from all the big firms and was a made a partner within eight years, spending 35 years in the profession.

But my day job never stopped me from volunteering, because I never grew tired of that good feeling it provided.

I joined the Board of Richmond AFL club in 2004, a voluntary position I held for 15 years. The smiles were the biggest reward, the struggling Tigers transformed into a premiership force.

In my early days I asked about how we supported young kids recruited to the club. I volunteered to be among the first host families for these young recruits, bringing in an 18-year-old rookie to our family home when my eldest son was 14.

He was supposed to stay six months, but he asked to stay on and became part of our family, contributing the household chores. He lived with us for five years, after which he bought his own home – just a couple of hundred metres from us. That young player was Jack Riewoldt, now a three-time premiership winner, three-time Coleman Medallist, a three-time All-Australian.

Connections from volunteering come in all forms.

When I was coaching at Camberwell Hockey Club there was a talented young kid who had to move out of Melbourne due to family circumstances. He was going to leave the club too, until I urged him to catch the train halfway, then I’d drive him and his brother the remaining 45 minutes to training.

Years later, as a successful business owner, he came by my office. He said he just wanted to thank me for changing his life when he was a 14-year-old without a dad.

This is what volunteering can bring, it can expand all aspects of life. I’ve coached my sons in cricket and athletics, but I’ve also volunteered in other areas to broaden my own perspectives.

I grew up thinking of art as squiggles on a page, but volunteered on the Board of the Victorian College of the Arts for 10 years to share a connection with my wife, who studied fine arts.

I was on the Board of the Centre of Hearing Impaired Children simply because I wanted to help. Years later, my nephew ended up with a hearing disability and I was able to support the family through that traumatic time.

Volunteering also helped in my professional career as head of recruiting at EY. In CVs I would look for those who were volunteers. These were people who cared about their own development and who cared about other people. You wanted these people on your team because they had a sense of pride and aspiration.

Volunteering has given me stronger family connections, professional networks, lifelong friends and skills I didn’t know I wanted or needed.

On behalf of Sport Australia, I thank all Australian sport volunteers, as coaches, officials, managers, administrators, board members and more.

For those who give your time so graciously, I hope these sporting experiences continue to give you so much more joy and fulfilment in return. We appreciate you and sport needs you.

A surf life saving volunteer speaks to Rob Dalton
Sport Australia Acting CEO Rob Dalton, right, speaks to a surf life saving volunteer at the 2021 Australian Surf Life Saving Championships on the Sunshine Coast.
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