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Challenge accepted: sport as a tool for social change

With Sarah Loh

Season 3 - Episode 6

26 Oct 2021
Podcast 24:48

We know sport and physical activity are good for our bodies and our health, but they’re also good for our mind.

In this episode, we talk to Sarah Loh (the first female CEO of an AFL league) and discuss how sport can be used as a tool to create meaningful social connections, the importance of strong role models, as well as generating social change through the world of sport.

  • Transcript

    VicHealth ad: This series is produced by the folks at VicHealth, Victoria's health promotion agency.

    Snippet from interview

    Sarah: I live by the motto challenge accepted. That was really my, after the crying when I was young and people telling me, no, I just thought, you know what? Challenge accepted. Like no one gets to define your dreams and vision.

    Dr Sandro: Hello and a big welcome to In Good Health! I’m your host Dr Sandro Demaio. I’m a medical doctor, public health expert, VicHealth CEO and foodie. Today I’m very excited to welcome our special guest Sarah Loh. Sarah is the CEO of the South Metro Junior Football League, the largest independent junior sporting organisation in Australia. Making her the first female CEO of an AFL league. Sarah has also been a multicultural ambassador, played local footy and coaches a women's masters side, the Waverley Warriors.

    Dr Sandro: With over 32 years of experience in sport management and leadership, Sarah’s main goal for the league is to assist junior clubs in becoming more sustainable and continue to grow sport participation. In today’s episode, we’ll call Sarah and discuss how sport can be used as a tool to create meaningful social connections, the importance of strong role models, as well as generating social change through the world of sport. Let’s give her a call.

    Sandro: So, Sarah, thank you so much for joining us. It's awesome to have you here. We've been big fans of your work for a number of years now and really, following you as a leader and the important impact that you're having across the community. What does sport mean to you as an individual?

    Sarah: Oh, thanks, Sandro. Yeah, for me, sport it's been my whole life. I think one thing for me, it's been a big social connector and a real equalizer, especially from a grassroots sports perspective. Really at this level, it's in its purest form of social connection before it starts to get a little bit too serious or can get a bit too serious. So, friendships are really getting made, some really important lessons at the grassroot, especially for the young kids to think about things like teamwork and, you know, effort and contribution, and dedication and all that, is all together.

    Sarah: So, when you, when I kind of reflect on this and think about other things that could be happening in your life, you know, what greater way than in sport do you actually get that type of experience, especially at grassroots level.

    Sarah: So, I think from a personal perspective, though, from, you know, being so young, when I came to Australia in particular, it really was my saviour. So, if you can kind of imagine, you know, coming from a different country where sport isn't too big, and then you come to Australia, especially to Melbourne, where sport is, is everything.

    Sarah: It's a cultural thing in Melbourne, in Australia. Really, for me, my mother actually migrated here back in the late 1950s, and she actually got a nursing scholarship at the Austin Hospital. And she was engaged to dad. But she actually came out here to Melbourne by herself for 3 years as an 18-year-old.

    Sarah: So inspiring. And she got to see exactly what sport was about. So, she was actually a really good sports person in Malaysia. So, she was really nervous about leaving her fiancée at the time as an 18-year-old, leaving her family.

    Sarah: And I think coming to a city like Melbourne, where there was football and cricket, and she always told these stories about going to the MCG and watching cricket and football matches. And so, for her, you know, sport's been her life.

    Sarah: And I think she just really wanted to share that with my 2 older brothers and myself. When we first came to Australia, she really talked about this, you know, assimilation piece in the sense of a positive assimilation. She knew it would be really tough for us to come from an Asian country. We're really lucky because we, English was our spoken language anyway. So that wasn't really a barrier for us. But to be able to get straight into sport and we didn't know what assimilation meant.

    Sarah: We didn't know what she was talking about. She just said, look, you know, the best way to fit in is to make friends. And the best way to make friends in Australia, especially Melbourne, is to start playing sports.

    Dr Sandro: To play sport.

    Sarah: So, yeah, that for me Sandro. It's just been my saviour

    Dr Sandro: Amazing

    Sarah: And it's something I just fell in love with.

    Dr Sandro: So, tell me about, tell me about those early years for you, Sarah. So, growing up, you had, I think, some older brothers and you all love sport. What was it that you loved and what were those early years like playing sport as a newly arrived migrant in Australia?

    Sarah: Yeah, well, we moved to Noble Park North, and mum and dad are still there, and we only lived about 500m from, at the time what was called VFL Park. And in January 1977 was the first of the World Series cricket matches.

    Sarah: So, of course, two older brothers, they're actually 6 and 7 years older. So literally a generation older than myself. And I just love my brothers and looked up to them. So, if I wanted to play with them and all they did was sport, you know, for a young girl if, you know, what do you do but play sport and join in?

    Sarah: So, you know, during that January, that first summer we came in, we were cricketers, so we played cricket. And I was a fast bowler.

    Sarah: So, none of us would ever be on the same team. One was Australia. That was me. My other brother was West Indies, and the other brother was England or the world. And when it came to football, we couldn’t barrack for the same team either because we were just too competitive.

    Sarah: But those are the sorts of wonderful things that sport can do. You know, it's a little bit of friendly competition. It's a little bit of rivalry. It's a little bit of, you know, getting really, really healthy.

    Sarah: So, I think those really early lessons of physical activity and what it did for our mental health. And I think, I think about just how it impacted me being so young, you know, just trying to fit in and make friends.

    Sarah: So, for me it was, it was really a challenge to be starting school. I didn't do school in Malaysia, so I went straight to grade one in Melbourne. And you have to think about the 70s where there was no Asian migration. The first migration came in the 80s with the Vietnamese. So really in the 70s, we were it. So, we really stuck out like a sore thumb, like a really, it must have been so unusual for so for other Aussie kids to kind of see this Chinese/Malaysian family move in and start playing sport.

    Sarah: It would have just been absolutely hilarious to watch. But all the other kids in the neighbourhood just started joining in. So that was the, that was the good part. But the racism or what I probably like to call more ignorance, because racism is a pretty, pretty strong terminology.

    Sarah: But for there, I can look back in my old life now and just think about the ignorance, we were just different. We looked different and people called it out.

    Sarah: So, imagine as a 6-year-old being called these names, you’re trying to fit in. So, my mother knew this because she lived here. So that's why she said, you know, play sport because you'll really make friends and people in Australia really appreciate sports people.

    Sarah: So, but that was really the biggest challenge for me, was facing all this perceived racism and bullying and name calling. And I found it really hard. And I can be really upfront and honest with a lot of people now when I speak about this, I think I actually pushed a lot of those feelings and emotions quite deep down. And it wasn't till I'm in this last, especially 5 years, being in football. So much of this gets talked about. And so, I have to talk a lot about racism and sport and how it connects people.

    Sarah: I'll just share this one quick story with you. I think you'll enjoy this one because I was so young. My parents actually didn't tell me that we were migrating to Australia because what does migration mean to a six-year-old? They just told me that we were going on a holiday. So, my little joke in life is, I think I'm actually the person that's been on the longest holiday in history, which has been for over 40 years. So hey, what a great place to have a holiday right?

    Dr Sandro: Good on you, Sarah. So, Sarah, I mean, it is true, though, when we think about sport. You know, I think particularly until only a few decades ago, sport was still thought of as being kind of masculine.

    Dr Sandro: And there have been some fairly significant and continue to be some fairly significant challenges, whether it's ignorance and, you know, or racism or things in between. I mean, what was it like in the 70s and 80s, being interested in sport as a Malaysian Australian or an Australian of Malaysian origin or background. And a female, and an emerging leader?

    Dr Sandro: Because you talk, you talked in previous interviews about sort of these layers of challenges. Take us back to those early years, because I want to ask you about, you know, obviously, well hopefully it's a very different experience now as a you know, as a really respected and very senior leader in the space.

    Dr Sandro: But what was it like starting out, you know, on this path, so passionate about sport, so passionate about community. But with those layers of challenges that you've talked about of being a woman and looking different in society and in the 70s in Australia?

    Sarah: When my mother talked about assimilation to all of us, and that included dad, because dad didn't actually come with mum in the 50s when she was lucky enough to study here.

    Sarah: So, Dad took this quite seriously. And I think it took him probably about 6 months of working to get our first car. And, you know, he bought an absolute lemon. I think it was a fourth hand, fourth hand, Holden Kingswood station wagon. So, he took this whole being Australian and assimilating pretty seriously from mum.

    Dr Sandro: Amazing.

    Sarah: I still remember every Friday night. So, when mum and dad finished working, they really wanted us to see Victoria in particular.

    Sarah: So, dad, mum and dad would just say, look like they come back about seven, eight o'clock at night and we would pack the car and dad would just say, do you want to turn left or right, and we'd be driving through till about midnight and for hours on end, we didn't know where we'd turn up.

    Sarah: And I think that's where our love of traveling around and camping. And, you know, we love caravan parks. We just love going to different places. And that was alright at night. And when we would get to a spot and now know the reason why we ended up at caravan parks and motels is that I didn't realise at the time how much the way we looked was impacting the way we were being treated. And what I mean by that is that we would go to places, and they would say you'd see the vacant sign at the front, and dad would go in and they'd say, sorry, there's no vacancy.

    Sarah: And that the only places that would take us were caravan parks. And I never really realised that till I was a little older and dad would share these stories. And then when it came to daylight, when we were driving around country towns in particular, he would get pulled over by the cops

    Dr Sandro: Oh wow.

    Sarah: And it wouldn't actually really matter why. It would just be he'd ask the reason why. And dad is a really safe driver, very law abiding. And I used to sit at the front because he used to be three-seater at the front. So, I used to love to sit at the front watching dad driving.

    Sarah: And the police would say, oh, you didn't have your indicator on, or you didn't have this on. And it was just, you know, it just wasn't true. And we’d get all these tickets, and imagine, like your dad, who's a hero, you look up to and, you know, you see the police who are, who are really that law enforcer that you respect. And then you wonder why. And I didn't realise why, because I've never really seen myself as Chinese or Malaysian or someone of colour, not really someone who's even a girl or anything else. I just see myself as a person.

    Sarah: And those are those early learnings. But and those are those really horrible stories where I look back now and just, and that's why I call it ignorance, Sandro. Because, you know, you have to imagine what it was like in the 70s, if we were it for about 3 or 4 years.

    Sarah: I don't actually blame people for the way they reacted because we were different. And so, I look back at all the new emerging cultures that come through now. And all sorts of different cultures coming through, and everyone's facing the same thing. So, but from the personal perspective, when I started sport, I actually started with little athletics.

    Sarah: I was desperate to do any sport. And dad just, he was so worried he actually didn’t want to take me. So, you know that ad that's on TV now with the Google ad and the dad who's, you know, teaching his daughter how to kick a footy and all that sort of stuff.

    Sarah: That was literally my dad and I back in the 70s. I just want to play everything. And he had this fear about taking me anyway because he worked in a factory as a cleaner. So, and he was called all sorts of names and struggled.

    Sarah: And so, he thought, you know what, my little girl, how do I protect her? She doesn't have the two older brothers that can protect themselves. And of course, I was just this wide-eyed little kid who just wanted to fit in and wanted to do everything.

    Sarah: And, you know, and people would just say the strangest and weirdest things about us all the time, you can't play. It wasn't just the fact we had to face the racism part first or the ignorance part first. And then it was like girls just don't play sport. Whereas nowadays it's still a little bit about you know, you’re a girl you can't do that.

    Sarah: In those days. It was probably the racism thing firs t before the girl thing next. So, it was just excuse after excuse as to why you couldn't fit in. But once we started getting into some sports that accepted me, it just didn't matter because people were more interested in actually having people who were, who really want to develop themselves in sport. Which is why, I say sport was my saviour.

    Dr Sandro: We know sport and physical activity are good for our bodies and our health, but they’re also good for our mind. Organised sport has many psychological and social benefits, especially for children and young people. In fact, research done by KPMG Australia revealed that one of the numerous benefits of sport is increased social connectedness, and inclusion. So how can the sports sector in Australia help to influence positive social change within our society? Sarah is here to share her experiences. 

    Dr Sandro: And it's amazing, you know, it's so powerful when you talk, Sarah, and the couple of times I've come to see you or we've met and I've had the privilege of coming down and seeing, you know, seeing you in action with the kids and the community at your league.

    Dr Sandro: But I think, you know, you so powerfully capture it there where you don't see yourself as Malaysian or Chinese or Australian or even a woman, you see yourself as a person. And that, to me, really captures the essence of you as a leader as well. The way you lead, the way that you lead as a community leader, but as a CEO. Can you talk to me about how those early life experiences, how your own experiences have shaped you as a very successful CEO now?

    Sarah: I think everything you just said has actually defined me as a person. And again, you don't kind of reflect on this until you get older. I just knew all I wanted to be was a football player when I was 7. But I think everything you just said just it really does define who you become. And I think people have heard the story before and know about the very famous part, about my grade one experience when I, my female teacher who was so supportive of me, said, go, go ask the PE teacher, you know, to join the football team. Not the boy's team, just to join the football team. And she took me to the staff room to ask. And he just laughed.

    Sarah: I just said, I want to play footy. And he just said, you know, I think famously, people know this story. It'll be over my dead body before a girl ever plays footy in this country. So, the celebration of my role in 2016, when I, I didn't know this, I became the first female CEO in the AFL system. You know, a month later after I started, the announcement of the AFLW competition. So, I think a lot of, you know, for me, where girls were told they couldn't play that, that defined me. I'm so blessed to be, you know, operating this massive junior league where I get to talk to the young kids and parents, and parents just let their kids do whatever they want.

    Sarah: It's wonderful in the sense of dream big. So, to be told, you know, no, you can't. I cried. I cried for weeks. My dad and mom couldn’t even get me to school after that. I was absolutely shattered. So, I can't play for the St Kilda Football Club? You mean I'll never wear the red, white, black? I didn't understand it. So, when that person of responsibility that you look up to, He was the PE teacher I just loved him until that day when it was like, you can't. Because you're a girl.

    Sarah: And I understand not everyone is fortunate to have some good male role models. But having two older brothers and my dad, you know, it was really challenging because they were always picking on me, but that kind of makes you stronger. But not once, I have very strong memories and not once, always my brothers and my dad in particular, my mum was always a supporter, is that don't ever let being a girl define you, that you can't do anything you want.

    Sarah: And imagine like 12, 13-year-old boys telling their little sister or dads telling their daughter, you know, you can do whatever you want. This is back in the 70s. It's so powerful.

    Dr Sandro: Incredible.

    Sarah: And I do love sharing that story because, you know, if you're lucky to have the support, great role models, I just, I just adore my you know brothers, I look up to them. Don’t ever tell them that, please don’t tell them that.

    Dr Sandro: How is that influencing though, your role now? Because you are a force of nature and you're using your role as CEO of South Metro Junior Football League to create so much good for so many young people. What do you see as the potential of sport for the year, in the years ahead for tackling these really tough, you know, stubborn injustices. And you know, prejudices that continue to exist in our societies?

    Sarah: You’re right and in this position, I didn't realise how large this, this junior football league was. It's the biggest one in the country. So, for me, the things I get to influence now is active participation, making friends, having connections. Last year, especially with COVID, the big thing with mental health and you knew this because I invited you to come down. Thank you for coming down. And remembering that no, no one in metro Melbourne in particular, or Victoria, got to play football.

    Sarah: And the mental health of those young kids absolutely broke my heart. So, I refused to cancel the season. And as you know, football normally finishes in September, and no one got to play. So, in November, when we had some clear space, we created this program called Football for Fun. And it was for free. It was for four weeks. There was no scoring. And I thought I had this idea about mental health that kids were struggling. From what I heard, and we had 227 teams turn up for four straight months, Sandro. And, you know…

    Dr Sandro: That’s incredible.

    Sarah: The AFL tells me that that is single-handedly one of the most important retention pieces that they've now adopted, because there was a big drop in participation from last year to this year. You know, up to a 30% drop across the board.

    Sarah: For us, we haven't faced that, that much, ours has only been less than 5%. And it's because we ran those type of programs and it's become this lovely piece about mental health and all our clubs and parents tell us Sarah, that was the single most important thing that happened last year for our kids, and for us.

    The Big Connect: A quick pause here to tell you about something very exciting that we’re launching at VicHealth. From Tuesday 26 October, we are launching The Big Connect, our first major investment as part of Future Healthy. We know that the mental wellbeing of young people has taken a hit and so we’re going to create more than 100,000 new social connections for young people right across Victoria.

    We want to support organisations wanting to make a big difference to their community. We’re looking for a range of organisations, including sports, active recreation, arts, cultural, health promotion and community food sectors, working to improve the social connection of young people across Victoria.

    We have up to $5million in funding – up to $250,000 per project. So, if you or someone you know is doing amazing work to improve the social connection of young people across Victoria, apply now! Applications close on Tuesday 7 December 2021. Head over to vichealth to learn more.

    Dr Sandro: Sarah, we've got a couple of questions from the audience. The first is from Dheepa . If you're a small sporting association with little resources or a small organisation, what are the first steps that you can do to make sure that your organisation is more inviting for those who normally wouldn't walk through the doors?

    Sarah: That's a great question, because I get this a fair bit, because we deal with our 25-member clubs. And so, my advice always to them is start from building the foundations. So, this to me is a philosophy of life or just business, is my advice always to businesses is what's your foundation? So, your foundations are based on, you know, some basic governance of policies and processes and making sure that you do your core business correctly.

    Sarah: So, whether it's finance or whether it's the program or service you run, you know, those things are really important. But from the perspective of when we try to tell a story or build your brand, or build what your small club’s about or your sport’s about, and to attract more participation is making sure that you're visual. So, again the, if you look on our website or our social media, you know, we make sure that the images that we use are representative of society today, not just society, you know, in our region, our region is very, is very diverse.

    Sarah: So, if I just have traditional looking people, whatever we think that is that are playing footy, which is generally boys of a certain age group, that doesn't attract the girls to playing. That whole element of, you can't, you can't be what you can't see is so true.

    Sarah: So little Chinese Malaysian kids like me, I was looking at nothing that looked like me at all, back in the 70s. So, if they keep seeing that, that traditional c aucasian imagery, that's not, that's not going to be very attractive and that's not going to entice anyone to participate or join.

    Sandro: The final question comes from Jo. And I have to say, I wonder it myself too Sarah. You know, when we're talking about sport as a tool for social change, you know, you pretty much embody it. What motivates you to stay on the path? How do you maintain your incredible energy and passion?

    Sarah: Yeah, I think you know, and all I ever wanted to do was play football. And now I get to manage, you know, a really big junior football league. So, for me, I just, I always say to people, you know, your job, don't make it your job. Like what is it you want to do? Sometimes parents don't really like me because I really encourage young kids to say, what is it you think you really want to do? What do you want to be? What are you passionate about? Because when you do that, it just, life is just, it's so much easier. So, for me, I wake up every day just going, how good is this?

    Sarah: Even as difficult as lockdown is and COVID, and everything else, that is what inspires me. It's my life ethos. I think that's really the key.

    Dr Sandro: That's awesome.

    Dr Sandro: A huge thank you for joining us today Sarah, it’s been awesome to talk to you. We really can’t thank you enough for sharing your time with us.

    Sarah: Oh, thanks Sandro, always.

    Dr Sandro: Thanks for listening to the In Good Health podcast. To find out more about the work that we do, head over to our website Oh, and make sure you check us out on social media under @VicHealth.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.