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Active Champions

Active Champions Series: Sarah Ennor

The Active Champions Series is a monthly showcase of inspiring stories from influential Canadians who make physical activity and sport a key part of their everyday lives.

Taking up a new sport, especially a team one, can be intimidating. You may worry that you won’t pick up the skills required to play or that you’ll embarrass yourself. But playing a team sport provides social and mental health benefits such as feeling a sense of belonging, building a strong support network and gaining more self-confidence that far outweigh these worries.

Sarah Ennor knows all too well what it’s like to reap the rewards from playing a new team sport.

“I’ve played sports my whole life and I’m a huge proponent of team sports,” Sarah told ParticipACTION.

“Whether it’s casual or competitive, I think it’s a great way to grow as a person, learn new skills and develop your character.”

A former field hockey player on her varsity university team and in a Toronto club, Sarah played a sport she’d never played before – Australian football (a.k.a. “Aussie rules football”) – after a field hockey player from her Toronto club convinced her to try it.

Sarah Ennor playing handball

PHOTO CREDIT: ROB COLBURN

Often compared to rugby, Australian football is a contact sport played between two teams of 18 players on an oval field. Players score points by kicking an oval ball between middle goalposts or between a goal and behind post. You can use any body part to move the ball, with the main methods being kicking, handpassing and running with the ball while bouncing or touching it on the ground. The Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final takes place annually in Australia. This year’s game happened on September 25th.

Although Sarah discovered during her first Australian football training that she had natural ability, she went into her first game fearing the worst because she’d never played a contact sport before. But she really enjoyed it, and her mastery of the skills combined with encouragement from coaches and teammates kept her playing for nearly a decade.

“Positivity and encouragement are baked right into the culture of Aussie rules football: you celebrate big and small wins; you help your teammates off the ground after a tackle and you pass congratulatory messages around the field. All of this, combined with the countless off-field bonding opportunities like volunteering, attending parties and presentation nights, and going on pub crawls, almost forces you to become friends with everybody on your team. The social aspect of the sport is what attracts and retains most players.”

Sarah Ennor with her coach

PHOTO CREDIT: ROB COLBURN

Since Sarah started playing Australian football in 2011, she’s been heavily involved in the sport, playing and serving as head coach on the High Park Demons women’s team, playing for Team Canada at three tri-annual international tournaments in Australia between 2011 and 2017, playing for Team Ontario from 2016 to 2018, and volunteering as assistant coach for Team Canada from 2018 to 2020. She also served on the boards of AFL Ontario and AFL Canada.

“As a leader on our local team, I’ve had women approach me to share some mental health struggles, whether it was family or societal acceptance issues, or lacking a sense of belonging. I’ve been honoured to be a sounding board for a bunch of my teammates, and I think seeking support from your teammates or coaches who have been through similar experiences is a huge mental health benefit. I’ve seen really shy, nervous, introverted players become strong, confident, more social people.”
Although being around people who share similar life experiences is great, Sarah also thinks it’s important to be surrounded by diverse people.

“In such big teams, clubs, leagues and national organizations, I think it would be difficult to address all the issues that crop up if most people shared similar life experiences. You can talk to certain people about certain issues, but if you haven’t had a chance to talk to someone who’s experienced a different viewpoint, it may be difficult to understand their concerns.”

AFL Ontario team
Photo credit: Rob Colburn
Fortunately, AFL Ontario welcomes people of all body types, skill levels, nationalities, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations.

“There’s a spot for every body type and skill level. Whether you’re tall or short, big or small, fast or slow, an athlete or an amateur, there’s a position for you.”

Sadly, the pandemic made Sarah much less involved in Australian football and less physically active.

“I really struggle with motivation for exercise outside of playing sports, and between the uncertainty, closing of facilities and restrictions on sports, I’ve spent a lot more time sitting than I’m used to.”

But Sarah eventually found a way to keep herself motivated when it comes to exercising.

“Ever since I participated in ParticipACTION’s True North challenge, I’ve been doing weekly app challenges with my brother, sister-in-law, husband and friends. That little bit of competition really got me off the couch on days when I didn’t want to move.”

Simply getting active with others can be highly motivating, and being part of a team can boost your confidence and connect you with others so you can develop a strong support network.

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