THE NEW National Indigenous Academy is helping to bridge the development and elite pathways experience gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous teenagers.
There are currently 25 players who identify as Indigenous in the AFLW competition, which has a playing pool of 563, with both tallies being inclusive of inactive players.
It's a percentage of 4.4, which is slightly above the national figure of 3.2 (according to the 2021 census) but below the AFL men's figure of roughly 10 per cent.
Indigenous talent programs manager Narelle Long has been working with prospective players to make sure they're in the best position to thrive in an elite environment.
"There was a study done maybe three years ago, and the research indicated by the time our players got to their draft age, in their 18th year, there was still a 300-hour development gap between our Aboriginal players and our non-Indigenous players," Long told AFL.com.au.
"The academy is the next stepping stone from the Woomeras program (15, 16-year-old girls). Our Woomeras program is all about watching games and setting up that talent piece. This year we've had 40 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women come together and then from that program, we'll select 20-22 players to be part of our National Indigenous Academy.
"That's where we surround them all year with the opportunities to develop on-and-off the field. Our male and female Indigenous and multicultural players get a masterclass each month – it might be a drill they want to practice more, or something they want to work on once they get drafted.
"We're giving them opportunities to develop off the field with personal development activities, cultural and wellbeing activities. Each month we'll have something that might look at resilience, language, a strong mind, and getting them to work on those topics each month as part of the program."
As the years have started to go by, Woomeras graduates have returned to help out with the program, including West Coast's Krstel Petrevski.
The word "woomera" is from the Eora people, and is a traditional hunting tool used to help propel a spear, "giving it direction, strength and speed".
"'KP's' been amazing, she's come through the whole journey when it comes to our pathway programs, from a young age," Long said.
"She's now giving back as a coach and it's a really nice full circle to what these programs and pathways can do, not only for you as a player, but the industry is so big and broad, it's an opportunity to expand and really make a difference.
"KP has come from a remote setting (Halls Creek) to a boarding school setting, and has still stayed connected with culture and family and has come into the AFLW system. It really helps the young girls to see there is a way, no matter what their circumstances are, if they work hard enough and set their goals, there are definitely opportunities."
Retention of Indigenous players – outside of stars like Gemma Houghton, Courtney Hodder and Danielle Ponter – within the AFLW system has been a concern.
"Looking at it from a lot of experience from our boys' program as well – because it's been around for a longer period of time – we've definitely noticed some similarities from how teams have been set up and structured," Long said.
"Some of the key themes that have come out of our women's programs, around why isn't this player being selected – have they been part of our development programs, or have they excelled in talent, missed a couple of steps and come in at the highest level, and haven't stayed because they haven't previously been exposed to the standards and expectations?
"We've had examples in the talent pathway space where players have been invited to go and do a pre-season, but they're the only Aboriginal person at the club. They're getting to pre-season, sitting in their car, they don't see anyone who looks like them, and they're not getting out of the car and going and trying.
"It's a lot of different factors that go into making the player feel comfortable and making the environment that they're walking into look and feel comfortable for them to excel. There's a lot of two-way that we're trying to work to keep our players involved and staying."
AFL general manager of women's football Nicole Livingstone said everyone was working towards making the system accessible and culturally safe for young Indigenous players arriving at AFLW clubs.
"We are continuing to want more Indigenous players to come to our game, but equally, we need to make sure the experience they have with AFLW is a good experience," Livingstone said at the launch of this year's Indigenous Round.
"Each one of our 18 clubs has an Indigenous player development manager, as well as our (general) player development manager … so we're working very hard from a cultural point of view, and a comfortability point of view, when Indigenous players come to programs, they thrive."
Young Indigenous players can get involved with state-based Kickstart programs at 14-16 years of age, with the top talent then referred through to the Woomeras, and then onto the new national academy in their later teenage years.
Long has first-hand seen the explosion of women's football replicated in Indigenous communities, and is hopeful the national diversity championships – which stopped over COVID – will soon be reinstated to help identify talent for the Woomeras.
"I'm based in the NT, and I get to see some of the new programs and initiatives. There are football clubs that have been established purely because of the amount of women wanting to participate in the program," she said.
"In Tennant Creek, there was a women's league for the first time last year with four teams, over on the Tiwi Islands, they're having a whole new junior pathway and are participating in the NTFL for their second season.
"It's definitely opened up the door for a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who were already in love with the game, and knew how to play the game because they'd been part of it with the rest of their family, and now they're taking to the field.
"We're hoping to bring back our national diversity championships, which is a platform where every state and territory bring a team of Indigenous players, and they play a round-robin tournament.
"It kickstarts that talent piece for the 15th year. Hopefully that's something we can bring back to life and we'll have some awesome games to come and watch of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players from all across the country. The future."