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Making the World A Better Place with Joel Coughlan

By August 8, 2023Event, Schools

At yLead we believe that simple positive actions, have great impact. Across the Altitude Day roadshow our world-class guest speakers shared their stories, messages, and actions they take to make the world around them a better place. Their captivating messages equally inspired and influenced Year 9 students Australia-wide to also commit to positive actions in their worlds.

Altitude Day Rockhampton heard from one talented and aspirational person, Joel Coughlan, Australian Table Tennis Paralympian. His journey to the world stage was no easy feat; through challenges and trial Joel proved that with courage, resilience and grit you can achieve great things!

These are the actions Joel committed to in order to make his world a better place: 

So Joel, tell us! The world would be a better place if…

There were more dogs or more cats?
Dogs, I am definitely a dog person.

You got to spend holidays in the snow or holidays at the beach?
The beach, I go nearly every weekend.

You could read a book at home or summit a mountain?
That’s a tricky one, I want to do both. But I will go with read a book at home. I recommend a series called Pillars of the Earth based around the world wars.

You sleep in or wake up at sunrise?
Wake up at sunrise.

You could fly or go invisible?
Invisible. I think both are really cool but invisibility can change the world because you never know when or where people are, so everyone would be more mindful of what they are saying.

Tell us how you are currently making the world a better place…. [talk about your initiative/work]

I’ve definitely had a different journey, but I think all athletes have very different journeys. However, I have never considered myself to do things to make the world a better place; but now, I think going on platforms like this and sharing my story is how I can do that. If I can reach one person who is struggling and help them get through that hard time I think I have successfully reached my goal.

To provide context, my journey began when I was just 8-years-old, playing table tennis, it was all because of my eldest brother (I am in a family of 9!), as he started training at the table tennis centre in Rockhampton ultimately to beat his friends at school and because I always wanted to be like my big brother, I went and joined along and haven’t looked back since. My journey all changed in 2007 when I had a work accident where half a tone fell off a forklift and fell onto my foot. This proceeded to 22 surgeries! I’ve lost 3 and half toes, ankle function, and muscle function up my right leg. It really turned my life upside down. After recovery, I started playing again even when I couldn’t walk. It had its frustrating times, but slowly I started gaining function in my legs. I won’t lie, along my recovery journey, I did break a few bats and threw a few fits because I wasn’t at the same level I used to be. But it’s just about continuing.

In 2009, I got a call from a previous coach who had become the national Para-Program Manager who asked if I would like to join the Para-Program. I’d never actually thought about it, to be honest, I never even considered myself to have a disability. But I went to a training camp to see what it was all about. From there I got selected to play for Australia in Jordan. Competing over there I set myself a goal which was to get a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

During my tough times and recovery process I used humour to cope. I’ve always lived by the perspective of taking a step back, looking at problems, and asking myself if it will still be a problem in 5 days, in 5 weeks or even 5 years and you start realising its not going to be an issue later so don’t spend more than 5 minutes bothering about it now.

If you could talk to your 14-year-old self… what are some actions you would inspire yourself to take?

Don’t let others deter you from your passion. Living in Australia, table tennis is not the national sport, at school I was bullied for playing table tennis instead of playing other sports. I gave up for 12 months when I was 14 because of the bullying. But, I say, if you enjoy and like something,  never let someone deter you from doing it. Also, don’t sweat the small stuff. Just step back and realise what’s important in your life.  

As someone that does great work and has discovered their own unique way to make the world a better place, what do you believe holds people back from doing the same?

People don’t do things because of the fear of failure. It affects everybody. When you step back, you will see that you learn more from your losses and failures than you do from your wins. You need to get out of your comfort zone to challenge yourself and improve yourself as a human being. Whenever you can get out of your comfort zone, you will become better as a human being, and more specifically, better at what you are doing.

Never let your adversity tell you what you can and can't do.

As a leader trying to have a positive impact, what kind of challenges have you faced? What tips can you give to overcome this?

I’ve faced quite a lot. As I said previously, I had the work accident and the numerous surgeries, but these are what I call roadblocks. How you approach things after you hit that roadblock is SO important. My family was instrumental for me in helping me get over my road blocks, especially when I first got out of hospital, I couldn’t walk at all. So, my four brothers thought it would be a good idea to put pick me up and put me on the ground. I was down there for a while until I found a way to get myself back up again. As I said previously, humour was a way I coped with everything so this helped me, but it also pushed me to do something that I really didn’t think I could do, therefore growing from that situation.

I actually love challenges; I see them as something that I can be proud of or make people be proud of me because I can get over something. Its positive attitude towards the challenge. There’s 2 ways to look at everything in life (positive and negative). So, when you approach your road blocks always try and keep that positive outlook.

If everyone committed to making the world a better place, tell us what you believe that would look/feel like?

That’s a good question… everyone would have an appropriate support network, which would then lead to more inclusivity between different groups of diversity. Inclusivity is where the world needs to head if we are going to move it in the right direction. That’s not just from a monetary perspective where you give money to the poor people because it’s not that easy and it doesn’t work that way. We need to be more inclusive to anyone with a different opinion or look than ourselves. An example from when I was in the Paralympics was when I was told that there is only one actual disability and that is a bad attitude. From that day, I have always kept that in my head because it is so true.

Have a look at some of the amazing things Joel does by following on Instagram, and find out more about Joel’s Story!

Listen to ‘Making the World a Better Place – Episode 2 – ft. Joel Coughlan’ on Spotify & Apple Podcasts