Fremantle defender, Alex Pearce, has had a terrific start to 2019, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Tasmanian. The 23-year-old spoke to AFL Players’ about why he takes a holistic approach to football and life.
Alex, you grew up in Tasmania and were drafted to Fremantle from the Devonport Magpies. Can you tell me a little bit about playing local football in Tasmania? What are your earliest memories of that?
I only had one year at the Devonport Magpies and I played for the Ulverstone Robins before that for my whole football career. I guess that started when I was six or seven, playing Auskick and then transitioning right through, playing under-14s, under-18s, under-19s, and then senior footy with Ulverstone. I still look back on my time there and regard it as one of the biggest influences on my career as a footballer and as a person. My parents were heavily involved: my dad coached me when I was in the under-19s and I still keep in contact with a lot of my junior coaches who played a role along the way. I definitely look back very fondly and always get back to my local club when I’m home and try and help out where I can.
How old were you when you realised you could pursue football professionally?
I actually played in the under-16s as an over-age player for the Tasmanian State side. I wasn’t in any of those squads in my early days and then when I was 17, I got plucked from nowhere to play in the under-16s. I was an over-age player because I had some injuries. I had a really good Carnival and remember getting a couple of letters from AFL player management agencies. That was, I guess, a bit of a shock and a realisation that maybe this could be something and a career going forward. From there, I played in the under-18s and that was a big year – getting exposure to the National Carnival and knowing that there were AFL clubs watching during my games.
Tasmanians have been advocating for an AFL club for a number of years. Did you ever feel that you were at a disadvantage by being based away from clubs on the mainland? Do you support Tasmania’s push for an AFL team?
I didn’t feel disadvantaged growing up but, looking back on it, I probably feel I was at a bit of a disadvantage. Growing up, there were plenty of Tasmanians playing in the AFL – and there still are – so we had those role models and knew there was a pathway there. The pathway is probably a little bit tougher than it is for guys from Victoria, especially, and even Queensland and New South Wales given how well their academies are being run. I am an advocate for Tassie having an AFL team. I know that there are obviously a lot of challenges but, being a proud Tasmanian, I know the state would get behind it. Whether or not it does get off the ground I don’t know, but I feel that at some stage in the medium to long-term future, we will get an opportunity to have our own team. I guess time will tell. We’ll see what happens on that front.
You were elevated to Fremantle’s leadership group in 2018, at just 22. What kind of pressure does that bring? Do you see yourself as a natural leader?
Yeah, I guess I have always tended to see myself as a natural leader and, as soon as I got to the club, I identified it as something that I really wanted to do. When I arrived, I had a lot of respect for the leaders and learned a lot from them. There is a bit of added pressure (being in the leadership group) but because it’s something I’ve always wanted and relished, I have really enjoyed having more accountability, more of a say in things, and greater involvement in trying to motivate my teammates and not just myself. I guess the difference is that I’m not just focusing on my own game these days when I’m preparing and reviewing games – I’m looking at how the team as a whole has done, how our defensive unit is playing, how individuals are playing, how they’re going on-and-off the field. I think a holistic approach to leadership is the right way to go about it. There’s definitely a bit of work to it, but it’s something I’ve really enjoyed. It’s been beneficial, especially this year to see some of the results we’re having and some of the results certain young guys are producing. If I can play a part in any way in our success as a team and the development of young players, it’s hugely satisfying for me.
You’re fit this year and having a terrific season but in the past you’ve dealt with injury at a number of times in your career. How mentally taxing was the rehab process, and was it hard to feel connected to the main playing group while you were in rehab?
There are a lot of challenges with being out and missing long stretches of football like I have. One of those is feeling connected to the rest of the playing group when you’re a bit isolated, working a lot in the gym, doing your own rehab. You’re watching the boys train and play each week and you do get quite jealous and feel a bit isolated at times. The club and the boys do a good job, when you’re in that state, of trying to get around you and make you feel connected to the group. There were a lot of hard times during my time off. I guess I always stayed really motivated and my desire to play football never really wavered and that’s what kept me going and got me through the other end – just the fact that I really wanted to be successful and make the most of the opportunity I had.
You spoke about your unwavering desire to play football at the highest level. Were there ever times when you doubted getting back to full fitness?
There was a time when I was thinking that I might not have a say in it. When I broke my leg for the second time, I thought the decision might have been taken out of my hands – if I got another serious injury before I came back that could be it, I may not play another game again and won’t have any say about it. I really wanted to do everything I could to give myself the best chance of coming back and, if I did get back to playing football, I wanted to make the most of it – knowing how lucky I am to play, to improve and to be the best player I can be.
I know players don’t often like to talk about their own form, but you’ve had a really good start to the year. What do you credit that to?
I’ve had a bigger pre-season than last year, for sure. For the last couple of years’ I’ve been back, I’ve had a gradual increase in the amount of training I’ve been able to do from when I had my injury. It’s definitely been a huge benefit to be able to spend more time out on the track, spend a lot of time honing my craft. I feel like a lot of my good form this year can be put down to how well the team, and my defensive teammates in particular, are playing. As a back six or seven, we’ve been in some really good form, helping each other out. We don’t go into games with too many one-on-one battles; it’s the whole defensive approach, helping each other out and locking down certain players. I think when you look at some of our guys this year, someone like Ethan Hughes has had a really great start to the year. We’re getting a lot of help from Luke Ryan, Nathan Wilson, Adam Cerra, guys like that. Although Joel (Hamling) and I get the big jobs most weeks, we get a lot of help from all those guys rolling through.
There’s a fair bit of buzz around Fremantle – the club has had one of the better starts to the season in its history and recruited some big names over the trade period. There must be a positive feeling around the club at the moment?
One of our big focuses during this pre-season and the start of the season was to really try and connect a bit more on a personal level and enjoy our time at the club and on the field. I think that’s translated to some good performances. It helps that you obviously feel a better when you’re winning. The fact that we’ve really tried as a whole club to connect a bit more has really made a difference. Getting some of those new guys in this year, they’ve slotted in really well and had a big impact on and off the field. We’re obviously in a good place at the moment but it can be quite fleeting. The AFL landscape can change quickly. We know we’ve got another tough game coming up this weekend and we can’t take our foot off the pedal.
I noted that you’re an ambassador for Youth Focus. Can you tell me a bit about what they do and why you got involved?
They work with the youth of WA focusing on suicide prevention and those with mental health difficulties. After the challenges I had, going through injury and some of the things I dealt with there, I wanted to use some of my experience and my profile as an AFL player to try and help some of those people out. Youth Focus does some incredible work in the youth-focused mental health space and Ed Langdon and I have been working with them for about 18 months. It’s really good to have something outside of football as well – you can take your mind off football and realise that there’s more going on. It can get quite isolating in the football world at times so it’s really nice to have a bit of relief, put some things in perspective and have a bit of an impact on people’s lives who are a bit less fortunate or going through some tough times.
We know that AFL can be taxing both mentally and physically for players – what do you do outside of football to keep a level head?
I study at the moment – I’m doing a project management course and I’ve done some uni (units) in the past couple of years which I may go back to soon. I always try and travel in the off-season and get a bit of a mental break that way. A few of us are playing golf at the moment, which is another good release to not think about football and get away from some of the pressures. I really feel like I’ve got better at looking after my mental health as well as my physical health as my career has progressed. There’s obviously a lot spoken about how the club has a lot of resources (physios and masseuses) to look after our physical health and there’s a lot of emphasis placed on recovery but I’ve been really focusing on how I can mentally freshen up and make sure I’m in a positive mental state because that leads to good physical performance. When you’re a bit flat, a bit tired, a bit fatigued mentally, that has an affect on the way you’re playing, the way you’re interacting with teammates. That’s definitely been a focus of mine, to take a holistic approach to my recovery and my preparation each week.
Well, that’s all from me. Alex, thanks for your time and all the best for the rest of the year.
No worries, thanks Katie