With each season that goes by, Fremantle superstar Nat Fyfe reaches a new level of on-field brilliance. But after being voted the Most Valuable Player of 2014, what comes next? The youngest MVP winner in a decade caught up with aflplayers.com.au to reflect on his outstanding season, his unique pathway into the AFL and how he measures success.
As far as personal achievements go, there wasn’t much more Nat Fyfe could have achieved in 2014.
The high-flying 23-year-old was announced Fremantle’s Best and Fairest player for the second year running on Saturday night – one final accolade for a season in which he gained All-Australian recognition for the first time, polled just one Brownlow vote less than winner Matt Priddis and, of course, was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player by his peers.
While Fyfe says he’s humbled to receive individual awards – pointing out the peer recognition that accompanies the MVP Award “makes it a huge honour” – he insists they’re not something he sets out to achieve.
“The lure of personal accolades and achievements has never interested me – ever,” Fyfe tells aflplayers.com.au. Instead, he’s driven by “a constant desire to improve.”
“If I’m not improving there’s no reason to keep doing it. As long as that drive to improve – and help the people around me improve – remains, I’ll keep playing footy and remain motivated.”
Fyfe’s outlook mightn’t be altogether unique, but it’s a sentiment you’d be more likely to hear from a 250-game veteran than a 23-year-old.
“I’ve always felt pretty old and mature, to be honest,” Fyfe says.
“I had to go to boarding school and really struggled to conform when I was there, so I’ve always felt older than I am. My housemates (teammates Cameron Sutcliffe and Alex Silvagni) always tell me that I’m 23 going on 40. That’s just who I am, I think.”
Before Fyfe’s teenage years were spent at boarding school, he grew up in Lake Grace, a country town with a population of 650 located 345 kilometers outside Perth.
“I’ve always loved the game and playing footy but haven’t always loved the AFL lifestyle” – Nat Fyfe
“My parents are transport operators and my brother’s a truck driver so when I can I get back and jump in there because it’s what I used to know and it’s a completely different world to the bubble that is AFL.”
So different was the life of an AFL footballer to what he’d grown up with, Fyfe struggled to adapt in his first few seasons.
“I’ve always loved the game and playing footy but haven’t always loved the AFL lifestyle,” Fyfe explains.
“It took me a couple of years to wrap my head around being an AFL player as a job – I’ve never had problems with the hard work and playing footy, but the lifestyle took me some time to get used to. I have real empathy for young guys that come into the club and just want to play footy and find there’s this whole other lifestyle that they have to get used to – because I was in exactly the same boat… It can be hard to mentally see yourself as a full-time footballer.”
Having said all that, Fyfe admits adapting to life as an AFL player would have been even more difficult had he not been through boarding school.
“It definitely prepared me for club-life. From boarding school to living by myself in Perth and looking after myself was a really easy transition. I see some of the young guys get plucked out of their houses over in the east; they’re expected to look after themselves and know what to do with themselves and they struggle. Boarding school definitely set me up for the strict regime that is AFL.”
In many respects, AFL was a career he didn’t see coming. While he was always fairly confident in his own abilities, Fyfe says in his final years of high school “what the coaches saw in me was a little bit different to what I thought I had in myself.”
Though he had plenty of self-belief, he was a long way off the pace.
“I was undersized, had a poor attitude and was struggling to make it in the top teams.”
He knew there was only one way back, and that was through hard work. It was a mantra that was drilled into him by his parents – working class people who did everything they could to support their family.
“I decided to let my footy do the talking and was able to turn things around and rekindle my AFL dream.”
While a shift in his mental application was significant, the physical transformation that occurred in his final years of high school was just as important.
Currently listed at 190cm and 88 kilograms, Fyfe has the physical attributes typical of a modern midfielder – but that wasn’t always the case. When he arrived at the Dockers he had the height but not the size; a couple of years earlier he had neither.
“When I was playing in year 11 and was small, AFL wasn’t even on the radar. It wasn’t until I grew in year 12 that AFL became a realistic possibility.”
Leading into the draft, Fyfe suspected he might be taken with a mid to late pick, or perhaps miss selection altogether and have to wait until the rookie draft. But a couple of weeks out from the draft, he had a meeting with Fremantle’s recruiting manager Phil Smart, and everything changed.
“We met at a café and he said ‘I’m going to pick you at pick 20 and if I don’t, I can guarantee you I’ll resign from my job’,” Fyfe recalls.
“That was probably the moment in my career where I really got some surety and confidence about my standing, because all of a sudden I went from obscurity and mid to late in the draft to one of the most valuable kids in the country. That was a time where I thought “I can make this, and not just make it on some level but really make something of it.”
Fyfe was only 22 when he played his last game of 2014, but has indeed made plenty of his career so far. In many respects he plays with a youthful simplicity – a see-ball, get-ball approach that makes it look as though footy comes easy to him. If there’s a contest in the air, Fyfe will launch into a pack and often come down clutching the footy. If the Sherrin is bobbling around a crowded stoppage he will burrow in, dig the ball out and find a way to get it moving in the right direction.
It might seem simple from afar, but Fyfe spends a lot of time thinking about his footy and whether he’s doing everything he could be.
“The mental side of the game is huge and clubs are starting to recognise it more and more, and are encouraging players to start investing more time in the mental side of the game,” he explains.
“It’s always been something I’ve valued highly – not so much structured mental imagery, which is something that I’ve built into my game in the last couple of years, but more just mentally picturing my role, what I have to do and am capable of doing. I have constant mental check-ups or conversations with myself and avoid any talk of self-doubt or worry or concern. Having a strong mind is extremely important.”
“I genuinely do feel like I’ve got a lot of upside and am still learning the game and what I’m capable of” – Nat Fyfe
Fyfe feels this process gives him the best possible chance to perform on match-day.
“I’ve always been quite confident going into games – I’m still really, really nervous, but quite confident in what I’m capable of doing, given the preparation that I’ve done… I have doubts and nerves all the time, but I just try to squash them.”
Perhaps the best example of this was Fyfe’s response to his performance in the 2013 Grand Final. Early on, Fyfe looked capable of steering his club to its first AFL premiership. He took a couple of towering contested marks inside 50 in the first quarter but couldn’t capitalise on his opportunities, twice kicking out on the full. In a low-scoring match, those misses proved crucial, and in the end the Dockers fell 15 points short of victory.
“Goal-kicking was something that came out of that Grand Final that everyone wanted to talk about. It was something I really worked on.”
Fyfe finished 2014 with 24 goals and 10 behinds – an accuracy percentage of better than 70 percent, up from 55 percent across his first four seasons.
It’s a scary prospect for opposition coaches and players, but Fyfe has already shown he knows what it takes to improve and believes there’s a lot more to come.
“I genuinely do feel like I’ve got a lot of upside and am still learning the game and what I’m capable of. I’m still growing and I’m excited about what lies ahead,” he says.
“The carrot of team success is one that still eludes me at AFL level and will be a constant driver, and hopefully, once I have success it’ll still remain a driver – the prospect of being at a team that continues to have sustained team success.”
From a personal perspective, Fyfe believes being a player who “can be relied upon in times of real desperation and need” is his biggest asset, and something he wants to be known for in years to come. He says it’s humbling to know that many of his competitors already see him in such a way.
“When I’m out on the field I’m really aware of who the other team’s most damaging and valuable players are. It means a lot that other players are thinking of me in that way – both my teammates and my opponents.”
As teammate Cameron Sutcliffe wrote after the players voted Fyfe the game’s Most Valuable Player in September, “it’s amazing what Nat’s achieved already, and scary to think about what he will have accomplished when he hangs up the boots in a decade or so.”
What will it take for Fyfe to view the rest of his career as a success when that time finally comes?
“I think I’ll know if I’ve been successful, and it’ll be on the same operating system that I have now – by asking myself if I’ve done everything I possibly could to give myself and my team the best chance of success.”