'I just assumed growing up that everyone knew someone living with a disability'

'I just assumed growing up that everyone knew someone living with a disability'

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Melbourne forward Alex Neal-Bullen has been announced as one of three recipients of the Torrens University and AFL Players’ Association scholarship. He spoke to aflplayers.com.au about what ignited his passion for teaching and disability studies, his career aspirations and how he balances football with professional development opportunities. 

Kavisha Di Pietro: Firstly, congratulations on being awarded one of the Torrens University scholarships. What did it mean to you when you heard the news that you were one of the three players selected?

Alex Neal-Bullen: My first reaction was a bit of shock. I think when you’re applying for something like this or a job interview you know the calibre of people that have also applied and so you’re always just willing to put yourself out there and not necessarily expecting that you’ll be one of the top candidates.

I’m very grateful and honoured to be able to partner up with Torrens University and also to then be given the opportunity to pursue my aspirations of studying from 2021 and beyond. It’s a great opportunity I have in front of me and one that I’m very much looking forward to.

What shaped your passion for teaching and also your initial study in special education and disability services?

I started a Bachelor of Teaching when I first commenced studies at university, where I focused on special education and disability studies.

That passion and understanding in terms of working with people living with a disability comes from my maternal grandma Cheryl (Neal). She was a professional jockey and one of the first females to race against men. She was very successful in her time, but unfortunately one day came off her horse during a race and sustained a significant traumatic brain injury that left her a paraplegic.

My mother was really young at the time it happened and so she had to do it the hard way. Cheryl lives in Queensland and so every time she would visit us (in South Australia), we’d work to adapt our house to be easily accessible and you’re always thinking about where you can eat, visit etc. that is easily accessible for people living with a disability.

I probably didn’t actually realise I had that passion for working with people like that until I was in high school. I just assumed growing up that everyone knew someone living with a disability and what life was actually like for them, but then as I got older I realized that wasn’t the case and so it became about the education piece. I enjoy working with people and helping them hopefully be able to realise their dreams irrespective of what might be holding them back in life.

For me, I see it as such an important role to support these people to be able to impact society and live a normal life without stigma.

In my first year of university I really enjoyed my studies. I was fortunate to meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds and different walks of life. After that first year I was drafted to Melbourne.

I’ve spent some time doing work experience at Scotch College with students who are learning with a disability and that experience provided me with a really unique perspective; because even from my own experiences at school you never know what the person sitting next to you in the classroom might be going through.

From what I understand you’ve completed some work with Special Olympics Australia. What did that involve? 

That was a great experience. Through the club’s partnership with the MCG and before COVID, we were fortunate enough to have a day out on the MCG with about 30 kids of all ages and varying disabilities and work with them to run through a few different clinics.

The biggest thing for me was making sure that everyone was having fun and enjoying the moment – it’s an incredible experience to stand in the middle of the MCG, the oldest sporting ground in Australia and a ground that has so much history attached to it.

To see their smiles was great. I actually think I had more fun than them.

It was a huge honour to be able to run that clinic as an athlete and I’m incredibly grateful for Melbourne for connecting me with the opportunity.

Moving interstate when you get drafted is a big shift. What was that growth and development period like for you? 

I thought I was mature when I got drafted but on reflection I had a lot to learn in those early years about myself.

You develop basic life skills when you’re at home living with Mum and Dad, but then you move in with a host family and you’re on your own a bit in a new state and all of sudden that learning curve just grows. So, over the years, I had to work on my time management skills and really being an individual where you aren’t relying on anyone.

Those experiences during my early years in the AFL and in a professional environment really taught me about work ethic and the demands of working in a high intensity environment.

I’m now in my  seventh year and I feel like I’ve evolved as a person who prides themselves on character, honesty and always trying to be the best version of myself. At the time, that can be challenging in the environment we’re in but it’s also about understanding that I’ve got a lot of support around me and people to lean on when needed.

What lessons have you learned from your time in football that you feel will hold you in good stead for when you eventually get to that post?

It’s a bit of an old cliché, but one that’s really rung true is that when you’re told you can’t do something, you’ve got to find a way through that and be able to come out the other end a better person and performer. I think those lessons from hardships or failures can really help shape your next steps.

For me, the biggest thing is understanding that. Whatever field you’re in, you will experience challenges and hardships but it’s about how you manage them and come back better from that experience. As someone who has been in and out of teams at Melbourne it’s become something I’ve learnt to deal with.

It also forms parts of how you hold yourself to get through tough times.

You’re a player that is continually seeking out personal development and growth opportunities. Why do you place emphasis on that area of your life? 

I’ve always been quite honest with myself in understanding that footy doesn’t last forever and we’re in an industry where turnover is required each year so you’ve always got to be prepared for when that time comes and what that experience might look like.

When I finish I want to be in the best possible position to have a smooth transition into the workforce and life after football.

I was so exhausted in my first few years in the system from the day-to-day grind that I dedicated all my energy to football and that’s what is needed early on to be a professional athlete. But now through the maturity and understanding of what’s required I find myself with more energy and more time to spend on personal development and growth opportunities.

If you think about it it’s (personal development) like two gas burners on a stove, one is footy and one is for your growth and personal development. The footy flame is a bit higher but the other burner is always on, simmering in the background.

It can be hard to keep that balance but it does help.

I actually picked that metaphor up from (former cricketer) Ed Cowan who was doing some transitioning seminars and that’s how I’ve been thinking about the personal development process.

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