Former Melbourne midfielder Billy Stretch played 47 games across a five-year career, following his selection as a father-son pick in the 2014 AFL Draft. Having transitioned out of the AFL system at the conclusion of the 2019 season, Stretch took the opportunity to reflect on his career, how he’s handled the transition process and his advice to players who find themselves in the same situation this year.
Getting drafted was a boyhood dream come true. But it was also a big change in my life.
Like many other draftees, I had just finished school when I was drafted as a father-son selection in the 2014 Draft (his father, Steven Stretch played 164 games for Melbourne) and moved from Adelaide to Melbourne.
I spent my first year in the system focussing on football and getting used to the demands of professional sport, making the decision to defer my university degree for one year.
After that first season, I began studying physiotherapy at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
It was something I was passionate about, but it also gave me a release from football – I found that beneficial to sustaining a strong work-life balance.
The study was slow-going, but I knew it was going to help set me up for a life post-football.
When you’re drafted, you dream big and hope that you’re going to have an illustrious 10-year career.
But, that wasn’t the case for me.
I was realistic throughout and, particularly being a fringe player who was fighting for my spot every week, I knew that I needed to focus on my life outside of football as well.
It’s an unsettling feeling going into each team selection or end of season review on the outside of the best-22, but it’s also part of the pressure that comes with being a professional athlete.
A football career can end quickly – the average career is less than six years – and so I placed high importance on doing something outside of footy.
Having those plans in place helped me transition when the time eventually came.
Despite my fastidious preparations, when I was told I no longer had an AFL contract it was a shock to the system.
Suddenly, you go from being told where you need to be and what you’ll be doing at every part of the day to having no commitments, structure or routine until you eventually find your feet.
That experience in itself was daunting.
I was 23 when I was delisted and many of my friends already had university degrees, qualifications or full-time work and I was only about one year into my physiotherapy course.
One of the biggest challenges I faced when football finished was not being in a well-structured professional environment each day.
It was important for me to use the immediate period after I was delisted to spend some time reflecting on my football career and what I had achieved.
As much as I felt lost without structure, in hindsight that period of reflection was important for me to take a step back and explore what my next journey might look like.
At the end of my career, my partner and I moved back to our hometown of Adelaide and spent time with our family and friends while we assessed the options.
I continued my studies at Flinders University, but found myself struggling with the focus required for studying and getting into that routine.
I’d lost some of my passion for physio and so started to do some part-time work in the construction industry.
That experience, and shift in what I thought my post-football career would be, proved beneficial.
A couple of months down the track an opportunity presented itself for me to start my carpentry apprenticeship and I thought, ‘I’m going to give this a go’.
It was a big decision to defer university and take up something completely new, but I haven’t looked back.
That experience taught me that it’s important to have a go at different things and to not be afraid of the rollercoaster of emotions that you’ll experience in your first 12 months out of the game – you’re not alone in that journey.
It’s quite a daunting time, especially if you haven’t got plans in place, but that’s OK – it’s important to lean on the support networks around you.
I was fortunate to have an incredible network of family and friends around me, but it was also the terrific support from the AFLPA and the Glenelg Football Club in South Australia that helped in my transition.
The Glenelg Football Club played a major role and helped facilitate my transfer from La Trobe University (Vic) back to Flinders University (SA) and also assisted with the transition back into their proud footy club where I played my junior career.
My partner was also a major support throughout our journey in Melbourne and all of the partners, wives and girlfriends of players will ride the wave of emotions with you. It was a challenge for both of us starting a new life away from home, but we wouldn’t have it any other way and had so many great life experiences.
When the invitation came to attend the AFLPA Transition Camp, to be honest, I didn’t have plans to attend.
But, after discussions with some players who had attended in the past and my regional manager Bobby Quiney, the consensus was the networking opportunity and chance to consolidate what you’d learnt in your football career was one that was too good to pass up.
I decided to attend with some of my former Melbourne teammates and once I got there and saw so many other players in the same situation I was in, it helped to alleviate some of my previous anxiety.
I was surrounded by people who knew and felt exactly what I was going through and then a network of staff and speakers who were there to help me experience new opportunities, build my network and my personal brand.
While a job didn’t transpire from the camp as I made the decision to return to Adelaide, the opportunity to meet key people in the fields I was interested in was incredibly helpful.
I was fortunate to meet former Hawthorn and Richmond player Mark Graham from PurePlay Orthopaedics who offered me an opportunity to complete work experience with him and his businesses as a clinical support technician.
I was able to walk away from the camp and that experience with an understanding of how my football skills transpire to the business world and connections that I’m grateful for.
For the players transitioning this year, don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and your search for a new career path.
You’re not alone in your journey and if you do feel that doubt or concern about what’s next, that’s OK – everyone that plays at AFL level will be in this position at one point in time.
There are support networks available to you through your club or the AFLPA and I encourage you to lean on them.
It’s also likely that you’ll want a break from football once a contract is no longer on the table or you retire, but the opportunity to attend the transition camp (through a virtual medium this year) is a great one.
You never know the opportunities that could come of that experience. It’s a great resource available to you.
Above all, take the time to relax and let the dust settle.
Reflect on your career and don’t be in a rush.
It’s important to put things into perspective and appreciate what you’ve been able to achieve throughout your career – no matter how long or short – because playing professional sport is a great achievement.
The AFLPA is committed to supporting player development and growth to ensure a smooth transition from the game, which players have highlighted as one of their biggest issues.
The annual Transition Camp will be run online as a series of Development and Growth webinars in November to upskill participants and enhance capabilities for when player enter an environment away from football.
Please contact your Regional Manager for more information.