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Behind the scenes at the AFLPA Transition Camp

“That first 12 months out, I worked the hardest I ever worked, for the longest hours ever and for the least amount of money I ever earnt.”

Those words, uttered by former Hawk Rayden Tallis on stage in front of a room of past players, adequately summarises the unique challenges facing the 80-odd individuals who leave the AFL system each year.

Speaking at the AFL Players’ Association Transition Camp, Tallis sat alongside former players Mark Porter and Jack Fitzpatrick and spoke about the delicate situation of former elite athletes re-entering the workforce.

Tallis’ words represent a stark reality for the 35-strong crowd of past players in the room, some of whom left the system on their own accord with the others not having much say in the matter.

Although the immediate future may be challenging, there are no reasons why it can’t get better.

The AFL Players’ Association’s annual Transition Camp is in its second year. Born out of feedback from the playing group as one of two focus areas for their Association, the other being the prevalent topic of mental health.

Since the signing of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement in the middle of 2017, more funding has been secured to better support past players, which includes the introduction of the well-received $24.7 million Injury and Hardship Fund.

Partnering with career coaching firm TwoPointZero and AFL SportsReady, the AFLPA’s Camp was set over two days in Torquay to upskill attendees and provide networking, mentoring and potential employment opportunities for past players and those currently transitioning out of the game.

The first day started with vision and goal-setting with the AFL Players’ yoga and mindfulness partner, lululemon. This included identifying personal values of each individual, most of which centred on family, fun and passion, with Shane Biggs, Tom Bell and Dean Towers sharing the values closest to them.

Before 10am came the panel discussion with Tallis, Porter and Fitzpatrick. The messages here were simple: be proactive, be engaging and talk to people — as many as they can — because their future is ultimately in their own hands.

But the transition phase isn’t a simple one, which can be difficult for the average punter to fully understand.

Players aren’t after sympathy, just an acceptance that there are certain drawbacks and complexities of being an elite footballer and spending your entire life trying to be something that, on average, is over before you’re 24.

And it’s often not the stars that need much help in this department.

“The players who are entrenched in the team,” Fitzpatrick told SEN radio on Thursday, “The ones who don’t have to worry about their spot are the ones who can make the most of their time away from football because they’re not as stressed about the next contract.

“They can focus on other things but the ones who are battling for a spot in the team and on the list come the end of the year devout so much time and energy into their football and put all their eggs in one basket to make sure they get another contract.

“Even though the opportunities are there for them, because of the mental stressors, they don’t utilise them.”

The increasing rates of environmental stress, mental demands and subsequent themes and issues for AFL players is an area of focus for the AFL Players’ Association.

The Association’s Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing, Brent Hedley, used the forum of the AFLPA Transition Camp to address the importance of the wellbeing of transitioning athletes. His presentation included an overview of mental health as a ‘continuum,’ noting that 20 per cent of players within the game experience mental illness, a statistic that’s echoed in society.

His session focused on tools and services available to players (past and present), identification of signs and symptoms of mental health issues and the promotion of help-seeking behaviours within peer groups.

It was acknowledged that transition presents a range of challenges and emotions for players and that while many of these are negative for players, they were urged to stay connected to their club(s) and the relationships formed within.

Hedley detailed the importance of the audience identifying changes in themselves and others, the audience explored themes such as mood, attitudes, performance and physical state. Insights into their personal and collective experiences were shared, with the group identifying a range of potential indicators of poor mental health.

The AFLPA’s National Psych Network, a network of specialised psychologists available to members anywhere in the country, is a highly regarded and increasingly used service available for these young men.

Hedley preached that although the network is available to members at any point in time, they should ideally consider access when they notice changes, as opposed to reaching their lowest point.

“Putting out spot fires is not most the most effective practice,” he said.

Importantly, the stigma of mental health and help-seeking is shifting within society and past AFL players are leading the way. Engagement in the network doubled in 2017 (more than 1,300 hours of consultation was delivered) and is expected to again climb when the 2018 results are released later this year.

Next up was the first of two Career Options sessions. The players pre-selected two of the three available – one being a career assessment profile, taken by Lee Sunlay from TwoPointZero, another being a LinkedIn session, taken by TwoPointZero CEO Steve Shepherd, and the last being about the education pathway, led by Bronwyn Neeson from La Trobe University.

The career assessment included profiling personality traits and matching them to specific industries and jobs. The first step was to outline the six traits; realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional before taking a test that results in a score and finds three traits an individual identifies with most.

Those three traits then suggest a range of jobs and industries that suit the personality.

The LinkedIn session included teaching about the platform, which 95 per cent of Australian businesses use to find an employee. The learnings included benefits and negatives and how to use LinkedIn affectively.

La Trobe University spoke about their course offerings for those interested in furthering their education.

Able to speak to a players’ perspective, AFLPA employees and former players Adam Pattison and James Polkinghorne chatted about their study journeys. Former Lion Polkinghorne is currently undertaking an MBA, while former Tiger Pattison is onto his third course, studying a Masters of Business and Administration on top of his role as the AFLPA’s Head of Commercial.

Former Docker Lee Spurr, having entered the competition as a mature-aged player, was a strong advocate of the study pathway and showed an interest in completing an MBA along with former Demon Jordie McKenzie.

Spurr, 24 when his name was called out by Fremantle in the rookie draft, had already established himself in the working world and, combined with continued study during his playing career, was as prepared as any for the transition phase.

The 31-year-old admittedly played one game in his last 16 months before announcing his retirement, which he believes took the emotion out of the retirement process.

“You can never be fully prepared,” Spurr told RSN Breakfast. “And you’re never ready to leave the system – you want to stay in it as long as you can because it’s a fantastic environment to be in.

“40 players plus staff and admin each day all working towards the same thing – there aren’t many workplaces where you get that.”

Spurr’s former teammate, Michael Barlow, who also appeared on radio and was at the Camp, said there’s an element of the unknown for any player leaving the game given the complexities around planning the next part of life.

“You do get scared,” Barlow added. “There are moments where you don’t really know yourself. The overwhelming one for me, though, is excitement for what is next.

“The people out there listening might think being a player is a charmed existence but we sacrifice that chunk of our lives where others are doing university degrees or trades to jump into jobs in their early 20s and players put it all on the line to make a go at an AFL career, which it isn’t going to last forever.”

After lunch, TwoPointZero CEO Steve Shepherd spoke to the entire group about networking, a skill most footballers have already had significant experience in, given their various sponsor appearances over the years but refining those skills is vital for future opportunities.

The role social media plays and presenting yourself professionally online, defining goals, identifying targets and contacts and making the effort to reach out to them were discussed as well as the importance of first impressions.

Shepherd then took the follow-up session about researching the job market, which included analysing LinkedIn and job-related sites such as Seek and how to use them effectively.

Lunch ensued before Sunlay took charge in the following two presentations on work-shopping resumes and interview skills.

After a long day of information, players and staff had an hour and a half of free time before tea, followed by the keynote speaker — former Australian cricketer Brad Hodge.

Hodge was engaging, funny and had many stories to tell about playing a professional sport most footballers enjoyed during their youths and the toll that can take on your prospects as the career fades.

He related to the players and also had important messages about the next chapter.

Day Two and the team from RSN Breakfast were onsite in the morning to broadcast their show with the likes of Travis Cloke, Kristian Jaksch and Spurr and Barlow featuring on the program to chat about their personal experiences leaving the game.

Host Daniel Harford also MC’d the events for the day, which was about taking what the players learnt the previous day and putting it into practice.

As many as 27 businesses came down to firstly present to the group, essentially pitching why their business or industry is one they should be vying to get into.

AFL umpires, Metro trains, Victoria Police, the AFL Coaches’ Association, Belgravia Leisure and Global Elite were a handful of those on-hand to chat to the group.

The second part of the day was a form of expo, where the businesses spread out in a room with the players scouring the floor, chatting to as many as they pleased.

For some it’s about securing potential employment opportunities but for others as little as having a conversation or creating mentor relationship was equally significant.

Many players leave the AFL system low on confidence. For a lot of them, they’ve been told they’re no longer good at the one thing they excelled in.

You can only imagine the affects that would have on a human being.

But things aren’t as dire as they may seem. The industry is changing and this is another significant step towards better supporting Australia Rules athletes during and after their careers.

While being an AFL player is a special experience and considerably shapes the young men who enter through the system, perspective is needed by all.

And when it comes to perspective, Cloke put it best.

“An AFL career doesn’t last forever,” he said. “I’m 31 and have been retired for 12 months, I’ve got plenty of life to live.”