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Five lessons AFL players can learn from iconic Australians

Australians love an underdog. Our geographic isolation and relatively small population can sometimes make us feel a little left out of the international action. Maybe this is why we love the Steven Bradburys of the world so much — people who, against all odds, come out on top on the international stage.

But when an Australian does succeed, we can be equally as quick to bring them down to earth. I would argue that as a result of our willingness to cut the tall poppies down to size we don’t learn as much as we could or should from our country’s most successful people.

Four years after retiring from Port Adelaide, I teamed up with a mate to explore this. We have created The Thread, a 10-part YouTube documentary series that explores what connects different Aussie icons who broke away from the pack.

What we found was fascinating. Though these people all have different backgrounds and have reached the top of different fields, there is a common thread that links them together. With the first five episodes now on YouTube, here is what we have learnt so far and how it may apply to those plying their trade as footballers.

Thread #1: Parents

Having parents who are supportive but not obsessive and let you take risks is one of the threads we have seen. Gary Ablett Junior comes to mind. How big a role did Gary Ablett Senior play in his son’s success? We would argue, a lot. Since 1986, there have been 86 players drafted to the AFL under the father-son rule. In Episode 1 of The Thread with Gai Waterhouse, we learned that she “didn’t want to disappoint Dad”. Her father motivated and inspired her to become one of the country’s best horse trainers.

Thread #2: Drive

The people we met are competitive. They work harder than their peers on the things they are good at and passionate about. When it comes to footy, it is one thing to be good at the sport and to play it; it is another thing to be driven to outperform your peers. I was privileged to witness this firsthand during my time with Port Adelaide. People like Gavin Wanganeen and Mark Williams were competitors. You need a bit of that mongrel if you want to break away from the pack. The co-founder of Harvey Norman, Gerry Harvey, gave us a taste of this thread in Episode 2 when he said, “I don’t want a shop anywhere in Australia, where I’m not the best shop in town.”

Thread #3: Prejudice

All the icons we sat down with prove naysayers wrong and refuse baseless criticism on a daily basis. If you are going to do something different, especially in the public spotlight, you are going to attract criticism. The media also feeds on polarising opinion. This was the case with Adam Goodes during his last season where the uglier side of tall poppy syndrome reared its head. Dr Fiona Wood in Episode 3 is no stranger to criticism either given her career as a pioneering plastic surgeon and mother of six. She suggests you have got to find a way to “not engage in that negative energy”.

Thread #4: Luck

Each trailblazer told us that luck played a big part in their success. You have got to put yourself in a position to be lucky and then seize your chances. I think of my own brief AFL career. I consider myself lucky to have been drafted back in 2005. At the same time perhaps I was unlucky to have had a left knee that aged in dog years resulting in an early retirement. Injuries are part of the game. Having a head coach who thinks well of you is a part of the game. There is a degree of chance to the game of life. One of Australia’s sharpest legal minds, Michael Kirby, says it best in Episode 4, “you seize the day, but you’ve got to have the luck to get the day and to get the chances to seize.”

Thread #5: Failure

Success is a bad teacher. If you are trying to achieve the extraordinary, you are going to meet with failure. The icons we met taught us to take risks and not let the fear of failure hold you back. As a footballer, you are going to miss selection sometimes; you are going to drop marks, miss goals and lose games. It is how you handle those setbacks that count. After three failed attempts at winning the America’s Cup Yacht Race, Alan Bond finally won it in 1983. Jack and I happened to be the last people to ever interview the polarising entrepreneur. He certainly knew how to take risks. “It’s better to have tried and failed than never tried at all” were his last words to us in Episode 5.

To continue watching the remaining five episodes as they’re published subscribe to The Thread’s YouTube Channel here.