Consider this: within each club there is a group of highly qualified and experienced professionals ready and able to meet the physical needs of every player.
Some clubs have all or a combination of staff in roles including strength training, fitness and conditioning, myotherapy, massage, physiotherapy, biomechanics, exercise physiology, rehabilitation, injury prevention, sports science, tackling and boxing. There are of course high performance managers, doctors and trainers as well as coaching staff. Carlton players even have a cycling coach. But not all clubs have a psychologist. General player wellbeing is monitored in most, if not all clubs using sophisticated computer software which takes into account a range of physical variables as well as sleep, stress and energy levels, but when it comes to managing their mental health, players need to take charge. Thankfully, they are not alone. I’ll get to that shortly.
On the face of it, an AFL player’s lifestyle seems glamorous. They get paid the big bucks to do what they love. Their full time job is footy, a dream come true, but the pressure associated with the job is huge. ‘Workplace pressure’ for a footballer extends way beyond their time on the job, it infiltrates almost every aspect of their lives, and while much of the interaction for a footballer is positive, they are under a lot of pressure to perform. Pressure from themselves, their club and their fans, fear of injury and trial by media all take their toll.
Imagine having a bad day at work and then being torn to shreds over it on any one or all of half a dozen or so television shows and radio programs over the next week; not to mention a tirade of comments on Twitter, Facebook and online forums. Then picture having to front up to work every day and just get on with it, working hard to ensure a stellar job done next time. That’s a challenge for even the most resilient person.
Tiger’s player Dan Jackson was recently quoted in the Herald Sun saying that he believes the next big issue in the AFL will be centred on the mental health and wellbeing of players. I hope he’s right. By that I mean that I want to see mental health being talked about in AFL circles in the same way we talk about hamstring injuries. Is that likely? Possibly not for a while but I’m going to do my bit here to raise awareness and understanding. My hope is that you take some of these messages away and do the same.
Former AFL players including Nathan Thomson, Heath Black, Simon Hogan, Barry Hall and Lance Picioane have all shared their experiences of depression, anxiety or both, in the hopes of helping others to better understand mental illness, and to know that football players are not immune.
Though we see them as superstars they are not superhuman. Footballers are people just like you and me, and they are every bit part of a community where mental illness is common. In fact, one in four Australians suffer from mental illness so we’re looking at potentially 200 AFL players enduring challenges with their mental health in any given year. The more it is talked about, the more we all understand and the more players, and anyone for that matter, will be able to recognise their symptoms and seek help.
The highest prevalence of mental illness amongst Australians is in the 18-24 year old age group, the most common conditions being anxiety, depression and substance abuse. It just so happens that rookie players nominating for the AFL Draft have to be between the ages of 18 and 23. Putting them right smack bang in the age bracket where the risk of mental illness is high. Combine that with the stress of performance pressure at the Draft Combine, the anxious wait for the draft, the stress of settling in to an elite team and potentially doing it in a state far from home; it’s not hard to see why these players could really benefit from some help.
“Being in an AFL club is a new environment so you’re taken out of your comfort zone; it’s a full-time commitment and is more intense” – Jack Hannath
Fremantle rookie Jack Hannath was at a training camp for Melbourne FC in Darwin when he got told that he had been drafted to Fremantle FC in the Pre-season Draft. This meant flying from Darwin to Melbourne to collect his things, to Adelaide say goodbye to family and friends and to Fremantle to begin his AFL career. That’s a lot of change in a short period of time. This was a dream come true for Hannath, and he explains that along with the elation of selection, comes the inevitable interest in what comes next.
“Everyone thinks when you are drafted you are going to play AFL straight away,” Hannath said. “It’s natural that when you get drafted friends and family are excited for you but it does create some external pressure as everyone is really interested in your new ‘job’.”
External interest and pressure is only part of the picture.
“Being in an AFL club is a new environment so you’re taken out of your comfort zone; it’s a full-time commitment and is more intense than other footy clubs you’ve been involved in,” Hannath explained. “You really want to make a good impression and put a bit of pressure on yourself.
“We also get critiqued on our performance and there is a lot that goes on during the week that people don’t get to see if they are not heavily involved in a club. There is a lot of follow up after games, training, meetings and reviews which bring different pressures.”
With the understanding that there are unique challenges for rookies beginning their AFL careers, Dr. Jo Mitchell and her team at the AFL Players Association have developed a specific rookie wellbeing program called Manage Your Mind. Dr. Mitchell is a Clinical Psychologist and is the Wellbeing Manager at the AFL Players’ Association. The Manage Your Mind is designed to develop psychological skills to manage stress, build resilience and improve mental wellbeing. The sessions are delivered to all first year players over three sessions and are cleverly designed to engage players in a way that personalises the program.
Session one is all about values. This session steps players through sorting around 40 different values into a top 5 ranked in order. Players then rate how satisfied they are with their life in relation to these values. They are then asked about daily behaviours that reflect their core values, and those that do not. Dr. Mitchell explains why the program starts with this important step.
“The research tells us that people who know what they stand for, and then act in ways that reflect this, have greater wellbeing and resilience,” Dr. Mitchell said. “This is why it is essential to clarify your values and learn how to live them, doing things on a daily basis that bring you closer to, rather than further away from what is most important to you. For example, if you are living away from home, which most rookies are, and love and connection to family and friends is a core value, then make sure you take them time to call home and chat to the people that matter most to you.”
“It’s something I value highly but hadn’t given enough attention to” – Jack Hannath
This is the part of the program that resonated the most with Hannath.
“In the full time environment of AFL footy, the footy is so full on and initially values are not something you pay much attention to,” Hannath explained. “When I undertook the program, it really got me thinking and when we had to preference our values, at the top of my list were relationships with my friends and family. It was a very beneficial exercise because with footy being full time and Adelaide being 1 ½ hours ahead of WA, you can lose contact with friends and family sometimes.
“It really made me think, it’s something I value highly but hadn’t given enough attention to. Trips back home are really limited so now I make the most of opportunities I have to get in touch with friends and family back home and keep that link.”
Session two teaches the rookie players to recognise ‘stories’. Players are encouraged to think about common stories that all humans experience, such as “I am not good enough” or “will I get selected this week”.
“The brain is an amazing storytelling machine, it produces thoughts, stories, commentary and judgements 24/7, a bit like a television or radio station,” Dr. Mitchell explained. “While this storytelling can be functional – it helps us to learn, plan, prepare – it can also get in our way. Ever found yourself worrying about something that didn’t happen? Or reliving an embarrassing past event? The storytelling mind can create unnecessary stress that can get in the way of performance and wellbeing. The players are invited to notice what their stories may be and learn ways to unhook from them, or turn the mental chatter down when it is not serving any useful purpose.”
“The talk in our heads is like non-stop radio,” Dr. Mitchell explains. “It’s like having the Masterchef panel in our heads – critiquing and judging our performance. This session is about noticing our own stories or commentary, and learning how to turn the volume down on them, so we can focus on what matters most – committed action in the service of our values.”
In the third session the players are taught about emotions; noticing them, recognising what they are and then ‘surfing’ them.
“Players are often experts at managing physical pain – they get daily exposure to physical pain, how to interpret it, when to push through it and when to hold back,” Dr. Mitchell explained. “When it comes to emotional pain, like most humans, they have had little training in how to interpret them and respond effectively. There is also an acceptance that physical pain is part of the cost of achieving their valued goals. When a strong emotion – like fear, anger or jealousy – turns up in our body we often try to avoid it or mentally struggle with it. In this session the players are asked to consider the role of emotions, how they can derail us from our values and how to listen to them better and surf, rather than struggle, with them.”
Manage Your Mind is one of three AFL evidence based wellbeing programs. The other programs are Practical Mindfulness for players in their second year and beyond and Team Wise for player leaders and key influencers. Players engaging in these programs develop lifelong skills.
“It helps you to reflect on other aspects of your life that are really important to keep balanced,” Hannath said. “In a way it can be detrimental to your football if that’s all you are focused on and you don’t have outside releases or know how to manage yourself outside of a football environment.
“Managing your wellbeing is good to give you perspective because you might be blurred at times with the excitement of being inside the AFL environment.”
Need some help or know someone who does?
The Manage Your Mind program is based on an evidence-based framework called Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and tailored to the high performance environment of AFL. If you want to read more about ACT read “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris or read this article: http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
If you are concerned about your own mental health, or that of someone close to you, please consult your GP who will refer you to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Other mental health support can be found at:
Lifeline: 13 11 14 (24hr Telephone Crisis Support)
This article appeared in Inside Football magazine, which is available every Wednesday at your local newsagent and Woolworths or online at www.insidefootballonline.com