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Some players spend all of their childhood dreaming of becoming an AFL footballer and when they finally get there, they soon realise that it is a grind and not the game they came to love as a child. Increasingly players are talking privately of how there is no fun left to be had inside an AFL club.
High levels of pressure and expectations from inside and outside the four walls of a club will do that to you and the modern professional player is more susceptible than ever to the dangers of illicit and performance-enhancing drugs.
I have no tolerance whatsoever for drugs and I’m not going to make excuses for any player who goes down that road, but we are at a tipping point in the game where players are in desperate need of a greater work/life balance to ease some of the pressures being placed on them.
Last year Fox Footy’s On the Couch program hosted Chris Judd, who discussed his interests away from football and why they are so important to him. Judd said that he had multiple interests away from the AFL as he never wanted his moods throughout the week to be dictated solely by whether he played a good game or a bad one the week before. Judd stated that his business interests away from the game helped him to achieve that.
It made me reflect on my own career. In hindsight I had no balance whatsoever in my life from the age of 16 to 28 until I had my first child. I only started developing myself off the field after tearing my hamstring off the bone in round three of 2006. I tortured myself for the first 12 years of my career with the emotional roller-coaster of being relieved when I played well and the team was winning, or beating myself up until Wednesday if I had a shocker and didn’t contribute enough to help the team win.
Never once did I think how great is it to play AFL football. How much fun is this? The game was merely a weekly assessment of whether I was fulfilling the standards expected by myself, the club and, yes, even the media. This pressure meant I never allowed myself to enjoy the game and realise how privileged I was to have that opportunity to represent Essendon at the MCG in front of a packed house. Whenever this discussion is raised on talkback radio, I often hear callers say how precious AFL footballers are. The young callers often say how they would happily throw in an apprenticeship to earn thousands of dollars as an AFL footballer. I fully understand that thinking, but it must be acknowledged that professional football is a ruthless beast and you can be spat out of the system at any time. That pressure, along with being scrutinised at alll times by the media makes for a long and stressful 26-week season.
Players are now given eight weeks off at the end of the season, which is more than adequate, but expectations have got so high that some clubs are expecting players to perform personal best times on the first day that they return in November. This means some players are taking just two weeks off and are spending the rest of the break anxious at the thought of not dropping off in any way.
With that expectation there is a suggestion in AFL circles that some players are taking illicit drugs over their break rather than drinking alcohol as they don’t want to put on any weight.
I spoke to AFL Players Association boss Paul Marsh during the week and he believes that one of the biggest issues that came out of his meeting recently with the 18 player delegates was getting the players’ work/life balance right at AFL clubs.
The number of players completing degrees has been decreasing in recent years and that lack of personal development has both past and present players struggling to deal with the transition to life in the “real world”.
While it is a brutally challenging profession, playing in the AFL presents you with so many more opportunities to make a better life for yourself if you maximise the opportunities and resources you have at your disposal while in the game. Recent data says that the average career span of a player is six years, so the window to grab those opportunities can be small.
In the end, being on an AFL list is a short part of your life and a minority of players are making the wrong choices due to the pressure of continuing their career, or in some cases just through stupidity.
Chris Judd said that he would rather have pressure and expectations placed on him than none at all. That is the comment of a man with everything in perspective.
Nick Riewoldt is also somebody every footballer should think about today as he deals with the worst kind of grief, due to the loss of his younger sister Madeleine. It makes all the other pressures and stress seem so insignificant when you think of what Nick and his family have been going through over recent weeks and how Nick himself has somehow managed to prepare himself to play.
It should be a reminder to all of how precious life and family is and that playing football – no matter how demanding – is a career to cherish and enjoy.
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