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Why we must celebrate mental health in sport

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23rd April, 2022

In recent years we have seen a dramatic shift in the way the AFL is played.

No longer can players trudge idle, catching their breath, when the opposition has the ball. The game without the ball is now just as important as the game with the ball. The game is played at such a speed that the only time a player is not moving is when there is a brief pause in play or they’re rotating on the bench.

It goes without saying that in between games there is a massive workload for players to get through. Recovery, review, preparation – there’s no rest.

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The amount of pressure on modern-day players is not new – there has been pressure on elite footballers for years – but what is new is that we are finally starting to accept that they too are not mentally indestructible.

Lachie Hunter of the Western Bulldogs is the latest player to take leave from the game to focus on his wellbeing. Dustin Martin took a leave of absence after Round 1 to continue working through the grief of losing his father, Shane Martin. An increasing number of players are coming forward to take time out of the game to focus on their wellbeing, which highlights three significant shifts in the culture of the game.

1. The game is not bigger than the individual

No matter the player or the size of their ego, club ethos has always been that no player is bigger than the club. This is true and should be a part of any sporting organisation’s cultural DNA. The shift we have seen in recent times, however, is that players like Hunter and Martin are being afforded the necessary time to tend to their personal lives.


This would no doubt rile many an ill-informed onlooker who believes that footballers are paid a lot of money to play the game and so should ‘suck it up’ and get out there. The flip side to this is if you continue to drive a car that needs servicing into the ground, it will break down in spectacular fashion eventually. It’s inevitable, and the same goes for people.

It has been inspiring to observe how clubs and in particular Damien Hardwick have handled the media regarding Dustin Martin by protecting his privacy and his space and placing no time frame on his return. Time frames are irrelevant when taking time out to focus on mental wellbeing. There is no scan available to diagnose the wellbeing of an individual to determine a path to recovery. The approach is holistic.

Dustin Martin

(Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

2. Players are human


In the enviable eyes of many, AFL players are living an entitled lifestyle in the spotlight, doing what they love week in and week out. Surely this is what living the dream is about, right? Yet when news breaks about a player taking time away from the game, many an observer throws their arms up asking why they’re so ‘precious’.

Being an elite footballer today would leave almost nearly no time to stop and take a deep breath and focus on personal wellbeing, and it’s been reported that the soft caps on club personnel have hit player support and mental health staff in particular.

Apart from trying to keep a career steady on the fast rails of the AFL playing life, a player also has a family life to attend to. This is something that can only be described as a juggling act for many, and it’s no secret that some players handle it better than others. Some people in life thrive under mountains of pressure and are extremely resilient, but there is also an increasing percentage of players who are susceptible to stress and the pressure of life in and outside of the AFL.

3. The stigma surrounding mental health is definitely shifting


It goes without saying that it is now more publicly acceptable for professional athletes to come forward and say that they are struggling. This great game was forged on grit, blood, sweat and guts, all traits that have long been entrenched in football folklore – the essence of the fight, giving nothing and taking everything.

Former premiership Kangaroo Wayne Schwass has been very vocal in recent years through his work with PukaUp about his struggles with mental health during his playing days. No-one would have known thanks to the way he went about it on the field – he was a hard, skilful, team-oriented player. But off the field he was battling demons.

Back then there was nowhere to really go for support, and it could have been potentially career-ending to come forward with such an admission. Schwass has been brilliant in his advocacy for mental health in recent years, making it okay not just for current players but for anyone from any walk of life to talk openly about mental health.


Mental health issues don’t discriminate, and in the lightning-fast AFL world careers can be over in one unfortunate contest, and immense is the pressure to get their body up every week, to maintain a spot in the first 22, to avoid the cynical media attention, to overcome injuries and setbacks, to be someone at home.

Footballers are humans and society has only just worked that out. Regardless of their enviable position, they are not immune to mental health problems, and it is important that we respect this as fans and media.