Pressures mount for aspiring AFL recruits
On a mild Melbourne morning, AFL recruiters and media line the perimeter of Collingwood Football Club’s running track. They watch intently as a fresh-faced Jay Rantall rounds the final bend of the two-kilometre time trial. With a pained expression and whirring arms, Rantall holds off friend Finn Maginness and breaks the Combine record by a staggering 14 seconds with a time of five minutes and 51 seconds. It’s the last day of the AFL Draft Combine where 79 potential draftees are invited to perform a series of physical and mental assessments over four days ahead of the AFL draft in late November.
“It’s a lot pressure for someone that has not actually been drafted. It would be a very disappointing process if you weren’t to be picked up with all the hype going on,” muses Rantall, sitting in the dugout of a local football club in his hometown of Warrnambool on an overcast Sunday. It has been two weeks since his record-breaking performance, yet the strongly built Warrnambool College student appears to be unfazed.
“Personally, I’m not one to sort of look into it. I’m just waiting for the draft night and hopefully hearing my name called out,” he says. “But yeah there’s definitely that fear of the unknown.”
Sports psychologist Michael Inglis believes Rantall is not the only footballer feeling this way. “They’ve been dreaming of this for a long time, so it will cause stress which will impact their wellbeing,” says Inglis, who has worked with the North Melbourne Football Club and is the director of The Mind Room, a wellbeing & performance psychology clinic based in Collingwood.
“I had a kid who was hoping to get drafted and just the difficulty of this process – he was already suffering mental health issues anyway – and he was trying to get drafted which was escalating them,” Inglis says.
While Rantall says his mental health is fine, his path to the draft is a different one to most. The 18-year-old spent much of his youth playing basketball instead of football. The 184-centimetre midfielder even played in the same local senior basketball side as current National Basketball League star Nathan Sobey and represented Australia at the Under 17 Basketball World Cup, before he transitioned to full-time football. “My love was always there for footy, but the opportunities weren’t always there and when the opportunities came, I just took them,” Rantall says.
Despite his unusual road, Rantall’s draft year was close to the typical pathway of other draftees. He regularly travelled from Warrnambool to play for the Ballarat-based Greater Western Rebels in the NAB League Under 19 competition each week, while also being selected for the Victoria Country team for the Under 18 Australian Championships. All while completing his intense VCE. Yet while his classmates may fret over exams, for a footballer as busy as Rantall, final year tests can be helpful; “It’s hard but I’m fortunate enough that I’ve got so many great people around me plus exams,” he says. “Exams are a great distraction from all the noise.”
While Rantall appears to balance school and football well, Inglis worries others do not. “I think there is potentially an issue when we have a lot of them finishing year 12 in the same year as their draft year,” Inglis says. “I think that combination is difficult, so I think there’s a good argument to delay it a year as a result of that.”
In recent years, the draft has developed into a much talked about televised event, with recruits being presented to fans live on Fox Footy after spending months uncertain of their future.
When asked whether a rise in media coverage has caused the pressures of the draft to increase, Inglis was adamant. “100 percent it has,” he says. “The key ingredient in all of this is the managers. The guys who will be walked out as the Top 10 and get the big celebration with everyone watching it… I think they’re the ones who could have some extra support perhaps from management companies.”
As for Rantall, he is measured when he speaks yet doesn’t come across as media trained. “I think that it can be a bit much but it’s good to get a little taste of what it could be like if you were fortunate enough to be drafted and live the life of an AFL player,” he says.
For footballers, years of training go into the draft process. Photo Lachlan Abbott.
Talent Manager of the Murray Bushrangers in the NAB League, Michael Wilson, agrees with Rantall’s assessment. “Playing at the elite level is a competitive environment and a pressure environment, so realistically it’s all part of the development process,” he says.
While Rantall flourished at the Draft Combine, he admits the process was not all a breeze. “It was hard. The first two days were all interviews and media,” he says. “The first two days were just mentally draining.”
Invitees undergo mental evaluations at the combine and speak with interested clubs. While working for North Melbourne during the draft process, Inglis noted these interviews were not always designed for the wellbeing of the player.
“Sometimes a club will strategically put them under stress to see how they respond,” says Inglis, “The psych’s involved with them are asking them pretty robust, difficult questions to find out any gaps of their character.”
Of course, after this entire process, many are unable to have an AFL career. Despite being billed as a mid-range draft selection, Rantall is concerned he may miss out. “That’s the hardest thing I’m finding at the moment is that everyone says you need a plan B, but you can’t have plan B when you don’t know about your plan A,” says Rantall.
Wilson says for young players not selected this year, opportunity is still there. “The draft doors never close. Some may miss out this year and they might be selected next year,” Wilson says. “So we set up all players with everything and a pathway program depending on what they want to achieve and depending on what talent they displayed.”
Inglis believes in order to cater for those who miss out, the supports from their underage NAB League (formerly known as the TAC Cup) teams need to be available. “I think we could definitely provide more support… it would be good if all the TAC clubs have a psych attached.”
Rantall says the Greater Western Rebels do have a psychologist to provide support. “I think the Rebels is great. The best thing is no one gets your hopes up,” Rantall says. “You can sort of think of what life would be like if I don’t have it. So at least you haven’t got these false expectations.”
Despite some flaws, Inglis believes the draft process is relatively good. “Overall, I think we do it pretty well. I think there is some arguments about when the draft age is and I’m hearing it maybe is pushed out another year.
“I think what we could do better as a society – let alone the draft system – is that we need to give balance,” says Inglis, “So yes, football is obviously going to be very important to you in your life, but your identity is greater than being a footballer.”