On my bad days I think of my AFL career as a failure

Matthew Pavlich is a Nine sports presenter and co-founder of Pickstar

Some days are simply tougher than others. It’s life, and no one can escape this. However, there are things we can do to help share the load with those we care about and make those tough days more bearable.

Today is ‘RU OK? Day’, our national day of action when we are reminded that every day we should be asking or at least thinking about asking, “are you OK?” and start a meaningful conversation with someone we care about and who might be struggling with life.

For me, today is a day to reflect. On myself, my family, teammates and friends. UK OK? Day is significant in more ways than one.

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Mental health is increasingly being talked about and arguably more looked after by many. But given this is only a recent movement, our understanding, education and empowerment on the issues remains a work in progress. According to official government statistics, one-in-five Australians will suffer from some kind of mental illness each year. It shows we still have a long way to go.

While it is great to have one day that recognizes it, the true test is to be able to ask it or better still identify the struggles of someone close to you today, yesterday and tomorrow.

Those struggles with life are certainly real for many. Especially as we increasingly face economic and social pressures – some of the undoubtable catalysts for many on the verge of mental health concerns.

On top of this, the fundamentals and influences that affect our mental health are constantly changing – youth of today, for example, are certainly met with very different challenges and emotional obstacles from when I was growing up.

But have we got the skills and systems to understand the difference between what a typical everyday struggle looks and feels like versus real mental illness? Can we identify the challenges and failures that happen to us all every day that then have the potential to either build resilience or head towards bad mental health? How can we learn more about this and help build robust, but vulnerable human beings? It seems to be a delicate balance that we have work to do on.

The cost of this mental health balance battle on businesses (sick days, hiring new staff, etc) continues to rise. According to a 2020 study by the Productivity Commission, poor mental health costs the Australian economy up to $220 billion a year – or $600 million every day. That is equivalent to around 10 per cent of national economic output. Those figures include a direct economic impact of between $43 billion and $70 billion, as well as an additional $150 billion attributed to the cost of disability and premature death.

But more than that, it is the cost on our friends and families that is the real expense when it comes to mental health.

Paul Green’s tragic recent passing is a reminder to us all that this purge does not discriminate. No matter your public profile or perceived level of success, the demons that circle in your open mind can become debilitating.

I have seen former teams, family and close friends, all of whom are high achievers with great work ethics fall into the depths of despair.

I too, on my bad days will look back on my AFL career as a failure. I won 50 per cent of the 353 games I played in, so dealing with failure and success each and every week was a part of the job. The rollercoaster ride of an AFL career teaches you some tough lessons early on.

This overall feeling of failure, in my most vulnerable moments, comes from not winning an AFL premiership. Now, I can intellectualize the fact that this is rubbish and those tough feelings I still hold need to be dealt with and it is not as binary as that. I did not fail. But in the AFL, you either have won a flag or you have not. And being one of the “have nots” I will always wear that tag.

Importantly though, while footy was my passion and a large portion of my life, I always thought of myself as more than a footballer, always trying to have other interests and wanting to keep myself busy. I studied at uni, had various business interests and loved socializing with friends.

But of course, much of my identity is attached to football. And that can be dangerous.

Elite sport is an inherently stressful occupation with enormous expectations both on and off the field. I’ve heard players asked to “play like a devil on the field and be a saint off it.” That request seems unrealistic, doesn’t it? But it is what we now demand without much of a pressure valve release for young men and women to blow some steam off.

A former coach of mine once told me… “Look Son, in AFL footy, there are plenty more kicks up the arse…than licks of the ice cream”. He is spot on. And this is a lesson about life as much as it is about sport.

The perception of mental health has changed within elite sport. When I was first drafted in 1999, I knew about performance psychology and mental skills to improve on the field, but I didn’t know anything about mental health issues. I can’t actually recall the exact moment when I became aware of it.

In my time in the game and particularly as AFLPA president, I saw great change and a shift in the recognition of the issue of mental health in sport, but also the solutions and treatment in this space.

It is why I have been patron of youth mental health charity Zero2Hero, an organization preventing suicide in our community by educating and empowering young WA kids to better understand and identify mental health battles within themselves and those around them.

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When it comes to raising awareness or promoting self-care and coping strategies, in-house champions can also be a huge asset. Over the past few years, more and more companies have embraced the concept of a culture-focused brand ambassador. Usually well-liked and respected, these individuals can play a unifying role across a business, getting involved in the onboarding of new staff, generating energy around social activities, connecting teammates when they need to collaborate, and taking an informal sense-check of morale .

Some organizations are now pursuing a similar approach to mental health. With the support of specialist groups and charities, businesses and representative corporate bodies have begun introducing mental health ambassadors and champions to their workforces and memberships. Take the impressive, recent appointment of Ash Barty as Optus’ Chief of Inspiration as a perfect example of this.

Bringing in a third-party is another way companies can introduce these themes in a non-confrontational, non-judgemental setting, giving employees a natural route into sensitive topics. By definition, these ‘external speakers’ or ambassadors will be further along in their mental health journeys than some of those in their audience. They will have the perspective to communicate the value of honesty and professional guidance. In relevant cases, they are also better placed to cover the most delicate matters.

In other words, mental health speakers can sometimes save lives.

In 2019, Australia’s former Test cricket captain Steve Smith gave a talk about a dark period in his own life to a New South Wales high school for Gus Worland’s Gotcha4Life Foundation. Following that visit, two teenagers approached the teaching staff to say they had been ready to end their own lives but had instead been emboldened to ask for help.

Underpinning all of this is the simple method of bringing people together and getting them talking.

For me, today is a day that reminds me that life can be hard, really hard. And, it reminds me of the important responsibility I have (and we all have) to take care of people around me – even the seemingly strong people.

So here’s my pledge. I am going to call all the people I know who have previously suffered and continue to suffer mental health battles and check in. And I am going to start with me… asking myself, “am I ok”? Sometimes we all need to look inward before we can help those around us.

If you or anyone you know needs immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or via lifeline.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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