The increased use of psychologists and other related services by former AFL players has been interpreted as an indication that today’s footballers will cope better in retirement than their forebears.
Modern footballers are more likely to admit they are struggling, and seek help, which is an attitude change the AFL Players Association says will help them when their AFL careers end.
After one of the league’s greatest players, Wayne Carey, detailed his ongoing concerns about one of the less glamorous realities of the game - that many struggle deeply with life beyond it - the AFLPA referred to its latest data on the topic that it says gives reason for optimism.
While the job of being an AFL footballer has never been more consuming or highly-pressurised, the AFLPA says the number of ex-players seeking professional counseling through its network of psychologists, and other assistance, is growing every year. And with results soon to be released from a competition-wide study that will make compelling links between the on-field performance of teams and their players’ engagement in activities off the field, a renewed push for improving balance is also anticipated.
''What’s hard to know is if players need the help more and are using it, or if this is because we’re getting it out there and promoting it and encouraging players to use the services,'' said Brett Johnson, the AFLPA’s general manager of player development.
''It’s probably a bit of both, I think. We’ve done a lot of work to try to reduce stigmas, whether that be around something like our wellbeing services or simply just asking for help. And I think we’ve come a long way in that area.''
Carey detailed on Friday the enormous void he felt in retirement - describing it as tantamount to a family death - and how much those feelings had surprised him.
He referenced a fellow premiership player who he said had been unable to hold down a job since playing elite football, and who was ''bitter... turbulent and unsettled'' without the anchor of his old club.
The AFLPA contacts every player who has been cut from an AFL list within 48 hours. All players are offered exit interviews - Johnson said 90 per cent followed through with these last year - and are given access to a national network of psychologists and are offered what the AFLPA calls ''financial health checks''.
At the time of retirement, many players can be asset rich but cash poor, and the AFLPA helps them with their financial planning and retirement accounts.
Six months after a player is delisted, the AFLPA seeks to make contact with that ex-player again. "By then, hopefully the relationship is established and the players can still contact us should they require,'' Johnson said.
"These are very thorough meetings, and there can be more than one. It depends how much the player requires. Some don’t need any further support.''
Ex-footballers are also entitled to apply for education and training grants for three years after they have retired. The AFLPA contributed around $500,000 to this end last year.
While it is an inexact science catering to the needs of a diverse group of men, and there can be no guarantees that those in the most need will seek assistance, Johnson said the AFLPA’s transition services for players were now carefully tailored. The next challenge, he said, was ensuring that all AFL clubs invested meaningfully in player welfare.