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The loneliness of the AFL footballer

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South Australian-born AFL star Matthew Pavlich says he is at peace with the prospect of retiring without a premiership to his name – likely at the end of this season – opening up about the merits of “vulnerable” leadership.

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The Fremantle spearhead stepped aside as captain at the end of last season but opted to play on for another year – a year that his coach Ross Lyon has already suggested could be an annus horribilis.

But Pavlich has spoken starkly about how his young family clarified his perspective on success and “what I truly value in life”, and on his imminent move into the corporate world, to which he says: “I’ve got a lot to give”.

Speaking on Adelaide podcast Rooster Radio ahead of last week’s loss to the Adelaide Crows, Pavlich said he honed his leadership by embracing the reality that he didn’t need to be perfect.

“It’s a lonely place sometimes as an AFL captain and an AFL player,” said the product of the Sacred Heart football production line and onetime Woodville West Torrens recruit.

“Even though there’s 45 to 50,000 people at a game most weeks… the loneliest parts are when you haven’t been successful on the field and you go home and have to look at yourself in the mirror, and ask the questions of ‘are you doing enough’ and ‘are you giving enough’, and that’s where that level of vulnerability comes in.”

It would have been great to lift the cup… but if I don’t achieve that, I’m ok with it.

He said during the Dockers’ lean seasons early in his captaincy, “I was trying to be the absolute perfect citizen, the perfect footballer and the perfect captain, and the reality is I’ve learned that’s really hard, that’s really challenging”.

“No matter how good one person is, that’s almost impossible,” he said.

“I think sometimes as an AFL player and an AFL captain, you put on the armour, you’re stoic and resilient and it’s expected your armour has no chinks.

“[But] it’s ok to be vulnerable, it’s ok to lose, it’s ok not to be perfect, which I always thought someone in my position had to be.”

AFL Season 2016, Round 6 Adelaide Crows, Fremantle Dockers

Pavlich watches a shot for goal sail wide against the Crows last week. Photo: Michael Errey, InDaily.

Pavlich, who admits to keeping a small group of close long-term friends and eschewing the “hangers-on” that come with football, said he had realigned his leadership and his outlook to embrace vulnerability and a broader life experience, revealing that after a loss “I turn to myself and look in the mirror and get a bit of perspective”.

“All we’re doing is playing a game of footy,” he said.

“Yes, it’s really important and yes, there’s a lot of people’s careers and livelihoods and passion involved in the game – but it’s a game of footy.”

He said after last month’s shock loss to Carlton in Perth gave the Dockers an unwanted fifth straight defeat to start the season, it was returning home to change his one-year old son Jack’s nappy that helped him move on.

“What (having) children has given me is a really clear perspective on what I truly value in life and how I rate success,” he said.

“We lost against Carlton, it was a close game, we didn’t play anywhere near what we’d have liked, and Jack – my little one – needed to be changed when I got home because Lauren, my wife, was [bathing] my daughter – so that’s what I did… and it pretty quickly puts things straight back into perspective.”

He said whatever else happened on the field, “my job as a human being and as a man is to be a really good husband and a fantastic dad… and I have to be that for however long I live”.

Pavlich came close to tasting premiership success in 2013, but the Dockers ultimately fell to Hawthorn – who went on to win three flags in a row.

But he says while his club might rue the lost chance, he insists it was not lost for want of effort.

“At the end of that game, not anyone in that team could look at each other and say ‘you didn’t give your all today, you didn’t try hard’,” he said.

“Ultimately we fell short… we weren’t good enough, we didn’t execute well and probably we weren’t hard enough on the day, but as a general rule we could all look at each other and say, ‘You know what, we’re ok. Life’s ok, our families are well’.

“It would have been great to lift the cup and it’s still an aim of mine… but if I don’t achieve that, I’m ok with it.”

Pavlich says he’s been “living my dream for the last 17 years”, noting that “it’s hard for anyone in the world to say they’ve been doing that for so long”.

Once that dream finishes, the AFL Players’ Association president intends to move into business, where he already has several ventures and partnerships, and will be finishing an MBA within the next year.

“I’ve been at university pretty much the whole time I’ve played football,” he said.

“My hands are pretty full outside of the game, and it’s something I’ve always found helped me on the field [in terms of understanding] structure within an organisation, team dynamic… and helped me round out the specifics I’m going to need post-football.”

He said while football had been lucrative, “I have to work [when I retire], I have to work for a long time – and I want to work”.

“You’re a long time retired [from football]… I think I’ve got a lot to give in the business world once I finish,” he said.

Rooster Radio’s co-host James Begley co-founded PickStar, a startup aimed at linking sporting stars with corporate clients, with Pavlich after delivering leadership training at Fremantle for five years. 

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