But last week, senior players sat with a psychologist and former Melbourne player Russell Robertson and discussed ways of approaching a teammate they thought might be struggling off the field.
The week before, again as part of the AFL Players Association PlayWise program, they learnt to look for signs that a player is not coping.
It forms part of coach Scott Watters’ plan to develop people, not just footballers.
“I guess over the generations men haven’t been fantastic at being a little bit more open and being prepared to talk about things that are on their minds,” Watters said.
“If the minimum we get out of it is some robust discussion, then I think that alone is a really positive thing.
” There’s enormous pressures on them, in so many different areas.
“If we can offer them some life-skill opportunities and teach them things and give them the opportunity to discuss things that are outside of taking a mark and kicking a goal, we’ll end up with better people, which ultimately delivers better performance anyway.”
PlayWise, in its first year, was developed by the AFLPA in conjunction with Headspace, Australia’s youth mental health foundation. It’s about destigmatising mental health.
Watters pushed the Saints to be one of the first clubs to participate in the program and it has been embraced by the players.
Dempster, 28, admitted the side hadn’t always been so willing to share.
“In the past we probably haven’t been that good at being a whole group and everyone being confident to talk as a group,” he said.
“It’s come to a point where seniority doesn’t matter any more. You need the younger blokes to be able to come out and tell you how they’re feeling for the club to grow.”
At last week’s session, the players agreed that approaching a teammate could be awkward.
Captain Nick Riewoldt pondered the results-driven nature of the AFL – how if you can’t fix something, you think you can’t really help.
Nick Dal Santo said with such a strong team focus, individuals could sometimes be overlooked.
Dempster said the players were learning.
“It’s a great program because blokes don’t talk about it, you don’t talk about your feelings, about mental health and stuff like that,” he said.
“We do spend a lot of time together, so to be able to first notice the changes in someone and learn the skills how to handle that is pretty beneficial.
“You can see subtle signs if you look hard enough and do show that genuine care.
“I suppose that’s what the program’s about, being able to see those subtle changes and having the confidence to be able to go up to them and genuinely ask, ‘How you feeling? How you going?’, and help them out.”
Dempster said it took courage.
“Sometimes it can be a bit confronting … because you know that it’s going to be hard for someone to come up to you, you don’t want to do it to someone else and make them feel uncomfortable,” he said.
“Hopefully this program enables us to individually be able to come out and say, ‘Maybe I do have a problem’, and also be able to see that someone else is struggling and be able to help them out.”
The players talk about the effect of being dropped from the senior team.
Dempster spoke from experience when he said it was a lonely place.
“You feel like you’ve been left behind a little bit. So to be able to go up to a player post being dropped and see how they’re going can make a massive difference,” he said.
“I’ve been dropped plenty of times. For a player to come up to me and ask how I’m feeling, not just a ‘how you going?’, legitimate care in how you’re going, is a massive help to moving on.”
AFLPA wellbeing services manager Matti Clements said research showed players were more likely to bounce an idea off a teammate.
Clements said empowering the senior players was crucial.
“They’re in a position of importance within the clubs so it carries real weight when those guys go up to a teammate or a younger player and say, ‘Hey, mate, you look like you’re struggling’,” he said,
“Why not upskill these guys, their teammates, about how to have those conversations and provide the referral? It’s looking after your teammates. It’s not about diagnosis.”
As first appeared in The Herald Sun, 26 July 2012