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Behind the crazy, roller-coaster life of an AFL coach

Date

They are the main men at an AFL club: high-profile, all-powerful, but a new study reveals there is another side to the story.

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Walking along Punt Road at daybreak, a freshly sacked AFL coach kicked an empty Coke can along the bitumen. It was only at the very end that he started to realise where he'd been.

As determined and desperate to live the coaching dream as anyone, St Kilda's longest serving captain had spent four years at Richmond before a traumatic exit after he'd become the central protagonist in a horror show.

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As days, weeks and months passed after his dismissal, Danny Frawley observed that the eldest of his three daughters, in year 6 at the time, had also been suffering through his excruciatingly drawn out professional plummet. It's hard for Frawley to admit even 10 years later, but his struggles in football meant he hadn't really noticed.

''Vagueness'' is the sensation Frawley cites all these years later to describe the detached way of being that became his norm when a job in a game he still loves consumed him too much.

With a wife and young family he had a sense of everyday life, yet portrays himself now as being more of a spectator to that than a participant. Footy was everything. Frawley's priorities became warped. He was doing a large quantity of work yet the quality of his output diminished. Upon reflection, this was all rather unhealthy and unhelpful, and the conclusion was that lonely walk down Punt Road.

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Now chief executive of the AFL Coaches Association, which by the boss' own reckoning is an outfit that only got serious in 2009, Frawley says he doesn't want this story to be about him. And it's really not. It's about the 18 men who in 2014 hold the coveted title of being a senior coach in this country's richest and most popular sporting competition. It's about every other man who has already tried his luck in the same game and, perhaps more than anything, it's about those who will take on the job in the future.

In what began as a straightforward chat to discuss the findings of an unprecedented, AFLCA-commissioned university study of last year's senior coaches, Frawley - after taking a breather between phone calls - admitted to feeling surprised that a scab or two had dislodged even a decade after he decamped Punt Road. One minute he was speaking insightfully about the AFLCA's responsibility to use the revealing research findings to further educate clubs, coaches and the public about the ever-expanding job descriptions of AFL coaches. The next minute Frawley was audibly choked up with emotion when the discussion led to how coaching had affected his family.

It's the fatherhood factor that still clearly plays on Frawley's mind: ''Probably the vagueness of the five years of the girls growing up. I never had a great balance,'' he said of his senior coaching experience between 2000-2004, which finished with being replaced at Tigerland.

''Because of the public scrutiny, I just was trying so hard to stop the dam wall from flowing over that everything else became secondary,'' Frawley said. ''It wasn't until I walked away that I thought 'where did those five years go?'''

The lesser-known, still often reluctantly broached, realities of AFL coaching have crystallised in Frawley's mind because of the project La Trobe University's School of Public Health has recently produced for the AFLCA.

In a voluntary series of interviews last year, researchers Dr Mandy Ruddock-Hudson and Sophie Knights navigated 12 of the AFL's 18-man senior coach fraternity through myriad work-related factors that their very particular industry throws up. From sleeplessness to stress levels, loneliness and bad moods, the dozen senior coaches who participated on the condition that the 10,000-word research thesis would protect their identities, confided how these high-profile jobs really affect their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Dr Ruddock-Hudson, who in 2011 interviewed the AFL's significantly larger corps of assistant coaches for a similar study that was funded by the AFL's research board, has an expert handle on the men who direct the play in the game. Now a consultant to the AFLCA, and the wife of ex-footballer turned St Kilda assistant coach Paul Hudson (something she declared before all of her interviews), the first point Dr Ruddock-Hudson makes when asked to characterise the AFL's coaches is that they are ''highly motivated and very passionate people''.

''The majority are very aware of their situation and surroundings,'' Dr Ruddock-Hudson said.

''They have a true, genuine love of the game. And what came through from the interviews was that if they didn't love it they wouldn't do it.''

The findings from the latest research also prove that these same men who typically present as bulletproof - often through a feeling of necessity, as the study explains - do not, as a rule, have supernatural powers to absorb the high levels of stress that their profession induces. It's no surprise to read that they are flesh and blood. It's just that this isn't something the industry has traditionally talked about, and even in sharing the research findings the AFLCA is clearly concerned about it being a ''positive'' story that doesn't portray coaches as whingers, or depict them as homogenous.

One of the 12 senior coaches interviewed for the study last year said he didn't feel stress in his job. The fact is, however, that to varying degrees the other 11 did. Six others did not participate in what was a voluntary exercise designed to assist the AFLCA in sharpening its support services and funding.

''I think the public underestimate the huge role that they have. Twenty years ago you were employed as the coach and coaches would work a couple of hours a week,'' Dr Ruddock-Hudson said. ''Now you're a manager of 45 guys, you're a manager of 10 assistant coaches, you're the face of a football club. You're a father figure, you're a psychologist when your players come in and talk to you. There are just so many different hats now that I think a senior coach wears. That's just the evolution of the game.''

While AFL players have become increasingly open to sharing personal tales of dark and challenging times publicly - this coincides with depression being far from the taboo topic it once was in wider society - we have only heard snippets of how head coaches have negotiated the same ruthless and relentless environment.

One notable exception is Grant Thomas who, in jaw-droppingly candid style, detailed to Fairfax Media in 2010 when caffeine use by AFL players was a hot topic, some of the unhealthy match day habits he developed during his time directing the Saints. From beginning with a cup of ''tar'' - roughly half a cup of coffee granules mixed into a small amount of boiling water, so thick that a spoon almost stood up in it - an unhealthy cycle of matching unnatural highs with medicinal come-downs began. For much of his six-year senior AFL coaching career, Thomas said that within the 24-hour period when St Kilda played at night, he'd often mix caffeine, alcohol and sleeping pills.

Despite being hospitalised in 2003 as a direct result of the concoctions he was self-prescribing, the father of eight didn't change his routine, which he viewed as a coping mechanism for the coaching job. Sometimes after night games he slept under his office desk because he'd worked so late on the match review.

Controlled and calm, Neil Craig never presented as a man or AFL coach who would be so extreme (then again, who would know without asking). But after experiencing the coaching gig from just about every angle, he said that each of the pitfalls highlighted in the recent La Trobe University study - loneliness, isolation, bad moods at home, reluctance to seek help (in his early coaching days), and sleeplessness - resonated with him. A former SANFL player, Craig coached Adelaide for eight years then, after stepping away from the game in 2012, moved to Melbourne last year for a senior assistant coaching job to support head coach, Mark Neeld.

After Neeld's unpleasant departure from that position mid-last season, Craig again found himself a senior coach, but this year is at Essendon as the new head of coaching development and strategy.

''This study is important,'' Craig said.

''Because I think there is this general perception that once you become a senior coach, whoever this senior coach is, you're just a bulletproof person - they have all this knowledge about everything, they've got total control of their emotions, they've got outstanding emotional intelligence and there's nothing they can't do. The reality is that's not true. It's probably nearly the opposite.

''High performance leadership is a lonely sport. I've seen it myself in football clubs, and in the corporate world, that the higher you sit in the hierarchy it seems that the less chance there is to get really good quality feedback about your performance. In actual fact, sometimes if you want the feedback you have to actually go and ask for it.''

In this case, in order to help themselves, AFL coaches have provided the feedback.

With the findings at hand, the AFLCA will judge where its funds are best directed. In a nutshell, Frawley says three general areas have already been identified - transition, welfare and pathways.

''I'm passionate about it,'' he said, ''because the last thing I want to see is another coach walking along Punt Road kicking an empty can of Coke.''

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AFL 2015

Round 1
Thu, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
CAR 78vs RIC 105 Report Stats
Sat, 04 AprTimes shown AEDT
MEL 115vs GCF 89 Stats
SYD 72vs ESS 60 Stats
BRI 74vs COL 86 Stats
WBU 97vs WCE 87 Stats
Sun, 05 AprTimes shown AEST
STK 78vs GWS 87 Stats
ADE 140vs NTH 63 Stats
FRE 75vs PTA 68 Stats
Mon, 06 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW 123vs GEE 61 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 2
Fri, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
WCE 131vs CAR 62 Stats
Sat, 11 AprTimes shown AEST
RIC 66vs WBU 85 Report Stats
GWS 101vs MEL 56 Stats
COL 63vs ADE 90 Report Stats
GCF 76vs STK 104 Stats
PTA 44vs SYD 92 Stats
Sun, 12 AprTimes shown AEST
GEE 60vs FRE 104 Stats
ESS 78vs HAW 76 Stats
NTH 133vs BRI 51 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 3
Fri, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
COL 140vs STK 66 Stats
Sat, 18 AprTimes shown AEST
CAR 84vs ESS 105 Stats
ADE 80vs MEL 55 Stats
SYD 111vs GWS 90 Report Stats
NTH 105vs PTA 113 Stats
BRI 58vs RIC 137 Stats
Sun, 19 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW 127vs WBU 57 Stats
GEE 105vs GCF 96 Stats
WCE 81vs FRE 111 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 4
Fri, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
RIC 51vs MEL 83 Stats
Sat, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
STK 81vs CAR 121 Report Report Stats
ESS 49vs COL 69 Report Stats
GWS 119vs GCF 53 Stats
PTA 99vs HAW 91 Stats
FRE 74vs SYD 60 Stats
Sun, 26 AprTimes shown AEST
BRI 65vs WCE 118 Stats
GEE 67vs NTH 83 Stats
WBU 125vs ADE 68 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 5
Fri, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR 45vs COL 120 Stats
Sat, 02 MayTimes shown AEST
RIC 76vs GEE 85 Stats
SYD 73vs WBU 77 Stats
GCF 118vs BRI 54 Stats
NTH 70vs HAW 130 Stats
WCE 120vs GWS 33 Stats
Sun, 03 MayTimes shown AEST
MEL 50vs FRE 118 Stats
STK 80vs ESS 82 Stats
ADE 91vs PTA 115 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 6
Fri, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
COL 59vs GEE 100 Stats
Sat, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
NTH 109vs RIC 74 Stats
WBU 87vs STK 94 Stats
GWS 108vs HAW 98 Stats
GCF 78vs ADE 119 Stats
MEL 50vs SYD 88 Stats
FRE 80vs ESS 52 Stats
Sun, 10 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR 75vs BRI 84 Report Stats
PTA 68vs WCE 78 Stats
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Round 7
Fri, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
ESS 82vs NTH 93 Stats
Sat, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
ADE 119vs STK 73 Stats
HAW 155vs MEL 50 Stats
CAR 57vs GWS 135 Stats
SYD 120vs GEE 77 Stats
WCE 135vs GCF 43 Stats
Sun, 17 MayTimes shown AEST
WBU 88vs FRE 101 Stats
RIC 105vs COL 100 Report Stats
BRI 102vs PTA 65 Report Stats
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Round 8
Fri, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
GEE 140vs CAR 63 Report Stats
Sat, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
STK 78vs WCE 131 Report Stats
GWS 108vs ADE 84 Report Stats
GCF 63vs COL 132 Report Stats
HAW 69vs SYD 73 Report Stats
FRE 115vs NTH 42 Report Stats
Sun, 24 MayTimes shown AEST
ESS 136vs BRI 78 Report Stats
MEL 103vs WBU 64 Report Stats
PTA 43vs RIC 76 Report Stats
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Round 9
Fri, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
SYD 122vs CAR 62 Report Stats
Sat, 30 MayTimes shown AEST
HAW 93vs GCF 40 Report Stats
MEL 54vs PTA 115 Report Stats
WBU 113vs GWS 68 Report Stats
RIC 72vs ESS 59 Report Stats
ADE 57vs FRE 68 Report Stats
Sun, 31 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI 86vs STK 108 Report Stats
COL 112vs NTH 95 Report Stats
WCE 120vs GEE 64 Report Stats
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Round 10
Fri, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
FRE 70vs RIC 97 Report Stats
Sat, 06 JunTimes shown AEST
CAR 90vs ADE 99 Report Stats
GCF 41vs SYD 93 Report Stats
ESS 53vs GEE 122 Report Stats
PTA 100vs WBU 62 Report Stats
Sun, 07 JunTimes shown AEST
GWS 97vs BRI 67 Report Stats
NTH 85vs WCE 75 Report Stats
STK 69vs HAW 132 Report Stats
Mon, 08 JunTimes shown AEST
MEL 85vs COL 110 Report Stats
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Round 11
Fri, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
PTA 69vs GEE 92 Report Stats
Sat, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
GCF 46vs FRE 53 Report Stats
WCE 96vs ESS 46 Report Stats
NTH 75vs SYD 91 Report Report Stats
Sun, 14 JunTimes shown AEST
COL 119vs GWS 77 Report Stats
STK 85vs MEL 83 Report Stats
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Round 12
Thu, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
ADE 85vs HAW 114 Report Stats
Fri, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
RIC 70vs WCE 90 Report Stats
Sat, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
CAR 110vs PTA 106 Report Stats
GWS 61vs NTH 117 Report Stats
WBU 146vs BRI 74 Report Stats
Sun, 21 JunTimes shown AEST
GEE 89vs MEL 113 Report Stats
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Round 13
Thu, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
FRE 80vs COL 73 Report Stats
Fri, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
SYD 77vs RIC 95 Report Stats
Sat, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
HAW 114vs ESS 76 Report Stats
BRI 69vs ADE 82 Report Stats
STK 56vs WBU 62 Report Stats
Sun, 28 JunTimes shown AEST
CAR 103vs GCF 69 Report Stats
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Round 14
Thu, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD 94vs PTA 84 Report Stats
Fri, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
COL 91vs HAW 101 Report Stats
Sat, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
RIC 78vs GWS 69 Report Stats
GCF 125vs NTH 70 Report Stats
WBU 64vs CAR 53 Report Stats
MEL 60vs WCE 114 Report Stats
Sun, 05 JulTimes shown AEST
ESS 52vs STK 162 Stats
ADE vs GEE 15:20Adelaide Oval
FRE 84vs BRI 48 Report Stats
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Round 15
Thu, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
PTA 66vs COL 63 Report Stats
Fri, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
RIC 71vs CAR 41 Report Stats
Sat, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
ESS 69vs MEL 60 Report Stats
WBU 95vs GCF 73 Report Stats
NTH 120vs GEE 79 Report Stats
WCE 147vs ADE 91 Report Stats
Sun, 12 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS 84vs STK 49 Report Stats
HAW 115vs FRE 43 Report Stats
BRI 49vs SYD 70 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 16
Fri, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
NTH 93vs ESS 68 Report Stats
Sat, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE 72vs WBU 64 Report Stats
GCF 79vs GWS 94 Report Stats
COL 56vs WCE 87 Report Stats
SYD 57vs HAW 146 Report Stats
FRE 95vs CAR 53 Report Stats
Sun, 19 JulTimes shown AEST
MEL 60vs BRI 36 Report Stats
PTA 113vs ADE 116 Report Stats
STK 73vs RIC 89 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 17
Fri, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
CAR 35vs HAW 173 Report Stats
Sat, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS 42vs GEE 69 Stats
ADE 125vs GCF 80 Stats
RIC 78vs FRE 82 Stats
ESS 116vs PTA 129 Stats
BRI 38vs NTH 110 Report Stats
Sun, 26 JulTimes shown AEST
WBU 104vs COL 86 Report Stats
MEL 46vs STK 83 Report Stats
WCE 103vs SYD 51 Report Stats
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Round 18
Fri, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
HAW 53vs RIC 71 Report Stats
Sat, 01 AugTimes shown AEST
GEE 113vs BRI 57 Stats
COL 54vs MEL 91 Report Stats
SYD 117vs ADE 65 Report Stats
CAR 54vs NTH 118 Report Stats
GCF 83vs WCE 83 Report Stats
Sun, 02 AugTimes shown AEST
PTA 112vs STK 49 Report Stats
ESS 40vs WBU 127 Report Stats
FRE 84vs GWS 63 Report Stats
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Round 19
Fri, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
ADE 88vs RIC 52 Report Stats
Sat, 08 AugTimes shown AEST
COL 105vs CAR 87 Report Stats
WBU 128vs PTA 64 Report Stats
BRI 100vs GCF 114 Report Stats
GEE 95vs SYD 63 Report Stats
WCE 74vs HAW 88 Report Stats
Sun, 09 AugTimes shown AEST
MEL 92vs NTH 127 Report Stats
GWS 93vs ESS 61 Report Stats
STK 59vs FRE 96 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 20
Fri, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
SYD 87vs COL 76 Report Stats
Sat, 15 AugTimes shown AEST
ESS 59vs ADE 171 Report Stats
NTH 120vs STK 83 Report Stats
PTA 111vs GWS 90 Report Stats
GEE 85vs HAW 121 Report Stats
BRI 131vs CAR 67 Report Stats
Sun, 16 AugTimes shown AEST
RIC 138vs GCF 55 Report Stats
WBU 153vs MEL 55 Report Stats
FRE 80vs WCE 104 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 21
Fri, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
HAW 86vs PTA 108 Report Stats
Sat, 22 AugTimes shown AEST
COL 56vs RIC 147 Report Stats
GWS 44vs SYD 133 Report Stats
GCF 97vs ESS 95 Report Stats
STK 97vs GEE 97 Report Stats
ADE 131vs BRI 44 Report Stats
Sun, 23 AugTimes shown AEST
NTH 94vs FRE 83 Report Stats
CAR 78vs MEL 55 Report Stats
WCE 162vs WBU 85 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 22
Fri, 28 AugTimes shown AEST
GEE 62vs COL 110 Report Stats
Sat, 29 AugTimes shown AEST
GWS 132vs CAR 51 Report Stats
HAW 134vs BRI 62 Report Stats
NTH 73vs WBU 96 Report Stats
ESS 47vs RIC 74 Report Stats
GCF 51vs PTA 88 Report Stats
Sun, 30 AugTimes shown AEST
ADE 126vs WCE 69 Report Stats
STK 38vs SYD 135 Report Stats
FRE 108vs MEL 54 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 23
Fri, 04 SepTimes shown AEST
RIC 108vs NTH 67 Report Stats
Sat, 05 SepTimes shown AEST
GEE ($2.20)vs ADE ($1.67) 13:05SS
BRI ($4.25)vs WBU ($1.22) 13:45G
PTA vs FRE 15:50Adelaide Oval
HAW ($1.01)vs CAR ($17.00) 16:40MCG
SYD ($1.04)vs GCF ($11.00) 19:25SCG
WCE ($1.04)vs STK ($11.00) 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 06 SepTimes shown AEST
MEL ($2.40)vs GWS ($1.57) 13:10ES
COL ($1.28)vs ESS ($3.70) 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
AFL 2015
Overall standings
Team P W L D % Pts
Fremantle 21 17 4 0 125.10 68
West Coast Eagles 21 15 5 1 143.00 62
Hawthorn 21 15 6 0 156.77 60
Sydney Swans 21 15 6 0 124.11 60
Richmond 22 15 7 0 123.09 60
Western Bulldogs 21 14 7 0 116.76 56
Adelaide Crows 20 13 7 0 119.10 54
North Melbourne 22 13 9 0 106.45 52
View all
 

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