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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.

<p>

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.

<p>

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.

<p>

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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