Dayle Garlett quit Hawthorn to come back to WA in March.

Dayle Garlett quit Hawthorn to come back to WA in March.

While many were left scratching their heads when West Australian Dayle Garlett turned his back on his fledgling AFL career with Hawthorn, one Perth researcher was not surprised at all.

Last month, Garlett left the Hawthorn Football Club and returned to his home state after struggling with the demands of AFL football.

Senior research fellow at Curtin University's Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Sean Gorman said that for a young man to recognise that something once seen as a dream was not actually what they wanted to do showed "maturity."

"Despite any disappointment around it, he acknowledged it and called for the meeting to say 'I'm not happy here'," he said.

"I think that shows a level of maturity as opposed to internalising things, hitting the grog or lashing out, which players have done in the past."

He said professional football came with a number of expectations and demands and was "not for everyone."

Dr Gorman has spent more than a decade researching the place of indigenous players in the AFL and says it is in the interest of clubs to put in place support structures for players that allow individual needs to be addressed.

"I'm not talking touchy-feely, burning incense and singing koombaya, it's about providing support to foster talent and make people feel comfortable," Dr Gorman said.

Despite some people's misconceptions about indigenous players being a risky investment for clubs, he said research actually showed that Aboriginal players had presented better individual value to teams in the past than players from any other background.

"You look at sides that have been really successful like Sydney and Hawthorn and they have good cohorts of indigenous players," Dr Gorman said.

"It's about talking to players on an individual level to see what they need to do for players."

He said different clubs varied in the degree to which they did this.

'What is a pigeonhole?'

There is a disconnect between young indigenous players and the new environment they had been thrust into when becoming part of the AFL - one example being former AFL player Liam Jurrah, Dr Gorman said.

"He was picked up by Melbourne and was late for training one day and when he arrived he said he didn't realise training was at 7am.

"He was told the information was put in his pigeonhole to which he asked 'what is a pigeonhole?'

"Our understandings of how the business world works can be different to how others, such as indigenous people, think."

Dr Gorman mentioned another indigenous player who moved interstate and was placed with a host family.

"At meal time, which was a set time, he didn't interact with anyone."

When asked about why he was acting in a way that might be seen as anti-social, he said he'd never had a dinner time and that his family never ate at a kitchen table, Dr Gorman said.

"For some guys in the more extreme situations, meal time meant going out with guns or fishing nets and later sitting around the fire.

"They then go into this highly structured environment, so things like dinner or pigeonholes are actually big changes and might be the difference between staying and going."

The reality of homesickness

Dr Gorman said the notion of identity could act as a challenge for indigenous players in a number of ways.

This relates to the connections they had and have lived with all their life, many having not yet moved out of home or travelled interstate previous to being drafted.

He said this could lead to a feeling of isolation and/or homesickness and was often worse for those from more remote areas.

Perth-based health and community psychologist Dr Marny Lishman said homesickness was a reality for some people.

"For anyone who has grown up in a particular context and then are not in that context anymore there is an adjustment," she said.

"This could manifest in a number of ways such as loneliness, depressive symptoms, worry and missing people.

Dr Lishman said the only way to completely get over homesickness was to return home back to ones comfort zone.

"To get used to it you have to put yourself outside your comfort zone to some level, but the time it takes to overcome it is different for everyone, for some it is a week, others it could be months."

Dr Gorman said while it "seemed to be the case" that indigenous players who play for teams closer to home often transition to the AFL world better than those who move further away, it was not always the case.

"For others the extended family, obligations and kinship structure works the other way for them," Dr Gorman said.

"They might be getting hit up for money and tickets to games and feel more pressure by their family.

'It can be a double-edged sword."

Dr Gorman also mentioned that the rate of young indigenous people having children was higher than the general community, meaning some young indigenous players had even further responsibilities that needed to be taken into account.

The role of the AFL club

Whether their players are indigenous or not, Dr Gorman says clubs need to be better at communicating but despite some clubs acknowledging this, others do not or do not have the resources to do so.

"Others think, you've been given the opportunity, so prove yourself."

He said it was also partly the responsibility of players to speak up.

Indigenous liaison officers and player development managers were one of the ways Dr Gorman said clubs could cater better to player needs, describing them as "a conduit between the club and player group."

He said mentor programs were useful but clubs needed to focus on getting the right mentors and that they might not necessarily be a football player or a past player.

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