Life Lessons from “The Recruit” (AFL)

“The Recruit” is a reality TV show about Australian Rules Football (AFL). Its premise is to give players who were previously overlooked one last chance to make it at the highest level. Contestants must not have been previously selected to an AFL club list, be over 20 years of age and have not played in a senior state league in the past 2 years. The winner then gets drafted onto the rookie list of an AFL club.


AFL is a brutal sport. It’s as physically and mentally demanding on players as any, and if you don’t make it onto an AFL club list as a teenager, history says the chance of ever playing a game at the highest level is very slim. Players break through from the secondary leagues in their 20s, but the contestants on this show weren’t even playing at that level.


Obviously, the show hits close to home for me. The premise is brilliant – let’s find a group of the most capable, hungry 20-somethings in the country, and put the human spirit on full display with the carrot of one, and just one, AFL contract on the line. They give them up to 10 weeks of full access to world class coaches, trainers and facilities, that resemble what AFL players have access to – and make it more personal and intense still. The drama is both palpable and cruel as the contestants get laid bare, with their ultimate dream put under the severest of pressure – last chance, winner take all, with the whole country watching.


It should go without saying that from a show that’s as real as it gets, there’d be some incredible lessons to take away. Being as interested in people as I am, there’s an article to be written analysing every single contestant; instead I’ll just reference one of them and talk about my overarching takeaways from the show.



People Want it


In most fields – sport as much as any – people want ‘it’, badly.

One of the reasons I can’t expect anyone to take me seriously until results start doing my talking, is that most people get this very clearly. If the idea that I’m going to make it to Wimbledon, with all of the hurdles to get past, is primarily reasoned by “wanting it more than anyone else” – it won’t happen. Such doctrine coming from someone in my position would be the epitome of ignorance and delusion. Sure, I may want it as badly as anyone, but that alone is far from enough. The show inspiringly illustrates just how far some are willing to go for the chance to live their dream.



The Value of Relationships and Professional Direction


I’ve certainly been acutely aware of this one throughout my time as a poker player. In almost all cases, the current best poker players in the world have emerged as a result of having close relationships with fellow players, who push and help them to get better. Despite having some great friends in poker, I’ve tended more toward lone wolf status over the years – one of the main reasons it’s often felt like such a struggle, and a part of why I I haven’t reached my full potential.

Circumstantially there might have been more challenges in terms of often being the only Australian to play in my events, but ultimately this has been all on me. To really make strong bonds with people, you have to offer the other person something they value (of course it doesn’t have to be something elaborate, it could just be good energy).

Due to anxiety and stunted social growth associated with my health challenges, that was challenging in my early years of travelling to events; and when I realised the magnitude of what was required for me to reclaim my health (and one day live my dream), it was harder still – being a good eating or drinking companion is an easy way to offer value, but the necessary dedication to fixing myself meant a heavily restricted diet and no alcohol, thus less socialising.


On “The Recruit”, the true value of mateship and professional direction is strikingly shown. Regardless how badly the contestants ‘want it’, they wouldn’t get far without being put into a professional environment with top level coaches and trainers, who push them to reach new limits. And oftentimes, contestants are only able to complete painstaking activities with the emotional support of their friends, who ironically are in fact also their competition.

This is a big theme of Australian culture in general – life is about looking out for your mates, not so much yourself. In fact, the total absence of self-help is perhaps the undoing of many guys who don’t end up making it. Nevertheless, the adage that “A champion team will always beat a team of champions” is never so true as it is in the AFL, and that is clearly demonstrated on the show – the most likeable, ‘team players’ are the ones who get the farthest.


It’s fair to say then, that continuing to evolve socially has been a huge focus for me lately – and whilst my own dream is clear, nothing would bring me greater pleasure than playing a part in helping a friend live the same dream along the way. For now, there’s a limitation on how far I can progress with parts of a great team missing; when I find my ‘home’ in that sense, the upside is exciting to consider.



Pressure and Dogma Derail Dreams


The guy whose story was hardest for me to watch was a bloke named Rhett’s (season 2). Rhett was clearly all in on being an AFL footballer... you got the sense that from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed, it was all he thought about. He was supposedly a manic trainer who went to extreme lengths off the field as well.


Throughout the show he appeared incredibly stressed out and was frequently injured. His skill deficiencies were routinely identified by the coaches, and by the players in team meetings where radical honesty was encouraged. Every time he’d hear constructive criticism you could almost see the despair etched in his face, as he grew continually more overwhelmed by the idea that only the solitary best of the group could earn a contract – and others were getting more positive feedback.


There’s a certain ideology that’s inescapable in society when it comes to achieving great success, whatever the field. It centers around the need to outwork everyone else. If you do, you prove that you ‘want it the most’, the supposed determinant of life’s hierarchy of success.

You hear stories heralding the footballer who does a 5km run as a pre-warmup before the warmup, or the golfer who spent another 5 hours on the range after a round, searching for answers. The list is endless and not limited to sports – society champions people who go the extra mile.


Am I somehow arguing that this universally-held ideology is flawed? It may be too hyperbolic, but no, definitely not. I just think it needs a major caveat that you never hear given. That is, that that work needs to be smart work, tailored specifically to each individual. Where others may say that Rhett was simply not genetically gifted enough to be able to run faster or execute skills better, to me he was simply overtrained and unhealthily stressed. Who knows what his true potential was?

I really felt for him because, unlike tennis where a win is a win at any age, the barriers to entry the older you get are so severe in the AFL, that his "I'll rest when I'm dead" mentality was understandable and admirable. You just got the feeling that he was always trying to act the way he thought he was supposed to act, and that this in itself was acutely stressful and threw him out of alignment. Perhaps in his case, at times the best hard work he could have been doing was no work at all.


If I’ve any advantage in being at this point at 28, it’s that there’s been a lot of time to figure things out autonomously. Avoiding the unhelpful dogmatism that's prevalent in society and being my own life coach is what's required for me, and what I'd recommend for everyone.

Wanting it more isn’t going to get us to Wimbledon, but maybe a carefully-crafted, self-tailored plan - prioritising mind, body and spirit optimisation - to complement the desire, can give us half a chance!



I couldn’t recommend that you watch this show more. It may be hard to find online, but DVDs should be purchasable. I just picked up season 2 for myself (both seasons are great).


Signing off,

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