Almanac Philosophy: The toll of losing

For the first half of this season my writing contributions have run parallel with the on-field work of the Brisbane Lions:


Ordinary efforts for the majority.


Occasional demonstrations of coherence and skill that suggests something exciting might actually be possible before a total and complete reversion to ineptitude.


A failure to produce anything at all on a number of occasions.


If that isn’t art imitating life I don’t know what is.


Despite my best intentions not to care about the Lions season following the game against Collingwood, round 12 happened. The Lions losing by such a margin to the almost-next-worse club in football (hat tip to Essendon, I’m sure we all can’t wait for Round 18) stirred something inside me.


Having spent the last few weeks traipsing through the denial, anger and bargaining stages of grief I’m fairly certain I’m finally moving out of the depression stage – my desire to sit in a dark room and to listen to a bunch of songs written in D minor is finally subsiding – towards that sanctuary of zen: acceptance.


With acceptance comes reflection rather than judgement, empathy rather than blame. I’ve started to think of things on a more personal level in an attempt to understand what’s going on at the club. I’ve started to think of how others might be feeling. It’s quite… strange.


This season I started playing footy again for the first time in over a decade. Nothing serious, just Friday night third grade. We’re not a good team. We train twice a week when we can (most of us only once) and get out on Friday nights to give it a red hot go. Earlier this season we were beaten by triple digits for the first time and I can clearly remember driving home from the game feeling totally despondent. I remember leaning my forehead against the cold tiles during my second shower of the night and feeling physically ill about the performance. After I’d towelled myself dry I walked out into the lounge room and said something like the following to my girlfriend:


“If I feel like this after losing a third grade game, how must the professionals feel after they get completely pumped?”


My thirds team has suffered worse losses since that game, even though we’ve played better and improved, and I’ve found that I take each loss to heart a little less. I’m not sure if it’s because there are genuine positives that come from each game or that, like anything, after it’s happened once any recurrence seems comparatively less harsh. The first cut is the deepest and all that Cat.


As I’ve watched Brisbane play this year I keep coming back to the thought I’d had post-shower: What must a Lions player feel after each big loss?


Trying to fathom what it must feel like to be absolutely godawful at your job is difficult to comprehend. I suppose it’s different for everyone. Some people may not put much energy into their job so they probably couldn’t care less, other people dedicate their entire lives to a career, to work. These people often become their jobs, in that they cannot disentangle or separate their own identity from their chosen profession. I’d always believed that this was a personal choice, the effort that you chose to put into your job, but football seems a profession where that choice rarely exists (although this article on ex-Tottenham defender Assou “football is not my passion” Ekotto, a self-identified mercenary, is an interesting one – Ekotto and his passionless approach to professional sports would appear to be an outlier.


I’m sure there are many wonderful positives to being able to answer “I’m a footy player” when asked “So what do you do?” at a Sunday barbecue. However, given the Lions current situation I’ve started to reflect on the negatives that may lie within that response too. Commitment and dedication are part of the job description of a professional AFL player in a far more tangible way than at most 9-5s. Footy is too complex to have people in the team who aren’t performing or holding up their end of the collective team bargain. If you don’t commit, if you don’t buy-in, then you won’t succeed. That’s the standard narrative for success in footy. There are few professions that provide such a clear assessment of a person’s ability to perform their job on a weekly basis.


It follows then, that if you’ve dedicated yourself to being a professional athlete, then you’ve dedicated a certain level of emotional investment in footy. Getting flogged by other professionals can’t feel real good. I’m sure each of the players deal with the emotions that continued hidings bring up differently but I’m also sure that there is only one message coming from the coaching staff at the club: This is a challenge, we’re still learning, we need to keep putting in each week, keep focusing on execution, tough times don’t last tough men do.


That’s the mantra in footy. In all sport really. I haven’t been involved in a sporting environment where that message hasn’t pervaded. It’s eternal and logically, it’s never wrong. If you keep turning up eventually the tide will change and if it doesn’t, well, history will judge you kindly for your persistence.


It’s easy for me to shrug off a triple-digit hiding in a Friday night thirds league. I’m not a footy player, I just play football. When I wake up on Saturday morning I’m not going to a team recovery session and de-briefing to talk about how terrible the team has played. When I head to work Monday morning I’m not going through game plans for the next game. There are many more important things in my life than work. But if your profession is your identity, how do you feel about yourself when the facts suggest that you’re bloody terrible at what you do?


But what happens to the players who occasionally doubt the wisdom of that universal footy club creed? What happens when a player can’t see where the improvement comes from? How does a player summon effort when they don’t believe the tactics or the coaching are working? What happens when a player stops drinking the Kool-Aid?


I wonder how many will continue to answer “I’m a footy player” when asked what they do in the years to come. Something tells me that those who do won’t be fielding the question at a barbecue in Brisbane.


  1. E.regnans says

    G’day Brin,
    D minor – love it.
    Really interesting questions here, that cut to the heart of a questioning life, I reckon: who are we? Why do we do what we do?

    The resilience project work is interesting, both in that it exists, and in that professional footy clubs have seen a need to employ it.

    Good on you with your Friday night lights.
    And with your questioning.

  2. Good one Brin. Lots of people have shitty, pointless jobs on far less pay than professional footy players. BUT footy players are forced to share their humiliations very publicly. Tough stuff. But nothing for it but persisting until “something” (new recruit/coach/on-field synergy) turns up.
    The floggings will continue until morale improves.
    Was contemplating along the same lines about my golf. Have played socially and modestly all my life . Preparing for retirement I had decided to make it a more purposeful pursuit. New clubs. Coaching. Practice.
    Same old shit on Saturdays in competition. Why do we bother?
    PS I know where you can get a near new set of graphite Cobra Fly-Z XL clubs on Gumtree. POA. Sigh.

  3. Dave Brown says

    Interesting Brin. Particularly in the context of elite footballers who up until that stage in their life have for the most part known nothing but success. And remembering that the average footballer gets spat out of the AFL system after a few years as a still very young man, the concept that who you are and what you do might actually be different is equally hard to fathom for mine.

    I’m learning a bit about the concept of ‘making’ that is quite popular at the moment. It seems a central and very attractive tenet is that to be a successful ‘maker’ (regardless of what you actually make) you have to create a space where it is safe to fail, repeatedly. Otherwise it shuts off an entire way of development and the potential to master difficult things. It’s a concept I’m trying to apply with my kids (with limited success) in all of their endeavours, including sporting. I also wonder if such a concept is at all compatible with the modern world of football and, if not, the impact that has on developing young men.

  4. Brin Paulsen says

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    David – Resilience is something that needs to be embedded through all levels of development if you ask me. I know most sporting clubs now try and funnel their development players into some form of study just to diversify skills but it goes far beyond that. Gratitude, mindfulness and empathy. There’s no negative outcome if more people embrace those practices.

    As soon as I learn HTML every one of my posts will include an embedded Spinal Tap youtube video…

    Peter – “You get out what you put in” is the truism that cuts both ways: positively and negatively. I do find it incredible how a decision to apply a greater focus/ more energy into something completely reframes the emotional response to it. I suppose that this only exists in performance-based activities, dedicating yourself to watercolours in retirement probably wouldn’t have the same effect. But where’s the fun in that?

    DB – I’ve heard of similar “fail fast, fail early, fail often” type mentalities in computer engineering design, and programming which acknowledges that learning comes through failure rather than success. It feels counterproductive (how can failure be good?) but it appears to be the prevailing methodology in a number of fields at the moment. I think you’re right that this kind of environment needs to exist for players to learn in but as I mentioned above to Peter, anything that’s performance based will eventually come down to just that: performing.

    ‘Executed’ seems a perfect word re: performance in a game. If you didn’t, you will be.


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