Students of the game
As featured in the latest edition of Docker Mag
Some Fremantle Dockers have struck the perfect balance beteween life on and off the field – they go to university. Analysing opposition game plans isn’t the only form of study these players do. Story: Costa Kastanis
The average lifespan of an AFL footballer’s career is 3.9 years. With this statistic in mind, it is no wonder that players are looking for ways to ensure their own well-being long after their careers have ended.
One of these avenues is tertiary study. The Fremantle Football Club currently has 10 players involved in an academic degree at university. Some of these players were already studying before they were drafted, while some have begun degrees during their AFL career.
One such student at Freo is club captain Matthew Pavlich, who last year completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Movement at the University of Western Australia, eight years after he commenced the course.
“It took me a lot longer than I had anticipated to begin with and there were some challenges along the way with training and travelling,” Pavlich said.
“Guys would be playing cards on the plane, whereas I would be getting out the study books and trying to do as much work as I could coming back and forth from the interstate trips.”
Pavlich said his time at UWA was a fantastic experience and one that he was grateful to be involved in.
He said, apart from the odd occasion, his fellow students didn’t treat him differently.
“There were a couple of times when I was asked for autographs in lectures, which is an interesting thing to be asked for at University, but I was happy to oblige,” he said.
“By in large, though, the other students and lecturers treated me like a normal student.”
Pavlich, who is involved on the AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA) board, said it was paramount that footballers retained the one day off per week.
His message to younger players is to always keep an eye on the future and make sure they find a balance in their lives.
“Study is not for everyone, but from my experiences, having that balance in my life to go and do some study, or be involved in something completely outside of football is very beneficial,” Pavlich said.
“It gives you that balance to come back to the club and be enthusiastic about your football.”
Pavlich is now planning to embark on a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
“This next period I want to touch back on some business and admin, and get a bit more of a clearer understanding of how the commerce world works,” he said.
“Once footy’s over, hopefully I’ll be in the business and corporate world from Monday to Friday, with potentially some media on the weekend.”
Another senior player who has been studying during his football career is Luke McPharlin. The experienced defender is halfway through a Pharmacy degree at Curtin University. He has been completing 1-2 units a semester on campus.
He said balancing his study with his football hasn’t been easy, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I never wanted to be solely a footballer,” McPharlin said. “I wanted to keep the brain ticking over and develop other areas of my life.”
He said it was important for footballers to have something to fall back on when their careers were over.
“You don’t hit the ground with such a thud,” he said. “Some guys can really struggle post-football if they have nothing.”
McPharlin admits that he is a typical uni student – stressing over assignment deadlines and upcoming exams.
“I was cramming pretty solidly for an exam last semester, which I managed to scrape through,” he said.
“I tend to leave things to the last minute but I’ve managed to get through it all so far.”
Matt de Boer is studying Law/Commerce at UWA, but he hasn’t encountered any problems with assignments and exams.
“I haven’t had to cram because I stay on top of things,” he said.
De Boer started his degree straight after high school and managed to finish one full year of full-time study of a five-year full-time course, before he was drafted. He is now doing it part-time, which will take him a fair amount of time to complete, but he said he enjoyed the balance study gave him with football.
“It helps me take my mind off footy,” he said. “Sometimes you can get caught up with footy. Study is a good release.”
Like many of his academically-inclined teammates, de Boer utilises the football-free Tuesday to attend campus and study.
“I’ve scheduled my tute for the day-off, but if I can’t make another tute, UWA is handy because they record the lectures, so I can go online and watch the lecture,” he said.
One of de Boer’s favourite times to study is when the team travels interstate.
“Getting on the plane every two weeks gives me a bit of dead time to knock off a bit of study,” he said.”
Jay van Berlo studies Geophysics at Curtin. He only has six units left of a three-year-degree, but he has been forced to defer until 2011 because this year’s second semester timetable wouldn’t fit in with his football commitments.
After completing year 12, van Berlo began an Engineering degree at UWA, but it wasn’t for him so he pulled out. His older brother, Nathan, who currently plays for the Adelaide Crows, was doing Geophysics and told Jay that he was enjoying it.
“We always did the same subjects at high school, so I thought I’d give Geophysics a crack,” Jay van Berlo said.
Van Berlo said there have been times when juggling his football with his study has been tough to pull off, but he has managed.
“It’s been hard when I’ve had a couple of assignments building up, especially when I’m travelling away and focusing on training,” he said. “But I still get through fine. It’s tough but manageable.”
He hopes that his degree may one day land him a position in the mining industry.
“It’s a highly travelled job,” van Berlo said. “It could take me anywhere in the world. Who knows where I might end up?”
Having been overlooked by AFL recruiters year after year, Michael Barlow knows all too well that relying on a football career to carry you through life is a mistake. He began an Urban Planning and Development course at Melbourne University after he left school.
After having completed four years of the course while unsuccessfully trying to break into AFL ranks, Barlow’s dream came true when he was drafted by Fremantle. He chose to defer his study until 2011 and concentrate fully on his first go at the big time.
As history would show, Barlow became an elite player of the competition in 2010. But, in a reminder of how AFL careers could be ended by one cruel twist of fate, a broken leg ended his season in round 14.
Barlow is still confident of getting back to his best, but he is even more aware of the need to plan for life after football.
“I’m a big wrap for study while playing footy,” he said. “Footy can become tedious and time consuming, and you can become quite stressed about it.
“To have that release through study or work is definitely a necessity.”
Barlow plans to finish his degree and then start working one day a week to gain experience.
Perhaps most importantly for any one of Freo’s tertiary students is the level of understanding they receive from both the club and their university institutions. Van Berlo said the club has been great in helping his university understand his commitment.
“The club helps organise my studies, and if there’s ever a problem with me completing an assignment or attending a class, they will call the uni and let them know my situation.”
McPharlin said the club was especially good around the high-pressured exam periods.
“Around exam time, I can speak to (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Jason Webber and he is very flexible with training times,” he said.
Tertiary study is not the only pathway Fremantle’s players can take to help secure their futures after football. Some players are enrolled in Tafe or other short courses, while every first year player must complete a one-year apprenticeship program. Six players are part of Team Freo, which conducts weekly school footy clinics and visits. And, the club’s leadership group are all currently involved in a front-line management course.