As Australia’s youngest AFL club, the Giants had much to prove when it entered the competition in 2012. Over time, the club’s on-field wins saw it gain a growing fan base and membership, and with that came certain expectations for success.
‘It’s a very high pressure industry,’ Tom explains. ‘It’s no different from any other job which requires you to perform at your best, but it’s so results-driven and everyone’s contract is constantly winding down. You have to prove yourself all the time, from players to staff to coaches – everyone is [fighting to keep] their position.’
No stranger to the pressure of competing, Tom was now being paid to play ‘at the highest level’ with increased scrutiny, including media, which was a very different ball game to his junior competitions.
There came a day when that sense of joy and freedom he usually experienced while playing football drastically diminished. Tom was 22 and in his fifth year with the Giants when he found anxiety was beginning to have a detrimental effect on his game.
‘The frightening part was it stopped me from performing,’ he explains. It would take over me in a way which made me feel physically off. I would freeze up in particular moments on the field which caused me to lose confidence in my ability.’
While he had some ‘informal and formal’ conversations with the club psychologist, Tom reached out to an external professional in his fifth year to try to get on top of the anxiety. He was prescribed medication and after playing out the end of the season, he briefly felt he had overcome his anxiety.
But going into his sixth year the butterflies, doubt and negative thought patterns returned. On top of that he was experiencing guilt and frustration for having to sit on the sidelines for games and training sessions. The continuing anxiety led to a bout of depression, and while he says he had club support to take the time to get well, the expectations he had for himself were just as difficult to control.
‘I put a lot of pressure on myself and I was unsure if I could hold my nerve,’ he says. ‘I asked to go back on anti-anxiety meds, but it wasn’t strong enough; I couldn’t control the feelings in my stomach or the worry about my performance and fear of failing. I was going to two psychologist appointments a week and trying different techniques, like breathing exercises, but I couldn’t do anything to get it to go away. There was no quick fix solution.’
So at 24, and after the offer of another two-year contract, Tom made the tough choice to retire from AFL.