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Head in the game

At the height of his professional career, AFL player Tom Downie didn’t expect to be struck with incapacitating anxiety. Now a Beyond Blue speaker, he tells his story to help others who may be experiencing similar concerns in high pressure environments.
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Your adrenalin is pumping, boisterous crowds are cheering and the thrill of the game you love is propelling you onto the field to test your skill and endurance over the next 120 minutes. 

For professional athlete, Tom Downie, this was a familiar and welcome experience while playing for AFL club, Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS) from 2012 to 2017. 
Until it wasn’t. 

Growing up in regional Victoria, Tom’s big love in life was definitely sport. Tall and athletic, he was particularly adept at football and basketball, making regional and national teams as well as landing a sports scholarship at a reputable sports school in Ballarat. Before long, Tom was ‘fixated on sport’ and intently focused on pursuing a career with a professional club. Just two weeks after finishing Year 12, his dream was realised when he was drafted into the AFL league for GWS on a two-year contract.

‘Playing sport has always given me a feeling of complete freedom,’ Tom says.

Laura Valic


Tom (centre) with his team mates after winning a NEAFL premiership in 2016
Tom with girlfriend Simone

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.

Tom with girlfriend Simone and his grandfather

‘The most difficult part was it was all I could ever ask for, starting out my professional career as a paid athlete.’ 

With wisdom that seems beyond his years, Tom says he felt he needed to learn more about himself, focus on his mental health and recovery more than anything else. ‘I had my whole life ahead of me and I didn’t want to keep falling into these holes. Choosing to retire took a big weight off my shoulders; it [inspired] curiosity to learn about the anxiety that gave me low self-esteem, and controlled my thoughts and performance.’

As a sporting figure, the news was soon public but Tom says that led to a new chapter for him. ‘I had a lot of people reaching out to me who said “Thanks for sharing your story, I feel better about myself”. So I spent the next six months taking public speaking opportunities and just being open about “why”.’

Tom moved back to Melbourne at the end of 2017 and in between taking on study and varying jobs, including landscaping, he joined Beyond Blue as a speaker which he continues today. ‘It has given me tremendous pride and satisfaction – talking about and having other people take something out of my story. Speaking out has really helped me in my recovery.’

Today, Tom is focused on keeping on top of his mental health, which includes an exercise regimen, healthy eating, plenty of sleep and maintaining personal relationships. He has also tried strategies from meditation to Chinese medicine.

‘I’ve learnt that anxiety is something to manage, it will go up and down and sometimes will come out of nowhere, but I understand it better now,’ he says. ‘All my good habits came from fear of returning to that dark place. The lesson I learnt from that period in my life is I need to take my mental health seriously because it could easily become unsafe.’

Tom is also hoping to make a comeback into the sport he still loves. ‘I’m 27 now and my athletic career won’t last forever but I know what I am still capable of and there’s still a small window left to do that. It’s what gives me the most inspiration and drive, and being my best self is being a sportsman. I feel confident that with what I know now, and that experience behind me, I can manage professional sport again.’

Information & resources

HIA and the HIA Charitable Foundation have teamed up with Beyond Blue to provide resources to help people manage their mental health in the building industry. HIA understands the stigma surrounding mental health and is offering members the best tools to tackle this issue head on.

Find more information and resources on managing mental health, including fact sheets, checklists and videos 

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 at any time and speak to someone who can help you.

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