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Going Places: OCD and the search for perfection

Tomorrow's Heroes: Jaidyn Stephenson The Vic Metro Star oozes X-factor with his ability to make things happen

Monday, January 30, 2017 

AT THE end of every junior football season Jaidyn Stephenson has played, he's jotted down in a notebook how he went that year, his achievements and highlights, and the friends he made.

He started doing it as a nine-year-old in 2008, when he was first allowed to play with Upwey Tecoma's under-10s side in Melbourne's outer eastern suburbs. "Someone at presentation day said that my 46 goals and 26 points would probably be a record in the under-10s," he wrote. 

In 2012, he listed Patrick Naish, Lachlan Fogarty and Charlie Constable – all hoping to be drafted by AFL clubs this year – as being among the mates he met when trying out for the Victorian representative side. The next year's update has a picture of Stephenson running through his 100-game banner.

The notebook sits tucked away in his bedroom, crafted with photos and clippings glued to pages. At the end of this year he is aiming to add another entry, which would be the culmination of all of the previous ones: 'I got drafted'.

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Things are looking promising on that front. Stephenson enters this season as one of the draft pool's most exciting players. The half-forward can jump high and take big marks, he has the speed to take off and get around opponents, he takes risks that come off, and he is a regular goalkicker.

Stephenson, for these reasons, also starts his final under-18 season as one of the most hyped players in the draft pool. Most interested observers have already heard of him or watched him play. He just completed a tour of the United States with the NAB AFL Academy, and recruiters on the trip believe he is in the mix to be the No. 1 selection.

As his neat, homemade footy journal details, it has not happened overnight. As soon as Stephenson could cup his hands together, his grandfather would throw bundled-up footy socks to him to catch and then throw back.

His first footy was in North Melbourne colours – his father Darren pushed him the way of the Roos, but the youngster later chose to barrack for the Brisbane Lions.

Stephenson would spend hours at home upstairs dribbling the ball through his mum and dad's bedroom door, commentating to himself as he did.

"I'd say 'Riewoldt gets it, kicks it to 'Browny'… Brown goes back and kicks it for a goal!' I was always one of them – Nick Riewoldt or Jonathan Brown," he says.

When he was a little bit older, he'd wait at home for his Dad to return from a day's work to have a kick in the court outside their house. When Darren had had enough, he would set a rule: next time Jaidyn dropped a mark, they'd be going inside. So, Stephenson would concentrate even more.

"Sometimes I'd have to keep kicking for a long time," Darren recalled. "I'd have to start to kick it a bit harder or higher so he dropped one and we could go have some dinner."

The Thomas the Tank Engine sets he was given as a kid are still in boxes at home. Stephenson never really played with them; he preferred mucking around with a footy.

Stephenson showed genuine talent at junior level, and started making representative sides. He garnered a reputation for running from one end of the ground to the other with the ball. He was so quick nobody could catch him. He wasn't one for handballing much, either.

There were other sports, too. He reached black-belt level in karate, played representative cricket and was also a promising tennis player. At under-12 level he won the state tennis doubles championships with Jackson Ross, a teammate this year at the Eastern Ranges in the TAC Cup and another draft hopeful. He didn't like swimming, but at school sports would also do well in the pool, his competitive streak always coming to the fore.

Jaidyn Stephenson in his karate days. Picture: Supplied

"I was a shocking swimmer, but I'd make sure I got to the other end the quickest," he says.

Footy was his go, though, and things really took shape when he made his debut for Eastern's TAC Cup side as a 16-year-old in 2015 – two years before he was even eligible to be drafted.

It came as a surprise when he was picked for the final game of the home and away season as the 23rd man – a rule in the TAC Cup which allows younger players exposure at a higher level.

He was nervous – some of the opposition were three years older than him – but Stephenson spent more time on the ground than originally planned due to a teammate's injury, and duly impressed. He played the rest of the Ranges' season, including their Grand Final loss, and kicked 10 goals in the finals.

"I kept thinking each week that I was about to be dropped, but I kept getting a game. It was great for me," he says.

It was those performances that put him on the map earlier than most of his contemporaries in this year's crop. He backed it up with 23 goals from 11 games for the Ranges last year, plus one game for Vic Metro as it won the division one title at the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships.

"Playing as a 16-year-old in the TAC Cup made me think, 'Hang on, I might actually be a chance to get drafted' and since then, I've taken it really seriously," he says.

"I'm ready for this year, but I don't get stressed by the expectation on me. I don't feel any pressure, and even if things don't go perfectly I feel I'll be able to handle that. 

"This year is not just about getting drafted. It's also about what happens after that and how I am as a player. I don't want to be one of those players who gets drafted and then doesn't play a game.

"Once you get drafted, it starts for you. And after that you have to build on it to get your first game, your 10th game, and make sure you're running through quite a few banners."

Stephenson with his younger sister Tegan. Picture: Supplied

Monday, May 15, 2017

FOR AS long as he can remember, Jaidyn Stephenson has had a pre-game routine he needed to follow precisely.

He would make sure he got on a foam roller to stretch his calves, hamstrings (starting with his left leg) and back, and before running out – he would always be the last member of his team to enter the field – he would put his headband on and place his mouth guard in its assigned spot in his sock.

When out on the ground doing lane work, if a coach had a ball to pass Stephenson's way, he would decline to touch it. And when the siren went just before the first bounce, Stephenson would go down on one knee, fix up his sock and the tongue of his boot and take his mouth guard out. Then he'd swap legs and do the same thing.

"There have never been any consequences from doing it. I've just done it to keep my mind busy," he says. "It makes no difference if I don't do it."

Stephenson is open about his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which his parents acknowledge have always been part of his make-up. When he goes to bed, he places his phone in an exact spot. And when a rug at home is slightly askew he'll fix it up.

He smiles when explaining the thought process behind another habit. "If I'm touching a table with three of my fingers, I have to tap it with the other two to make sure they're not left out," he says.

"When people think about OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) they think it means you're uptight, but I'm not. I'm very laid-back. And if I don't get to do something as part of my routine or habit, then it's fine. I don't worry about it or get restless."

He's had to get used to that the past couple of weeks, after his Eastern Ranges coach Darren Bewick, a two-time premiership player at Essendon, called him in for a meeting following a quiet game last month against the Geelong Falcons.

He told Stephenson to change his goalkicking routine – he usually spins the ball as he walks in for a set shot – and that he should wind back the pre-game routine to get rid of all the habits. "Does it make any difference if you run out first or last?" he asked Stephenson.

"I disagreed, but I took it on board and since then have stopped running out last and I also changed my habits before the game. I didn't necessarily have to change but it's easier and means I can spend a bit more time relaxing before the game," he says.

"It never preoccupied me, but it's easier now that it's gone. I'll still be fidgety, but they’re random fidgets more than routine ones."

Bewick's feedback came after what has been a patchy start to the season for Stephenson. He kicked five goals in the opening round – including four in the first 12 minutes of the game – and then three the next week.

However, he was quiet against the Northern Blues' VFL side in April while playing for the NAB AFL Academy, and struggled to have an influence in the past couple of Ranges' games. But his quieter form in attack could be a blessing, for he has expressed a desire to move into the midfield.

Jaidyn Stephenson in action for Eastern Ranges. Picture: AFL Photos

Over the past two years Stephenson has proved himself as a goalkicker – on the lead he's too quick, at ground level too smart, and one-on-one he's too sharp, notwithstanding his lean frame. But AFL clubs have been waiting to see him take his unique skills into the midfield.

"It's unlikely he will play as a deep, leading forward at the top level so we obviously want to see how he'd go in the midfield or further up the ground," one scout said.

He's started to do that more recently for the Ranges. And although the results haven’t been phenomenal, Stephenson feels his game is improving. He's also starting to feel better physically after overhauling his diet.

In recent weeks he has struggled with a sore throat and nose, and been exhausted at half-time of games. He's had some blood tests that came back fine, but is taking it a little bit easier during the week after a busy start to the year. He also spoke with Paul Sealey, the Academy's high-performance manager, about adjusting his food intake. It seems to have worked.

"I thought I'd move to eating healthy. At lunch I'd have my two Nutella sandwiches, pack of chips and some chocolates – I love sweet food – but I've substituted that for protein bars, yoghurts and milk-based energy drinks to make sure I get the right proteins and fruits throughout the day. It's given me a lot more energy and balance in my diet," he says.

He needs to be firing for the next stage of his season, with the under-18 national carnival around the corner. After experiencing the step-up last year, he will go into the championships with a strong belief he can do some damage. Stephenson is humble and modest, but when on the field, backs himself against anyone.

"I've always had that confidence, where I tell myself I'm the best player on the ground and I'll need some stopping," he says.

"Sometimes opponents come up to me and I think, 'Good luck'. It's something I've always thought, mainly just to motivate myself."

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