THE GROWING impact of psychology as a performance tool in the AFL was captured perfectly in last year's finals series when the player under the brightest spotlight became the biggest star of September.
Geelong champion Patrick Dangerfield's pursuit of a premiership after playing 300 games was among the major storylines of last year's finals, with the Cats' recent September record adding another layer of potential pressure for the eight-time All-Australian.
In the lead-up to the Grand Final, Dangerfield did what more and more AFL players are comfortable doing and spoke about the work he had done with a psychologist to help manage the pressure that finals present.
The 33-year-old, who had played in five losing preliminary finals as well as the unsuccessful 2020 Grand Final, went on to win the Gary Ayres Award as the player of the finals, leading the Cats to the premiership and finishing runner-up in Norm Smith Medal voting.
It was a month that highlighted the Brownlow medallist's greatness as a player, but also his ability to seek the right type of help at the right time.
"Spending time and chatting with him was brilliant. Not that you view the game differently, but you view it as just another moment," Dangerfield told ABC Radio at the time of his interactions with NFL performance psychologist Michael Gervais. "So, you understand what it is, and we understand as a team and individually it's a game we want to win, but it's just another game."
Those Collingwood and Brisbane players preparing for the biggest game of the season on Saturday will be handling the increased pressure in different ways, but almost all will be utilising techniques they have learned from a sports psychologist or are working directly with one.
Author Anthony Klarica, who is embedded with Brisbane as the club's psychologist, has seen the pressure of the AFL environment – and the way players and coaches handle it – evolve over a career spanning almost 30 years.
Starting with Hawthorn in 1996, Klarica has also spent time working with AFL umpires, Melbourne, Carlton, again with the Hawks during their three-peat era, and with a variety of other elite sports and individual athletes. He has noted a significant shift in the pressure footballers face.
"The overall scrutiny of players is certainly something that has increased since the 1990s and the last 10 years in particular, through social media and an increased spotlight on players," Klarica, who has distilled his experience into his book, The Performance Mindset, told AFL.com.au.
"There's more television cameras, there's more data, there's more journalists. It's just an overall increase in scrutiny and that's been one of the real challenges for players. Every minute thing is discussed (and) dealing with that is a different skillset than kicking and marking the ball."
As pressure on players has increased, so has the importance of psychologists in football, with the role now viewed as a priority in AFL football departments to work across both performance and wellbeing.
All clubs employ at least one psychologist, while some clubs utilise two or more to work across AFL and AFLW programs, with the AFL Players' Association and AFL also providing access to an external network of providers.
Hawthorn was a trendsetting club in the mid-90s when Klarica first joined the AFL system, with the psychologist running the leadership group, playing a role setting club culture, and helping at both training and on gameday from the bench.
"It was a fully integrated model and the players fully embraced it," Klarica said, with other clubs later following the Hawks' lead.
It is common practice now for psychologists to be "fully integrated" into a club's football department and have a matchday role, either on the boundary line with players or in the coaches' box.
That shift has coincided with players increasing their openness to receiving support from psychologists, either to enhance their performance or assist their wellbeing.
Like Dangerfield last September, many players will now talk openly about the work they are doing with a psychologist, and its impact, if asked. They can work solely with the highly-credentialled club psychologists, while also having the option to seek an additional voice.
Fremantle forward Josh Treacy, who grew up in Cohuna in country Victoria, was never aware of the impact sports psychologists could have on performance and was sceptical when he arrived at the Dockers.
Frustrated with his WAFL form early in 2023, he spoke with assistant coach Jaymie Graham about what was going on and the pair decided it could be a good idea for the talented 21-year-old to meet with the club's psychologist Neil McLean.
Treacy eventually broke into the senior team in round eight and didn't leave, taking a step forward with his game and growing an exciting partnership with young star Jye Amiss.
"You could very easily see that it's not deemed tough or things like that, and I was probably a critic at the start and said, 'It's not for me, I've got nothing to talk about'," Treacy told AFL.com.au.
"But it has been a massive stepping stone for my game.
"I catch up with Neil once a week, and a lot of the time we don't even talk about footy. It's not like I had stuff to get off my chest, but it was just someone to talk to and just a relief of everything that came off me.
"Coming from country Victoria, you don't grow up around resources like that and you're unaware of the ability that they have."
Just talking to someone "who is there to help you in a really safe environment" was the key for Treacy, who addressed issues like over-thinking and trusting what he could do.
Performance anxiety is a common reason players speak with psychologists, according to the AFL's team of consultant psychologists, with others seeking support for motivational issues, daily stress, managing relationships with teammates and coaches, and lifestyle balance.
Learning new techniques to help manage distractions – such as their own thoughts and feelings, or external factors like social media and crowds – is also a key reason players consult a sports psychologist.
Adelaide ruckman Reilly O'Brien has worked with multiple psychologists, implementing practices like yoga and mindfulness into his weekly routine, while reading and listening to a variety of performance-focused materials.
"There's so much to learn and so much you can implement to help your game and other aspects of your life," O'Brien told AFL.com.au.
"A lot of young guys coming through are becoming more and more aware of it and clubs have invested in that space and had great success, so it is certainly a huge area.
"The big athletes in the world are renowned for their mental work and mindfulness, so it's certainly becoming more mainstream and it does have a huge impact on your performance."
Like Treacy, O'Brien has encountered mental obstacles like over-thinking and trying to control an outcome before it happens leading into a game.
Working with psychologists has helped him "create space for uncertainty and just execute your simple actions and let the outcome be the outcome".
"I certainly fall into a trap of trying to be in control of everything, and then you become very rigid and over-think everything you're doing while you're playing. That's been the main trap," O'Brien said.
"I think it's very healthy and beneficial for performance to be able to let go and almost surrender the outcome and just let yourself play and be free.
"You see players around the League – and teams – who play in that space without a sense of fear. They're just backing themselves in and not trying to control the outcome, and they're having fun doing it.
"I don't know what's happening internally at Collingwood, but watching them play they gives off those vibes. They don't play with any fear and that's the sort of space you want to get into."
Former Adelaide skipper Rory Sloane and midfielder Ben Keays are two of the Crows players O'Brien will talk with regularly about mindset and performance, with Keays coming around to the positive impact of psychology after some initial hesitancy.
"Early in my career I found that I wasn't really ready … but as you learn more about yourself and mature, I think that's where you can get the main gains psychologically," Keays told AFL.com.au.
"Now I'm a lot more receptive to working with psychologists and performance coaches and I've had a couple of people that have had a big impact on me. It's something you do have to figure out yourself.
"A lot of the tools that come out of it are really common and accessible, but it's what you pick, what you take in, and how consistent you are with it. I find it's more the chat and getting things off your chest [that helps].
"It can just bring you back to who you are and your authentic self and who you were as a kid …they flick the switch that gets you back to being that person. That's where I've felt I've made the most gains as a player."
There is no shortage of support available for AFL players now, with Klarica highlighting the important wellbeing role offered by player development managers – a role that didn't exist in AFL clubs in the 1990s.
Most clubs now have up to three full-time PDMs, including a full-time Indigenous player development manager, with the psychologist working with that team on how to best support individual players.
That team approach, and having coaches, doctors and other staff who are all on the same page to create an environment of support, was important to ensuring the wide variety of young people on AFL and AFLW lists enjoy personal and performance benefits, Klarica said.
AFL head of mental health and wellbeing Dr Kate Hall said the League would continue to promote and protect these roles through its soft cap policy and ensure players have consistent access to qualified mental health and wellbeing support.
This is done through mandating minimum spends for clubs on mental health and wellbeing staff and resources, offering incentives for clubs that invest more in these areas, and applying minimum training and credentialling standards for anyone in these fields who works with players.
"The link between wellbeing and performance is well recognised and our sport is one of the larger employers of psychologists. The AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) also has integrated sport psychology programs across sports," Dr Hall told AFL.com.au.
"The AFL has worked to ensure that club psychologists are a priority role in football departments, and club psychologists work across performance and wellbeing.
"The AFL also engages four performance and wellbeing consultant psychologists to work exclusively with umpires as an integrated part of their elite training programs."
According to Klarica, the stigma of working with a psychologist has been significantly reduced by AFL players as young people hear their heroes talk openly about challenges and the benefit of seeking help for them.
Rather than being a resource that players reactively turn to in a time of need, psychologists have become a constant source of "proactive" support, with that change within football clubs setting a positive example for people in the community.
"That has certainly increased to the point where it is now normal in clubs to work with the psychologist, and [for the psychologist] to be seen as part of the football department and a part of the program," Klarica said.
"This is great for the community because people see psychology from a proactive and preventative approach, which reduces stigma. People see it as helpful and it enhances help-seeking.
"Athletes now often have greater experience with support from a range of areas before they arrive at clubs, so they are very open when they arrive.
"Coaches have also had a far greater education and experience in the psychology space, which has further increased their awareness of the importance of the role and embracing the psych as part of the team.
"The AFL can be a pressure-cooker environment, so being proactive in building skills to cope and perform not only makes sense, but is essential, and coaches are key in that."
The role of psychology in a team environment does not need to be over-bearing, Klarica said, but its presence "shifts the culture and message about the importance of support of people".
"This can be a hidden benefit of the role," he said.
Fremantle midfielder Caleb Serong is an example of a popular young player and leader with a great ability to influence young fans.
In accepting his first Doig Medal as the Dockers' club champion this month – one of the biggest moments of his young career – he volunteered the work he had done with a psychologist as the number one reason for his outstanding 2023 season.
"There's a lot of doubts that come into AFL players' heads. You see the confidence out there on gameday and the flair and everything, but sometimes that's not natural," Serong said.
"I've had a lot of doubts in the last year and that's probably something I let fluctuate my game, and when my confidence is down I struggle to perform at times.
"That was something I really wanted to focus on, so I've gone to work on that with a sports psych … and that's helped me an unbelievable amount.
"I can stand here and say that's played the biggest part in me getting where I am this year."
Serong, who was the Dockers' best and most consistent player this season, worked hard with his psychologist to embed simple processes in his game that allowed him to "come back to the moment and be present".
The 22-year-old co vice-captain believes he has a lot still to learn in the space and will continue to work with his psychologist.
"There's so much that I still ask him and quiz him about. I'll call him at times a night or two before a game with a fair few doubts and nerves going through my head," Serong said.
"But sometimes all it takes is just getting it off your chest and verbalising it, and that diffuses what you're feeling and what's happening in your mind.
"That's something I'll continue to work on, and I've found great benefit in that. Finding that so young in my career is a massive benefit."