Caleb Serong ahead of Fremantle's clash with Hawthorn in round eight, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

AS WALYALUP'S co-vice-captain this season, Caleb Serong is in a new role. But the gun midfielder and Rising Star winner has also taken a new mindset into his fourth AFL season.

Serong joins Cal Twomey for this week's Q&A, discussing his sharp rise at the Dockers, why he took stock after last year's finals series, channelling his passion and emotion, the question he hated and the star rival he'd swap jumpers with.   

It's 7am when we're doing this interview. What are you doing up at this time?

I'm up early most mornings and I'm early going to bed as well. I'm a bit of an old man. My partner Chloe's a Pilates instructor so she left at about quarter to six to get to her class so we get up nice and early and usually it's good for me to be able to get to the club early and do some touch and recovery. There's a few of us who like to get in and get stuff done before the program starts. But at the other end of it I'm in bed by 8:30-9 most nights anyway. I love getting up early in the morning and just having an hour to set the day up.  

No pressure then to be good at Pilates?

She gets stuck into me when I don't go. We have a Pilates instructor at the club and we do that once a week but Chloe gets a bit flat when I don't go and see her for class once a week or something as well. When it's a tough exercise and I start complaining she gets stuck into me pretty quickly for sure. 

Is coming to the club feeling a bit better after the past three weeks with the form turnaround?

Naturally, yes. The last month has been a great reward for the effort we had put in before that. But something we've been trying to build from the top down is that we're not dictated to by our wins and losses and how we behave. We want to come into the club with a smile on our faces because if you don't do that you can fall into the rollercoaster quickly. We want to drive a really positive energy and be acting like winners. Whilst we weren't winning games we wanted to come in with a growth mindset and not throw everything out the window, understanding what was and wasn't working and things we could get better at. But naturally after a few wins everyone comes in a bit happier and with more confidence. 

(L-R): Sean Darcy, Nat Fyfe and Caleb Serong celebrate victory during round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Now you're 5-5. What did you throw out and what did you keep to get back on track? 

When we're playing our best footy it comes down to the contest and if you look at the raw numbers we weren't winning enough contests for the first month and a bit of the season. We weren't getting our hands dirty enough. It was on everyone and it's something we've done a lot of work on in the pre-season in the contest point of view. We've gone back to what was us. If we win more contests through the middle of the ground then it kickstarts our ball movement from closer to our goals rather than relying on our backs to generate all our ball movement deep in our defensive 50. 

Through that period your own form never wavered. What did you want to add to your game this year after the heights you'd already reached?

For me a big focus was the mental side of the game over the off-season. I did a lot of work on understanding what makes me tick and what makes me the player I am when I'm playing my best. A lot of it came down to getting it done inside. I'd like to think that over time I can be a really damaging inside and outside player but I understand my game starts on the inside and I really focused on that in the pre-season. The other part of the mental side of the game is consistency and in my first few years I'd go a bit up and down with the rollercoaster. I didn't deal as well with that. I rode the highs pretty high and got pretty flat on the lows. It's something that I've had to deal with in my life so far in being quite hard on myself and putting a lot of pressure on myself. It's accepting that can be the game – it's an oval ball, there's a lot of variables – but I know I can bring a real ferocity in everything I do. Whatever happens from there I can walk away now from a game knowing I brought my best. 


When did you realise you should wind that mindset back? 

It was more retrospectively. I finished last season with a pretty good finals series and last month of the season where I was playing some really good footy. I reflected on the year and was asking myself 'Why couldn't I do that every week? Why wasn't I playing like that from the start of the year?' which is a frustrating thing to look at in hindsight. But it allowed me to really process what was going on and why I wasn't able to do that, as well as the pressure I was putting on myself week-to-week. It didn't put me in the best position to succeed consistently. I was quite disappointed I wasn't able to play the way I did in the last month and a half of the season all the way through it. That was a challenge I set myself this year. I haven't dominated every game but I've been consistent so far. 

Your end to last season was phenomenal, particularly that final against the Western Bulldogs. How do you try to approach big games?

The beauty about the finals games I played in was the focus on the contest in tight and there are probably more contests in finals. It was almost a simplified version of footy with that tough, hard brand. I'd like to think I can succeed in those games so I didn't really approach it too differently. I get really excited by the opportunity we have in front of big crowds, great opposition and the challenge. I love the individual and team battles and as a midfield group we love testing ourselves against the best. 

It's taken shape in your leadership too. What has been the shift for you as a co-vice-captain this year alongside Andrew Brayshaw and underneath skipper Alex Pearce and are you aware of your standing as the spiritual leader? 

I'm not sure regarding the spiritual leader. I'd like to think that's potentially from the way I play and the passion I have for this footy club because I absolutely love it. From the moment I walked in I've felt a part of the family and have a real love for the club and I think that comes out in the way I play sometimes. From a leadership point of view in speaking to some mentors of mine, [the advice] was to not change. There was a reason why I was in the leadership group last year and I'm vice-captain now and it's because of what I do and my strengths. I just want to be me. We've got a really good leadership group around Alex and I really enjoy pushing this club forward. We're not there for a title or anything like that, we're in the positions to get this club where it deserves to be for the fans and people involved in the club and that's to win the first premiership. 

Fremantle vice-captains Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw. Picture: Fremantle FC

Does that dream of being the first premiership players at the Dockers add an extra element to it? 

Without a doubt. There's not many clubs any more that can say they could be the first, so it's quite unique to us. We've been close as a club a couple of times and there's been some heartache and real disappointment and you feel that through the people who are still at the club who got to that point in 2013 and weren't able to get it done. The passion they have really drives us. There's no one else at the Fremantle Football Club who can say they're the first if we get it done so that's something that would be really special and it definitely drives us. 

You are renowned for working hard with teammates in the rehab group and doing extra things with them. Who are the leaders you looked up to at AFL teams and what did you notice about them? 

Joel Selwood is one I'd watch and be automatically inspired by. We had Cameron Ling at Geelong Grammar and he was amazing to pick his brain as well and he set up a coffee or two to catch up with Joel which was incredible. He's got such a good balance on what leadership takes and what's important. Bob Murphy is another one who is at our club now. Watching him in the lead-up to the Grand Final in 2016 – you speak about spiritual leader and he epitomises that. The passion he shows is something that really inspired me to come out of myself more and try to show my passion and love for not only the club but my teammates too because he's got no shame showing his love for the people around him. 

One of my memories of you as a draftee was at Brighton Grammar, when you were skipper for Geelong Grammar. They went after you that day, you copped a big hit late after you had a kick. But you got back up and inspired your team to a tough win. Where does the competitiveness come from? 

The backyard. We had some good battles at home with my two brothers and I'm two years older than Jai and three-and-a-half years older than Liam. They were always coming for me and as a competitive kid I never let them beat me. Whenever they got close I had to put the foot down and let them know who was boss. That never wanting to lose attitude was probably tough for my parents who'd say 'Let them win, let them get their confidence up' and I never could. In hindsight it's pretty tough to say because we were only eight, nine, 10 years old. But I always had that in me. It's something I've had to channel in the right way. As a young kid you can come across as quite angry and emotional when all you want to do is win so it's channelling it in the right way. I hope it's perceived in a way that it's real passion, love and a want to win. I've worked on it and it's something I still need to get better at but in hindsight I've come a fair way from being the 12-year-old me cracking the shits at the umpire at Warragul. I'll continue to grow and it's just natural I can get pretty emotional when I cross the white line. 

Caleb Serong with coach Justin Longmuir after being drafted at pick No.8 in 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

Jai had a scare over summer with a heart issue that saw him sidelined for an extended period at Hawthorn. How did you deal with that as his big brother?

It was hard to hear because I did a lot of training with him over the off-season and saw the amount of work he was putting in. He took me to the cleaners in running, he was lifting some big weights in the gym, he was in a real position to attack pre-season and he did. It was tough because it was out of his control. He handled it a lot better than I would have – I'd have been pretty restless, agitated and angry but he's a lot calmer than I am. It was great to see him back on the weekend and have an impact. 

Jai Serong with some of his family ahead of the R21 match between Hawthorn and Gold Coast at UTAS Stadium on August 6, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Go back to 2019 and you were Vic Country co-captain as well. When did you start to think you might be heading to the Dockers?

The day before the draft I got a call from my manager 'Trots' (David Trotter) saying with picks seven and eight they were thinking of taking 'Youngy' (Hayden Young) and I. I knew they were keen on Youngy because they had seen him the day before and he'd let me know. I got on the phone to Youngy and said 'I think we're heading west'. It was a bit of a shock because I thought Deven Robertson was going at pick eight and I was going to a Melbourne side – Carlton and Melbourne had the next two picks. I didn't think Freo were going to take two Victorians but it's been the best thing for me. I love the lifestyle and being out of the hustle and bustle of Melbourne. Even when I head back I just want to go to the country – either to Warragul or Geelong where my partner's from. It was a weird 24 hours leading into the draft. You go through it every year but it wasn't what I was expecting but to get the call from 'Wallsy' (list manager David Walls) that night was pretty cool. 

Caleb Serong celebrates a goal for Vic Country in the U18 Championships on July 3, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

It all happened fast for you in 2020 as the Rising Star winner and the AFLPA best first-year player. Was it daunting to back that up? 

I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel the pressure but a lot of that is the pressure I put on myself. It's not really external. You hear things and you want to be the best player you can for the club and the people who support you but it's more that I want to be the best player I can be. I'm not a very patient person so I want to be the best I can quickly and that's something I've had to wrestle with and know there is a level of growth you have to go through before you get to that point and it's not always linear. It was about being aware that I couldn't just step in and be the best player in the competition in one year. I got to the end of my first year and that week after the Rising Star I had eight questions about the 'second-year blues' and all that did was frustrate the shit out of me. I was thinking 'Oh my God, what is this second-year blues? Get stuffed, that's not happening' so that motivated me to try and prove people wrong but a lot of the pressure comes internally. 

Caleb Serong with his Rising Star award in 2020. Picture: Fremantle FC

Your studies were important to you at school. What are you doing off-field now?

I started with commerce at uni and through a bit of investigation into the mental side of the game I started to do some psychology and really enjoyed that for a couple of years. Then I realised it was going to take me 12 years to finish the course part-time. I'm doing a diploma of leadership management now and I'm really enjoying that. I'm trying to invest in some hobbies as well to better my cooking and I really enjoy drawing. I'm pretty inspired by Cody Weightman with that. We chat a little bit about what's going on so that's been cool. 

I spoke to Zak Butters earlier in the year for one of these Q&As and he mentioned you as one of the players he loves watching. Who are the guys who inspire your footy?

Someone who I spoke about leading up to the draft is Lachie Neale. He's incredible with his size to have the impact he does so he's special. I love how clean he is and how fast he is with his feet so he's one I definitely watch. And I have to look after Zak as well, I love watching him. His game on the weekend was incredible and similar to Lachie, for someone who's a smaller midfielder to have an impact on the contest like he does is pretty special. It's been good to have a few chats with him and compare our ideas and focuses and what we do because I feel at times we play in a similar way. His attack on the footy is incredible which is something that inspires me to go a bit harder at the footy when I get a chance. 

I'm big on jumper swapping being more common. I reckon you and Zak should swap after a game one day given the mutual respect. 

That'd be cool. We don't play each other until round 23 so we've got a bit of time to set it up.