Challenges, Connection and Community: Jetta reflects on a tough season

words by AFL Player, Monday 1 February 2021

Words by Neville Jetta

I started setting myself goals for 2020 shortly after the 2019 season concluded.

I’d had some difficulties with injury throughout that season, and so I decided to look at every little thing from my diet all the way through to the way I was training.

I wanted to do everything to give myself the greatest opportunity to play my best football in 2020.

Working closely with Melbourne’s coaching and high performance staff, I set my first goal: return to pre-season training and complete 80 per cent of the training load.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but with hard work and the support of both the football club and my family around me, I was able to achieve that goal on the last day of the pre-season.

Despite completing that objective, I was still daunted by training and the subconscious fear that an old injury could resurface or I’d overwork my body.

Ahead of the season, I worked hard with my psychologist and other staff at the club to shift my mindset from worrying about the negative things that were beyond my control and instead focus on what I could control – looking after my body from a physical point of view.

It didn’t take long for my 2020 goals to shift focus completely with the worsening COVID-19 situation halting the AFL season indefinitely.

Hearing the news after Round 1 that the season would immediately go on hold shifted my thoughts to how the uncertainty of the situation was going to impact my family.

There were so many things beyond ours, and the community’s, control and as a family we needed to mobilise as quickly as possible so we could best navigate what was a challenging period.

As we became used to our new COVID-normal, and spending greater lengths of time inside at home, we embraced the opportunity to spend time together as a family – something not often afforded to us during the midst of the football season.

My wife, Sam, has been through some mental health challenges of her own and to be able to be at home and support her every day, while we experienced so much unknown during that period, was something I am very grateful for.

With football training suspended, our garage was converted into a makeshift home gym and I completed my training program from there.

I came across a quote (actor) Will Smith has used throughout his career to inspire him and used it for myself during that time – ‘Stay ready so you never have to get ready’.

I wanted to use the shutdown period to do everything in my power to be in the same, if not better, shape when we returned to re-start the season.

Even with so much changing throughout the year, I was determined to still keep some of the goals I had for the year alive.

I reflect back on that period now knowing that I can push my body to different limits I didn’t previously know I was capable of. Based on that knowledge, I still continue to work to train my body to be in a really good state both physically and mentally.  

The biggest shift for the year was moving into the Queensland high-performance hubs.

While the hubs presented different challenges for different people, myself included, there were a lot of positives that came out of that experience too.

When you break things down a little, people started going into survival mode a little bit and work through what they had to in order to get through that period.

The time spent together though, as a group, is definitely one I reflect on because we likely will not get that opportunity or experience again to be living with our teammates and coaches.

You spend a lot of time at the club during the year, but it is different when you’re suddenly having breakfast, lunch and dinner together; you’re travelling to and from training as a group; and you’re limited to where you can go, so you’re even at the same coffee shop together.

As challenging as that could be at times, it also gave you a greater sense of who your teammates are as people.

I can be guilty of this myself, but sometimes you’ll walk into the club for training and put a bit of a wall up or a different persona, just to get through the day or a week without anyone really knowing what’s going on in your life or who you truly are.

To be able to spend time with the people that make up the football club – from coaches, to fitness staff, players and admin – in a different setting I think really helped everyone get a better understanding of one another.

It also gave the coaches another layer of understanding into the individuality of the playing group – they were able to better understand who we are not only as players, but fathers, partners, brothers to name a few categories.

Personally, I had a challenging season with injury and I wasn’t able to gain any continuity in my football.

I’d had a niggling right quad injury hanging around for a few weeks and eventually it got to a point where I ended up hurting it badly enough to struggle with my training load.

That was a really tough period for me and I found it difficult to find an escape

One of the things I really tried to do to counter that was to be present and focus on my family on my days off.

I also spoke to the coaches about putting in some different plans to help give me that period of separation from work (training) and then going home to my family.

In Melbourne, I live quite a drive from the football club – approximately 50 minutes depending on traffic – so I use the drive to and from training to process my day and separate the football club from my home life.

That might be making a phone call to my parents, close friend or my psychologist, but it becomes a great time for me to be able to switch off.

We didn’t have that in the hub, and so I arranged with the coaches to hire my own car and drive myself to and from our training ground. It was only 15 minutes but it became a crucial time in my day.

The coaches were really supportive of that plan and took the view that if that helps you, then do what you need to do.

It meant when I got home I was able to be present as a father and a husband.

The hub also presented unique opportunities for Sam and our two children to develop stronger bonds with the other Melbourne families.

Often, they’ll only connect pre-and-post game and it doesn’t give much time to form relationships.

Instead, in the hub they were able to come along for the journey with us, experiencing more of the day-to-day life of football. 

They were able to develop some really strong relationships with the other families – the Joneses (Nathan Jones’ family) were next door to us and the Melkshams (Jake Melksham’s family) on the other side.

Looking back, I wouldn’t have been able to get through the three months living in the hub if it wasn’t for my family being with me, and I’m sure the other players feel the same.

One of the biggest things from last year is that I am able to overcome challenges (we all are) – no matter how hard I thought they may have been.

I think it’s natural as human beings to put a ceiling on what we think we can achieve – managing our expectations or maintaining that safety net – but when you’re faced with those moments you can continue to find strength to push through.

From a club perspective, one of the most pivotal learnings was staying connected even when you’re away from the club. As we trained away from the main group, often isolated in our own spaces, it became challenging to find the required motivation.

But, as a group, we made a conscious effort to continue connecting and supporting one another.

For local coaches and community football clubs, the impact of not being able to train, play and socialise together would have been significant.

When your Thursday night team selection dinners are taken away and you’re stuck at home or in lockdown, that can become mentally challenging it’s so important, even as we move towards a COVID normal, to ensure that we’re still prioritising mental health and social connection.

If you can continue to support your teammates, coaches, volunteers or anyone else involved in the club, you’ll have better people and a better football club around you.