What 2020 has taught me about relationships

words by AFL Player, Wednesday 23 September 2020

Words by TYF ambassador Kara Antonio

I never could have predicted the way this year would evolve.

COVID-19 really threw a spanner in the works and I, like most of you, never thought I’d be living through a pandemic.

With the challenges and experiences this year has presented, I’ve also learned some key lessons that I can take with me.

As most of us would feel, it’s important to have strong people around us when we’re going through the ups and downs of life and our own struggles; although this hasn’t always been easy this year.

With limitations around face-to-face contact, the inability to travel to see family and friends and the day-to-day unknown of what’s next, I’ve had to dig in to be able to support those around me.

The end of the AFLW season

When the COVID-19 situation hit dramatically at the end of March and the season was cancelled, it presented a fork-in-the-road moment for how my Fremantle teammates and I were going to handle the situation.

We could have sat there and felt sorry for ourselves or done the reverse and seen it as an opportunity to connect further as a team.

I adopted the latter approach.

As a group, we knew what kind of football we could produce, but we also focussed on the off-field connection and developing our relationships.

Our coach, Trent Cooper, really led that charge and his investment in our football club and each individual player put us in the best possible position ahead of the 2020 season to advance our football knowledge and perform.

But, when there was talk of the season being cancelled we had to play every game like it was our last.

It’s not always easy to motivate yourself for training when you don’t know what you’re training for, but as a group our mindset was to be ready for whenever that next game would be.

With the guidance and support of Trent and the other coaching staff to adopt this attitude it created a domino effect down to myself as captain, the rest of the leadership group and then the younger players in the team.

Leading a group through a pandemic is not something I thought I would experience, especially when the landscape is changing every minute and hour, not only within the AFL industry but the broader community.

As captain I spent countless hours on the phone, in conversations with Trent, the AFL and everyone else involved to be the voice for our team and understand the direction we were going in.

That experience taught me that the language we used was critical to our playing group understanding what was happening.

But, it also taught me the importance of bringing fun and enjoyment to everything we were doing, especially when times were getting tough.

It was important for us to hone in on what we could control.

When you’re in the bubble of football you can become fixated on training and winning, but as a group we wanted to enjoy our time together because we didn’t know when it was going to be over.

In those moments, I really appreciated the people I had around me.

Narrowing my focus

I’m a positive person at the best of times and being in an outward-facing leadership role you certainly learn to wear a mask.

When the news of COVID-19 putting a premature end to the seasoncame through, I had a moment and found myself disappointed with what was happening but within the hour I was back at the club and fronting media.

With the need to process my feelings so rapidly, it helped me realise that there is so much more to life than sport and playing at the top level.

With the borders shutting I knew instantly that my wife, Ebony, and I were not going to be able to visit my family in Victoria post-season like we had planned.

I had to narrow my focus and decide on the pathway I was going to take during the lockdown period.

I felt that I wanted to use that time to work on myself and my personal development so I could be in the best possible shape both physically and mentally and be able to support those around me.

In my day-to-day life I am a structured and routine person so to be thrown a curveball that completely changes your routine was a big hurdle for me to overcome.

I might have been a little bit selfish but, for me, knowing that I needed to get myself right before I could help anyone else was critical.

Maintaining connection

When you live on the other side of the country to your family (or world), you have to find creative ways to stay in touch.

For Ebony, my family and I, we’ve been organising a weekly trivia evening.

Those couple of hours each week have been so important in providing something for us to look forward to.

In addition to trivia, there’s the little things we’ve been doing to stay connected.

On Thursdays, I play virtual basketball with my younger brother, who is currently in Grade 6 and being home-schooled, or we complete an online cooking class via Zoom.

It’s incredibly tough being away from family and not knowing when you can see them again, but we’re also lucky in our generation to be able to experience how advanced technology has become.

The biggest challenge for me is the uncertainty around when I’ll be able to get on a plane next and visit my Victorian family.

But, my biggest challenge has also taught me the biggest lesson – the seconds and minutes in the day that you get to spend with family and those that you care about are the most important.

Often we are so busy with our own lives and become entrenched in routine that we take the simplest things for granted, whether it be a sit-down meal at a restaurant or having a face-to-face conversation.

If I had to do it all again…

I hope we never experience a year like 2020 again but in saying that, I’m content with the way I’ve managed my mindset and physical and mental health during this time.

There have been days where it’s been tough, but I’ve also tried to stay positive and remind myself that much of what is going on around me is beyond my control.

This period has taught me a lot.

I’ve focussed on reading, listening to podcasts and developing myself, which has changed the way I look at the world, appreciate the people and things around me and take more time to process my decisions and thinking.

I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have been able to take more positives than negatives from this unpredictable time.

I’m thankful for the connections I have and the times I’ve been able to share with people during this period.

For coaches that have found themselves trying to maintain connection with their playing group this season, it’s important that you keep doing what you can to stay in touch.

Next time you’re out on the track, whenever that may be, take the time – just a minute or two each session – to get to know your players and really understand them outside of the four walls of your club.

We faced a number of challenges this season, but my focus on connection and relationships allowed me to support those around me the best way I knew how.

Taking a step back and having a look at the situation in front of you with a bigger lens is critical in helping to build relationships and create support networks that extend beyond being face-to-face.

More than anything, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all learned throughout this time that relationships and connections are the most important thing we have in life and footy definitely comes second.