In the aftermath of his sacking as Carlton coach early last June, it became apparent to Brendon Bolton how all consuming the role had been across the three and a half seasons he had been in charge of the Blues.
- Brendon Bolton says it is common for AFL coaches to face mental health challenges in the job
2. Bolton backs building strong support network for coaches, especially if they are facing mental health struggles
3. He is relishing his new role as Hawthorn’s director of coaching, as it is rewarding to “help someone else”
“It becomes your lifestyle. It’s not a job, it’s a way of being,” Bolton told ABC Grandstand in his first media interview since he was sacked.
“I had gone from 2,000 miles an hour in terms of work to zero, so that was a shock in itself and I had been working incredibly hard for a long time.
“So, there’s a bit of a numb feeling there.”
Bolton’s comments reveal much about his experience as a head coach in the AFL and why he wants support to be given to those holding down these high-profile roles so they can maintain balance in their lives and look after their mental health needs.
The emotional toll of the job was clear to see when Bolton addressed the media following the announcement of his sacking just over six months ago.
He is mindful that winning just 16 of his 77 matches as coach of the Blues attracted significant “external commentary” and “public scrutiny”, although he admits the poor on-field results meant he made himself work harder and that also built “layers of pressure”.
The 40-year-old believes it is vital coaches are provided with strong support networks to cope with the pressure of the job.
“It’s really important that we do understand the magnitude of the coaching caper at the senior level and [why] we support senior coaches,” Bolton said.
“The game is now much bigger than one man and all the support that we can give is really important.”
Bolton faced the additional burden of being considered a saviour by some at the Blues when appointed as head coach prior to the 2016 season, as he took over the reins of a once-proud club whose last flag was won in 1995.
But Bolton found that the responsibilities of being a head coach in the AFL are “far broader” than simply trying to improve results on the field.
“Some of the issue is when they take on the role, and even assistant coaches, they’ve got 50 players that they treat like sons,” he said.
“So, they’re really invested in the 50 players. On top of that, they’ve got 15 coaches that they’re really invested in … so, all of a sudden coaches take on a hundred people, let alone their own family and themselves.”
Bolton’s mention of family is particularly pertinent, as the time AFL coaches get to spend with those closest to them can often be compromised.
“If you had a few games interstate, without realising it you could work 20 days straight in the month and probably not really be as present as you should be with your family,” said Bolton, who is the father of two young children.
“That’s a little bit of a worry and we need to work out how to have good balance.”
Mental health a priority for the AFL
Bolton is not the first AFL coach to highlight how crucial finding balance is outside of the game.
Some time after his departure from the Blues in 2015, Mick Malthouse — who coached VFL/AFL teams across 31 seasons and won three premierships — talked about waking up one morning and having it dawn on him that he had slept through the night for the first time in 30 years.
Maintaining sound mental and emotional health has become a priority for players in the AFL, with many citing this as one of the most important issues in the league.
Lance Franklin, Tom Boyd — who retired from the AFL at age 23 earlier this year — Travis Cloke, Alex Fasolo and Jack Steven are among a number of players who have taken breaks during their careers to help cope with mental health struggles.
St Kilda great Danny Frawley, who died in a single-car crash near Ballarat in September, had lived with depression for a number of years and received treatment to deal with his mental health.
“Everyone is now maturing in their understanding of what it means to be healthy,” said Bolton, who has had discussions with the AFL Coaches Association about coach welfare.
“It’s more than just the physical health, being active and eating well. It’s social health, being able to interact with multiple people, even though you’re busy.
“Emotional health, being able to control your emotions and consider how you’re treating others … there’s all that involved. The industry now has that on the agenda.”
Following his departure from Carlton, Bolton has faced the challenge of losing his father to pancreatic cancer, an experience he said brought his family tighter together.
He has been able to spend more time with his wife Louisa and their children Ned and Rosie, and went through “a lot of reflection” before tackling a new role with Hawthorn as its director of coaching.
Bolton may have cut his coaching teeth in his home state of Tasmania, but it was at the Hawks that his skills were honed under the guidance of his mentor and four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson before he accepted the Blues’ head coaching job.
His position at the Hawks is one that Bolton is relishing, as it strikes at the heart of what he wants to see more of in the AFL — coaches being able to access support when needed.
“It’s one where you get a little feel-good about yourself in terms of helping someone else,” he said.
“It’s interesting when you help someone else how it gives you a little bit of an up, so I’m looking forward to it.”
By Alister Nicholson and Luke Pentony