'Don't expect to be a hero': AFL great's advice to draftees

AFL great Luke Hodge has offered some advice for AFL draftees this year. (Getty Images)

I sat down with Cam Rayner for a coffee the other day, to catch up after the Lions’ off-season break. We ended up having a really interesting chat about our different experiences as number one draft picks, 16 years apart.

Cam was picked up by the Lions in 2017 and, compared to me, he was able to stay pretty calm throughout the whole process.

I was nervous during the lead-up to the 2001 draft because I knew I’d have to move away from Colac, where I’d grown up. Fremantle had the number one selection before they traded it to Hawthorn, and West Coast were number three. I was very aware that following my dreams meant leaving home behind.

Cam wasn’t worried about that at all. His mindset was that if he was going to play AFL footy, he had to be prepared to move wherever. If that meant moving up to Brisbane, so be it. If it meant moving away from his mates, he trusted that they’d understand.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Luke Hodge of the Lions thanks fans after the loss during the AFL Semi Final match between the Brisbane Lions and the Greater Western Sydney Giants at The Gabba on September 14, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

It was a good mindset for him to have, because at the end of the day most footy clubs are quite similar. And these days staying in touch with your family and friends is easy, with FaceTime and social media.

But back when I was getting drafted all I had on my phone was calls, texts and that game Snake that everyone played. It’s a different world now.

My Advice to Draftees

When a number one draft pick comes into a club, people often expect an immediate impact. If a team has been poor for a few years, fans think, ‘Ahh that’s ok, we’ve got the number one selection, we’ll pick up a star and go from there.’

But if things don’t go to plan early on, the expectations that have been placed on a talented young rookie can start to weigh heavily on them.

I think that’s something we’re really seeing this year with Gold Coast having the first two picks. Everyone’s saying the same thing, ‘They’ll put those two young kids in with Ben King and the rest of the boys, and they’ll turn the club around in a few years.’

That’s just opinion, but it can be damaging because it places expectation on those draftees to be guns straight away, which isn’t good for a young footballer’s development.

LAUNCESTON, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 19: Luke Hodge of the Lions speaks with players during the Brisbane Lions AFL pre-season training session at University of Tasmania Stadium on December 19, 2017 in Launceston, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Every young player matures at their own pace; whether that’s physically, emotionally or with their professionalism. Some rookies will be guns from the get-go, like Sam Walsh and Dustin Martin, who transitioned seamlessly into AFL footy. Other blokes take three, four or five years to reach the point where they can play at that level week in, week out. I was one of those players.

I was lucky I had a few coaches and senior players that taught me what I needed to do, and were willing to forgive a few mistakes I made. I’m lucky they could see the potential in me and were patient in helping me reach the level I needed to get to.

My advice to draftees; don’t come into a team and expect to be a hero. Take your time, listen to the people around you and gain their respect by having a strong work ethic. The rest will come in time.

That was more or less what I told Cam, when I phoned him after the 2017 draft.

I’d just signed with the Lions myself, so we were both going to be entering a new environment together. I wanted him to know that I was there for him, if he needed any advice on how to deal with the media or how to handle pressure.

It was about empowering him to talk to myself, Dayne Zorko or Lachie Neale whenever he felt uncertain about anything. I didn’t want him waiting until he was 24 or 25 to pick up good habits, like I did, because as much as young blokes want feedback, they shouldn’t be getting it from social media.

I think Cam’s handled things really well since then. I thought a couple of his best games last season were in the finals. He liked the occasion and I think that says a lot about the kind of player he’s going to become.

Of course, he hears some commentary, both positive and negative, but he’s mature about how he handles that.

People hope a first-round draft pick will eventually grow into the kind of player who can be best on ground every week, running through the midfield. Cam will develop into that player, I have no doubt about it.

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