Professional sport is a cut throat industry, and the margin for success is slim. But for the players, the dream is everything.
Dustin Martin. Daniel Riccardio. Ash Barty. These are household names who have excelled in their respective sports and are famous for those achievements. While they found success, there’s a host of others who are aiming to make a career out of playing the sport they love, still hoping to hit the sweet spot. And there are athletes who tried to make it but fell short for one reason or another. No matter the case, every athlete’s journey starts with a dream.
Getting to the professional level
Josh Schoenfeld is a former professional athlete, who played 15 games for the Gold Coast Suns in the AFL over five years. A self-confessed “footy head”, he says his upbringing was similar to a lot of kids in WA. He was just a kid who was enjoying playing the game he loved. He played for Peel Thunder in the WAFL under-19 competition in his draft year.
However, Schoenfeld says he had to work to get his opportunity with Peel, saying he grew as a player over the years he was there. At the conclusion of the 2015 season, he was taken by the Suns with pick 34 in the national draft. It was an incredible experience.
“It was a dream come true,” he says.
“That journey from the start of that year to the end of that year, it was unreal.
“It was a great day and a moment I’ll remember forever.”
Schoenfeld was excited at the opportunity to be in the professional sporting environment, with the midfielder saying the people and other resources around him only helped him get better as a player.
In round 18 of the 2016 AFL season, Schoenfeld put on the red and yellow for the very first time, as the Suns were victorious over the Fremantle Dockers, the very team he grew up supporting.
Doulton Langlands too had experienced the highs of top level sport, playing three games for St Kilda in 2019. He says the experience was like living in a different world.
“I think once you’re out of the system, you take it for granted,” he says.
“You’re in your own little bubble there.”
Langlands had dreams of playing in the AFL from a young age. Growing up in Albury, New South Wales, he wrote a note to himself, declaring his aspirations to play football at the highest level. His talent was recognised by the GWS Academy, and he made the 550km journey north-east to Sydney every few weeks to compete in tournaments.
At 16 years old, he began playing in the TAC Cup (now NAB League), the under-19 competition based in Victoria. It’s there where he pressed his claims for a chance in the AFL, with the Saints taking a chance on him in 2017 in the Rookie Draft. He says the reward was worth the sacrifices he made growing up.
“A lot of the boys that I used to grow up with would all like partying and doing all that stuff,” he says.
“I’d just be running laps and trying to get fitter.”
The halfway story
Joe Owen is in a different situation to Langlands and Schoenfeld. He’s an amateur golfer who has aspirations to play on the professional golf circuit. His love of golf blossomed when he was 11. Originally from New Zealand, his family moved to Queensland, before settling in Perth. The family home happened to be close to a golf course, where Owen gave the sport a shot, and he’s been infatuated ever since.
“When I first started playing, I was so obsessed with it,” he says.
“I just wanted to play all the time.”
The realisation of making golf a career option dawned when he found his skills improving enough to catch up with those who had been playing for longer. While going through high school, he settled on the decision: professional golf was the dream.
Now 25, Owen sits among the top 25 amateur golfers in the country according to the World Amateur Golf Rankings. He says the transition from amateur to professional is the ability to play well in all conditions. He outlines one major factor separating the two.
“The biggest difference is knowing your own game, and knowing what you can and can’t do,” he says.
“The top pros, they manage their games really well and they don’t make big mistakes, or they don’t compound errors. They’re, sort of, just smarter about it.”
For him, money is the most important thing for a golfer to transition to the pro circuit. He says golfers can spend thousands just to compete in tournaments, with no guarantee of prize money at the end. For him to become a professional, means a financial risk.
“I think once you’re out of the system, you take it for granted.”Doulton Langlands
When it comes to AFL players, Schoenfeld says a lot of the players were similar in terms of skill and ability, but it was timing that separated people. He feels while players have to earn opportunities at senior level, it can sometimes be a roll of the dice. He says some players come into the side to fill a role, when the coaching staff see something they like. Other players don’t get the same opportunity:
“Sometimes it’s different elements that work against them, both individually and collectively and within a team environment. It’s so competitive, there’s always going to be blokes that might feel hard done by. That’s just the industry, pretty cut-throat.”
The common trend among athletes
It’s a term used by all three athletes when it comes to performance. In each case, the athletes went through periods of frustration. Periods when they felt like they were preparing to the best of their ability, only to suffer disappointment.
Owen says his frustration is performance-based. He says it can be frustrating when things don’t go your way on the course.
“It can feel like your whole world’s coming down,” he says.
“You put the work in, and then you don’t get the result.
“If I’m not playing good golf — you kind of identify as a golfer — so it’s, what else are you going to do?”
He says it’s important to have a good support network around you for times where you aren’t playing well, and to help with the stresses of tournaments.
When asked about the difficulties of the AFL environment, Langlands too felt the pressure of performance. For him, while he is appreciative of the opportunities he earned at the top level, he also found it challenging to be in an environment surrounded by the game.
“It was probably sometimes footy just consuming you with everything you do, rather than having an outlet,” he says.
“I probably didn’t recognise that early enough.”
Schoenfeld has similar feelings. He says there were a lot of things he hadn’t considered before reaching top level football.
“The whole environment is challenging both physically and mentally,” he says.
“The pressures that come internally, from people within the club, and then, of course, outside sources like media, friends, family.”
He says while the environment was tough, it allowed him to flourish and thinks it is a good platform for people to grow from.
“It’s so competitive, there’s always going to be blokes that might feel hard done by. That’s just the industry, pretty cut-throat.”Josh Schoenfeld
The dream becomes a nightmare
Both Schoenfeld and Langlands had their careers cut short at the end of 2020, after they were delisted by their respective clubs. When asked about the topic, their responses were professional.
Schoenfeld says he left it all out there in terms of his effort. He never gave up and always attempted to overcome the obstacles in his way. He says he did everything he could in terms of his attitude towards his career. In the end, he says it’s the reality for many who come through the system.
“At the end of every year, there’s blokes that have to be moved on,” he says.
“I fell out of favour and wasn’t part of Gold Coast’s vision going forward. I gave it my best shot, in the end it just didn’t fall my way.”
Langlands says it was his on-field performance in the end that was his downfall, but admits the AFL environment in 2020 was tough.
“A lot of the games we played were 11 v 11 and on junior grounds,” he says.
“The coaches, a lot of them got the axe as well, so it was hard to get to everyone and help. I felt like, in that environment, my development went a bit backwards rather than forwards.”
Owen is open and honest when it comes to his dreams of becoming a professional. He says there’s a concern he may not get there. He tried getting a commerce degree, but felt it got in the way of his golf development.
“I’ve gone all in with it.”
Owen says he’s comfortable with pursuing his dream, knowing he has different options should a professional career fail to eventuate.
“I love the game, so if I didn’t play, I’d probably get into coaching or something involved with golf,” he says.
“It’s not like I’d have to start again, like at ground zero, I actually have some sort of experience in the industry.”
“It can feel like your whole world’s coming down,”Joe Owen
The sport’s role for former players
For every code, there is an organisation run for the players to help them across a variety of issues should they arise. One common topic across these associations is the programs for past players and their transition into new careers.
Carla Dziwoki is the player transition manager for the Australian Cricketers’ Association. She says the transition for past players begins while the athletes are still playing professionally. Players are encouraged to work with the player development managers while still under contract. She says the career paths post-cricket are up to the players.
“The big focus, especially throughout the whole of the cricketers’ lifecycle, is trying to find things that cricketers are interested in outside of the game,” she says.
“It can be cricket specific, or we support education and training grants for any kind of tertiary studies or diplomas, paid courses, or professional development if people want mentors.”
The contracted players receive a handbook, detailing the opportunities available to them to upskill, as well as success stories from former players both in and out of the system.
Schoenfeld says he tried a variety of university courses while playing AFL, but decided on construction management which he is completing back home in WA. He is very appreciative of both the AFL Players Association and his new WAFL club, East Fremantle, for helping him transition to his new life. He says the association keeps in touch with him regularly, and offers opportunities for him to take on.
Langlands admits taking on a skill while being on an AFL list would have helped not only his life after footy, but his career at the Saints. He says having an outlet would have been important, especially during life in the hubs during the pandemic, where the luxury of freedom to do whatever was not available. He is now studying to become a personal trainer in Perth, where he feels the bigger grounds and dry conditions in comparison to Melbourne will help his football development.
Both former players are satisfied with their new lives after football. However, they would both happily trade it in for another chance to chase their dream.