Jack Watts: Anxiety, pressure in football and mistakes

A lot of kids dream of growing up to be the first pick in the AFL Draft straight out of school.

But as Jack Watts, former Melbourne and Port Adelaide player, can attest, having that level of success at such a young age isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

“I wasn’t one of those kids who lived and breathed AFL,” he says in this episode of The Imperfects.

“I just loved the mateship and camaraderie from playing and then being pretty good at it, you get those good feelings from winning and being told you’ve done a good job.

“Then you get drafted and you’re the number one pick, so you’re meant to be pretty good — but the fairytale didn’t continue from that point on.”

In 2008, Melbourne were at the bottom of the AFL ladder. That meant it was given the first draft pick from unsigned players who were just finishing high school. The club chose 17-year-old Brighton boy, Jack.

“I was meant to be this saviour that’s going to turn the club around,” he says.

“It was a hard couple of years. You get a grace period where you get the benefit of the doubt that you’re just developing. But year two, year three, other guys from your draft are going off and playing grand finals and playing good footy, and we were still bottom of the ladder.

“When it was at its worse, it was relentless. [People would say] ‘Melbourne’s made the biggest mistake of their time as a club by picking this bloke’.”

The public scrutiny became so intense, it started to impact Jack’s relationships with his friends, his family, and his own mental health.

“It was hard. It’s impossible to ignore. I did my best to shut it all out, but you just can’t. Your mates are seeing you on the front page of the paper, your family is going through it … I couldn’t tell you how many times I’d come home, and mum and I would have these blow ups because she just couldn’t — and still can’t — get away from reading everything, watching everything, commenting on things.

“It was like she felt sorry for me and as a young kid, that just felt terrible. I felt like I was letting her down and letting everyone down. I just wanted her to treat me normally.”

In 2018, Jack was signed with Port Adelaide, hoping for a fresh start. But not long after, he was caught up in back-to-back controversies involving leaked illicit video and text messages.

“I was pretty much on the couch breaking down in tears at random times, feeling like it was never going to get any better,” he says.

“For that to come out, for any future employer or future partner or any future friend to know they can find that out at any stage, and straight away have that image of me — you feel like there isn’t any hope.”

The importance of being vulnerable

Hugh and Jack discuss how, around the time of the second controversy, Hugh had been doing some work with Port Adelaide as part of The Resilience Project. He saw Jack across the room “looking like the most devastated person imaginable” and decided to share a story with him of how a former partner had discovered some text messages on his phone that he wasn’t proud of.

“When you opened up to me that day … To hear that someone I absolutely admired had made a mistake in their life and that it’s not the end of your life and you can grow from it, move forward and still do great things — it was such a lightbulb moment for me,” Jack says.

“Even now, whenever I get down, I just think ‘Everyone makes mistakes. The greatest people in the world have made mistakes’.

“In the end, [the controversies] have been the best thing that has happened to me … It probably gave me a recalibration process of who I want to be.”

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