It’s a Tuesday morning in early September and Lin Jong is packing his bags for a return flight to Victoria.
The 27-year-old has spent the last three months in the Bulldogs’ Queensland hub, recovering from an ankle injury sustained just before the team relocated.
Lin hurt his ankle against North Melbourne in July. The next day, he scrambled into an Airbnb in South Melbourne, after his home suburb was classified as a COVID hotspot and locked down. Just days later, he was flying north for what he thought would be a few weeks.
It’s been a whirlwind experience, albeit one soured by the injury. Reflecting, Lin is frank.
“It’s been bloody tough. I've gone through my fair share of rehab but this has been the toughest,” he says.
“To put it in context, I haven't trained with the group once, so I’ve felt a bit disconnected from the team. I feel like I lost a bit of a sense of purpose and started questioning why I was even up here.”
Setbacks aren’t a new thing for Lin; he’s had his fair share over a nine-year career in the AFL system. One of the more significant challenges has been his experience of depression.
Last year, Lin took time away from football to focus on his mental health.
The break helped. He returned to the club in a better place and earlier this season, played his first game in almost two years. However, he knows his mental health is an ongoing consideration.
"The day you get diagnosed doesn’t necessarily make it the day that it starts. It’s always underlying, and sometimes you’re not educated enough to understand it," says Lin.
“I think I was in denial for a long time. I used to have this mindset that no matter how upset or sad I was, that things could always be worse. But by thinking this way, I actually wasn't taking into account how I was truly feeling.”
Lin spent a lot of time rationalising; convincing himself to keep things in perspective. It was his buffer, a shield against his own feelings.
“I wouldn’t let myself be upset at stuff that, in the scheme of things, didn’t seem like the biggest deal. Looking back, it ate me up inside. There were times when I was in high school when I vividly remember coming home from footy and I’d sit in the car for an hour, just miserable. Then I’d front up to my family and make sure everything seemed okay to them.”
Eventually, it came to a head. Lin was diagnosed with depression. Professionals suggested he stop playing football, at least for a while. It wasn’t the reason for how Lin was feeling, but they considered it a factor in heightening his symptoms.
At first, Lin resisted the advice.
“I put it off. I saw it as a selfish thing to do, given the team-first setting and culture I was in.”
Lin recalls the moment that proved the catalyst for his decision to speak out.
“I was struggling with injuries, and I ended up finally playing a really good game in the VFL. I was driving home and realised I wasn’t even happy about it,” he says.
“I just felt so empty inside.”
“That was an eye-opener. Afterwards, I had some more conversations and conjured up the courage to talk to the club. I told them, if I keep going I’ll do myself more damage than good. It was bloody nerve-wracking, but it was life-changing.“
At the time, Lin wasn’t sure how it would be received by the broader group.
“The ones closest to me sort of knew but I was nervous about what everyone else would think,” he says.
He needn’t have worried. The decision was well-received, not only by the club but the community at large. Lin was lauded for his courage in prioritising his mental health.
“The support I got was unbelievable,” says Lin.
“I couldn’t thank the club enough.”
The COVID-19 shutdown
When it was announced that the AFL season was to be shut down at the end of round one this year, there was a sense of disbelief among Bulldogs players and staff.
“I think everyone was in shock originally, because for a long time, everyone was pretty blasé about the whole situation. I remember driving home from the club and thinking, I don’t know the next time I’ll come back or if there’ll even be a next time.”
Even though players were unsure about when – or if – the season would recommence, they still needed to train. It was an unsettling experience, with facilities and resources stripped right back, and group sessions limited to just two players. Often, these took place at a public oval.
“We had already been through this gruelling pre-season. To then go back to an off-season program again, it was hard trying to find the motivation when we didn't know how long we'd have to be training,” says Lin.
From a mental health perspective, professional athletes are in a unique position. Many common strategies for maintaining wellbeing such as staying active, eating well and getting enough sleep, are the norm.
For Lin, finding different coping strategies was difficult.
“It’s hard to separate the job of being the best footy player you can be from enjoying your exercise. I didn’t even know what my coping mechanisms would be because as far as I was concerned, I had exhausted all of my options. I was already doing a lot of those things,” he says.
“A big part of it for me was actually talking to people about it, accepting it for what it was and accepting myself for who I was. Another coping mechanism was just being more self-aware, understanding my emotions a bit more and being able to openly talk about them and be vulnerable.”
Lin is in a good space at the moment, but he’s not naïve. Taking care of himself is an ongoing process.
“It’s important people understand that these didn’t cure my depression – they have been things that help me cope with it."
Dealing with anti-social media
There’s been plenty of commentary around professional footballers and social media in 2020. From negative comments to straight-up abuse and even death threats.
“It’s pretty awful at the best of times, but especially at the moment. I don’t get how people can find joy in tearing others down like that. People might think ‘they’re footy players, they get this all the time, they’d be used to it’ but that’s completely unfair," says Lin.
"We're just normal people and even though it might be some random sending these messages, words still hurt, regardless of where they come from."
For Lin, the first Australian of East Timorese and Taiwanese descent to play AFL, some of the abuse is racially charged.
When asked about whether he sees himself as a role model in calling out racism, he hesitates, then offers a considered response.
“I guess I do at times but for me, it seems like a lot of the time I’m just trying to fight my own battle. And if others follow suit, then so be it. I’m not standing up against racism to impress anyone – it’s because I think it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
“If that’s something that encourages others to do the same, it’s a bonus.”
There’s been a clear shift in approach, with players increasingly speaking out about the mental health implications of online abuse.
“People often say ‘just ignore it, they’re trolls and they want a reaction’ but I don’t think ignoring it ever does anything,” he says.
“No one deserves to be abused online for playing an average game of footy.”
While the last few months have been far from ideal, Lin has taken some learnings from the pandemic.
“I think people should have the capacity to open up and talk about their feelings, even if it’s just to vent. You don’t have to feel guilty about being upset.”
“It’s really good to keep perspective, but it’s about finding balance.”
“Your situation is your situation, and you don’t have to compare it to others.”