BIRCH: Why I was nearly delisted, and the call that saved my career

ALTHOUGH the journey of AFLW is about more than any individual, the prospect of playing my 50th game this week has provided an incredible opportunity to reflect on just how much this game has taught me, both on and off the field.

Having come from an elite netball background, my beliefs and values have been consistently challenged since switching to Australian Football.

It has taught me a tremendous amount about myself and others. It has given me a chance to learn about the importance of fighting for equality.

It has also given me a greater understanding of the complexities behind being a female athlete in a once male-dominated industry.

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Libby Birch and Bri Davey join Nat Edwards to dissect round nine of the NAB AFLW competition

It feels like only yesterday that I made my debut as a rookie for the Western Bulldogs against Fremantle at Whitten Oval in the historic inaugural round of AFLW on February 4, 2017.

Despite the success, my journey hasn’t been an easy one. Behind the scenes it has been at times brutal, but that’s all part of elite-level sport.

At the end of that first season in 2017, after playing every game as a “cross-coder”,  I was told that I was on the chopping block.

The Bulldogs needed ready-made stars and I was a fair way off that level.

But I knew I just needed one more pre-season under my belt to prove that I could be a worthy contributor. In the end it was Chris Grant, the Dogs' head of football and club great, who believed in me enough to give me that chance. 

That next pre-season, I did the only thing I knew how to do: work bloody hard. I took that momentum into the season and I was nominated for the NAB AFLW Rising Star Award and was part of a premiership.

The Western Bulldogs celebrate winning the 2018 AFLW Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Since then, I’ve been privileged to play for two clubs across six seasons without missing a game – a stretch that has included four finals appearances and a premiership.

Recently I was asked what advice I would give to my younger self. It got me thinking. What would I tell first-gamer Libby Birch before she embarked on this crazy AFLW journey back in 2017?

My answer would be simple: "There’s more to life than football."

In my experience, the pressure cooker of the short, sharp seasons can at times completely blind you. Often over the past few seasons I’ve felt like footy was the only thing that has mattered in my life.

Libby Birch is wrapped up in a tackle by Kate Hore during a Melbourne training session on October 7, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The 2020 season was a wonderful team experience in my first year with Melbourne. In the process I somehow also gained an All-Australian nod, which was a very special moment in my career, but soon I allowed it to become a huge, unrelenting weight on my shoulders.

The following year, football became my everything. It was my way of dealing with the internal pressure of backing up with another standout season. I wanted to keep improving my performances so much that, in my mind, nothing I produced was ever enough.

LIBBY BIRCH Enough clear air, it's time to align our season with the boys

Until this year, it’s always been in my nature to chase the feeling of the next achievement. The euphoria and relief that came from that next high was what made me tick. My insatiable hunger for incremental improvements on the training track and on game day, and for another great win with my team, became an unhealthy obsession.

Yes, this perfectionist mindset pushed me to be better, work harder and find a way to perform across 50 consecutive games, but as I have learnt, it is a fine line to walk and at times can come at a cost.

(L-R): Melbourne's Shelley Heath, Libby Birch and Sinead Goldrick celebrate a win over Gold Coast during round five, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

This tunnel-vision last year prevented me from seeing that there was more to football than just winning. I’d relied on outcomes to bring me happiness, rather than being grateful for the innocent, yet very important daily joys that fill the journey.

It wasn’t until the end of the season that I realised I had attached too much of my self-worth to my football. It’s the No.1 thing an athlete should never do – and I was trapped in it. The usual lows experienced within a football season had become feelings of failure and shame.

I wasn’t enjoying the game anymore, and I realised my time in football would be limited if I didn’t find a new perspective as soon as possible.

So as I ponder my 50th game, one of my proudest achievements has been learning to love the journey again, completely and utterly wholeheartedly.

Libby Birch finds some space in round one, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Ironically, it’s been about approaching every game as if it was my first. To focus on absorbing every moment and its detail, and to avoid staining it with past or possible future events.

The emphasis has been on engaging in the little day-to-day moments with teammates and the people that make this game so great. Enjoying the grit it takes to back up training session after training session, game after game. Appreciating the environment I’m privileged to be in and how I can continue to contribute to it. Embracing the responsibility of doing what I can to make this game better for generations to come. But most of all, it has been about having a balanced life outside football.

LIBBY BIRCH Come on, boys. Join the push for a historic joint CBA

Nurturing the things that make me whole: my family, my partner, my friends, my groodle Cooper and my work, both as a physiotherapist and in the media.

Running through the banner at Casey Fields on Saturday night with my red-and-blue family before our final round clash with Carlton will be another very proud moment.

Yes, 50 games is a significant personal milestone, but I’m most excited about having another chance to play alongside my incredible team mates as we attack this game and then the final series. Above all, I know and I trust that my more balanced outlook on footy and life will have me much better prepared for whatever happens next.

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