How Nick Haynes overcame anxiety and learned to love footy

A footballer tries to handball the ball away while being tackled.

Giants defender Nick Haynes shares his experience of anxiety, and how he has changed his ways to deal with it.

Nick Haynes can remember his panic attack in detail. It was 2013. After earning his place in the GWS Giants AFL team the year before, he’d been dropped for the first time after a particularly bad game and told by coaches his performance wasn’t good enough.

After a couple of weeks in the reserves he got picked again for the seniors, but this time with baggage.

Extra pressure and fear.

“Coming back to the AFL, that pressure of performing again at the highest level after you’ve been dropped as a young kid, was a bit too much,” Haynes said.

He’d always experienced what he thought was just nerves, but this time he was in a hotel room, by himself, three hours before the game and thinking of all the terrible things that might go wrong.

“I just started not breathing and kind of like hyperventilating and it turned into, like more of an attack,” he said.

Luckily his teammate, house-mate and best mate for seven years, Adam Kennedy, was there to help as the team boarded the bus from the hotel to the ground.

A footballer tries to handball the ball away while being tackled.
Nick Haynes in action in 2013. He would be in and out of the Giants team throughout that season.(Getty Images: Stefan Postles)

“I just said to him, ‘I really need you today, I’m really panicking,’” Haynes said.

“He could see it in my eyes — like how much panic I was in. He’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s OK, we’ll get through it. Just get through this bit and we’ll get to the stadium, and we’ll get through it.’

“And I think just telling someone, saying I need help, was probably the best thing I could’ve done that day.”

It was the first time Haynes realised he had to cope and learn how to live with anxiety.

Working through the impostor syndrome

It’s something Caroline Anderson sees all too often in her job as a performance psychologist, and a feeling she also experienced representing Australia in taekwondo at the 2004 Olympic Games, when she was overcome by performance anxiety.

She had all the symptoms: a racing heart; nausea; cold sweats.

A woman with long brown hair.A woman with long brown hair.
Caroline Anderson represented Australia in taekwondo at the 2004 Olympic Games, and was overcome by performance anxiety.(ABC)

“I can remember walking out to compete in the stadium and almost having a surreal out of body experience until the match started,” she said.

“I also experienced a lot of self-doubt — thoughts that told me I wasn’t good enough. I definitely had moments of impostor syndrome walking in the middle of the Olympic village seeing all the amazing world-class athletes around me and thinking ‘I’m just Caroline from the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. What am I doing here?’”.

Which is what Haynes had been experiencing throughout his football career.

He was the number 7 draft pick in 2011 and one of the original Giants in a team full of young stars.

But even as he rose up from the juniors to representative teams and eventually the AFL, he never felt like he belonged.

A young footballer attempts to break a tackleA young footballer attempts to break a tackle
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MAY 14: Nick Haynes of the Stingrays is tackled during the round six TAC Cup match between the Northern Knights and the Dandenong Stingrays at Preston City Oval on May 14, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)(Getty Images: Robert Prezioso)

“I came to the AFL system thinking everyone loves footy and just breathes it and just has the best time,” Haynes said.

“That was my perception of AFL football — everyone says, ‘Oh you’re living the dream, how good’s that?’

“I thought, ‘I don’t feel that,’ so I felt bad, because I didn’t feel like I was living the dream.”

It’s a story Anderson has heard many times in her practise helping elite athletes.

“I think it’s natural to doubt and in fact to have low confidence. I think, it’s natural for our confidence to kind of go up and down. It’s an emotion, it’s fleeting,” Anderson said.

Sure, AFL footballers get paid well, and get to do the thing they love, but the flip-side is that professional football is a cut-throat profession where the average career span is just a handful of years.

A bad game could mean getting dropped; a bad season could mean losing a contract, a livelihood, and a lifelong dream.

“It is a ruthless game, and you have to be consistent,” Haynes said.

“You have to wake up every morning, put 100 per cent effort every day or else you’re not going to make it.”

But even after Haynes had his first panic attack, he didn’t seek help.

“I didn’t think it was acceptable of me to go to the doctor and say I was really nervous,” he said.

It wasn’t until he saw the club psychologist that he began to understand his condition.

“She kind of said the word ‘anxiety’ and that made more sense in the way I was feeling, and it was it was more than just nerves.”

A footballer with long blond hair holds a ballA footballer with long blond hair holds a ball
Haynes has learned to embrace several different methods to handle his anxiety.(Getty Images: Mark Metcalfe)

Journey to acceptance

Haynes said that acceptance and understanding were the two major steps in his journey.

“That [acceptance] was the big one, the self-awareness to accept what was happening,” he said.

“Two, what my triggers were, why was I feeling this way? And probably a lot of it was self-doubt from growing up and the experiences I had.

“So working through the self-doubt and the self-confidence and realising that I was good enough, that I belonged.”

But he said his great leap forward came after the Giants were narrowly beaten in the 2016 preliminary final by that year’s eventual premiers, the Western Bulldogs.

It was a gut-wrenching defeat for the Giants, who lost the chance to play in their first grand final.

A footballer stands with hands on hips, looking downA footballer stands with hands on hips, looking down
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 18: Nick Haynes of the Giants looks dejected after a loss during the 2020 AFL Round 18 match between the St Kilda Saints and the GWS Giants at The Gabba on September 18, 2020 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)(Getty Images: Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

“I remember the prelim, still feeling like I still need another stepping-stone to get over this [anxiety] and meditation was a thing that I just latched on to straightaway, and it benefited me straightaway to be able to be present,” Haynes said.

“With the anxiety, you think worst-case scenario.

“So, with football on the weekend, you prepare for a game and mentally you’re going in there and thinking I’m going to feel flat I’m playing on this guy, he’s going to beat me.

“And to have that mindset going into a game, you’re never going to perform well.”

He said he realised his thoughts and actions were linked and were dragging down on not only his football, but also other aspects of his life.

“Meditation taught me to be present, because when I was thinking about the future, it drains your energy for the present and you aren’t in the moment and that impacts your relationships, your jobs, your enjoyment, your overall satisfaction,” Haynes said.

Anderson refers to “anchoring” athletes in the present to help them overcome a range of problems related to anxiety – like the elite athlete she recently saw who was no longer able to throw a ball.

“You know, once upon a time their brain could be on autopilot, or their body was on autopilot using muscle memory to perform the task,” she said.

“But when our mind starts to interrupt that with other thoughts like, ‘Don’t mess it up, don’t stuff it up, people are watching, what’s the media going to say?’ — that interferes with that sort of pathway that was there for a long time.”

Jonathan Trott walks off on day three at the GabbaJonathan Trott walks off on day three at the Gabba
Jonathan Trott gave up Test cricket after suffering severe anxiety on a tour of Australia.(AFP: Patrick Hamilton)
Marcus TrescothickMarcus Trescothick
Marcus Trescothick also called it quits at the highest level of cricket, suffering anxiety late in his career.(Reuters: Toby Melville)
A portrait of a man with a footballA portrait of a man with a football
Anxiety is common in sporting circles, as results and short careers weigh heavily on athletes shoulders.(Getty Images: Mark Metcalfe)

When anxiety becomes crippling

There are some athletes whose anxiety can become so crippling that it forces them away from the game they love.

Former England Test batsmen Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick both left overseas tours because of anxiety.

Trott described being in tears at breakfast, trying to hide his eyes from teammates by pulling his cap down over his face.

Trescothick remembers getting out during a tour of India and walking off the field in a flood of tears describing his world falling down around him.

Neither Trescothick or Trott knew or understood they were suffering from anxiety at the time, and both have since learnt about the illness and become advocates.

Both made the decision to retire from Test cricket.

It’s something Haynes said could have happened to him early on his AFL career.

“If I didn’t have that panic attack, who knows, I could have just not told anyone and I would have not performed at the high level and I would have got spat at out an early age,” he said.

Anderson said an anxiety condition doesn’t have to end a sportsperson’s career.

“When we don’t know or understand something, it compounds it tenfold – it’s very scary,” she said.

“I work with athletes that vomit because of the anxiety; the stress response is so high.”

So she teaches athletes to understand and recognise their response to stress and how it can actually be useful in sport, rather than overwhelming.

“When we start to understand what the sympathetic nervous system does — the impact that it has on our body — I guess it kind of normalises it a little bit and helps us learn to work with it,” Anderson said.

She said “acceptance and commitment therapy” is an evidence-based treatment approach which is used by psychologists to treat a wide range of mental health conditions including generalised anxiety disorders and performance anxiety.

“It’s not about changing how you feel, it’s embracing how you feel,” Anderson said.

“I truly don’t think that that anxiety can be harmful unless we fear it.”

Haynes said he began to develop routines that not only helped with his anxiety, but also his football.

“So, I started doing Pilates on my day off. I’d meditate every day. I’d eat a clean diet. I’d make sure I slept eight hours a day, you know turn my phone off at 9pm at night,” he said.

It worked: Haynes has become one of the best defenders in the AFL and in 2020, was selected in the All-Australian team.

But he said he expected to continue to live with anxiety.

“I think anyone that knows, it could be depression, anxiety, whatever kind of mental [health issue], there’s not a cure for that — it’s how you deal with it,” he said.

Having gone through his own journey, Haynes wants to speak out about anxiety and help others.

“The more I know AFL footballers, the more I understand them, that they don’t love every minute of football and they don’t live and breathe it,” Haynes said.

“Behind their first layer of tough footballer, there is definitely a lot of athletes and AFL footballers that do experience anxiety.

“I think the more we talk about, it which is what helped me, the better it is for everyone.”



Author: Ivan Robinson