RECOVERING from a long-term injury is a brutal physical process, something Melbourne AFL player Christian Petracca can certainly testify to. The second pick in the 2015 draft saw his dream of an AFL debut shattered after a season-ending ACL injury in pre-season training. But the 19-year-old Warrandytian insists the mental struggle was more difficult than the physical one, though he is winning the battle. Dealing with the reality of waiting another year to step onto the field, as well as the pressure of being a high draft pick, took its toll on the explosive midfielder. But according to Petracca, some tough love at home, a trip to America and learning some hard lessons along the way helped pave the way to his recovery. The Diary’s MICHAEL DI PETTA takes time out in the young gun’s home town for an update.
Michael: First of all, obviously with the ACL injury, you missed the entire year. As a young player, how do you come back from that?
Christian: Yeah, when I first did it, it was pretty frustrating, obviously I’d never had a setback like this in my life as a footballer, or a sportsperson in general. I didn’t really know how to cope or how to handle the situation, especially being touted as a high draft pick, when the pressure’s already on me. I think the biggest thing I did was to surround myself with good people. My family was supportive throughout the whole year and obviously so was everyone down at the footy club. You’ve got 44 blokes on a list and it really helps; any day if you’re feeling flat, you can talk to any of them.
MD: What was some of the best advice you got from some of the blokes at Melbourne or from the family?
CP: Make the most of it, you’re only in the gym for a year, so really try and harness the experience and get your body right. Also, they told me it’s probably the best time to do a knee, if you were to do one, right at the start of your career, so really just focus on working hard and being a better person.
MD: And the family?
CP: They’ve done everything, I get home, they’ve probably seen I’ve had a bad day and they give a lot of sup- port. My brothers haven’t changed and that’s probably the best thing, they’ve kept on telling me to suck it up. I don’t want them to change just because I’ve done a knee, or become an AFL footballer or anything, but it’s good because we haven’t changed at all. Mum and Dad have been really good the whole year, even off the field, just helping me through and it’s what I needed.
MD: What were some of the things you did, or techniques you used to keep yourself physically and emotionally motivated throughout the period?
CP: It was quite a boring year, I guess, because every day I did the exact same stuff – there was no real change, it was just basically leg strength. Every day, Monday, Wednesday and Friday would be my main days for running, gym and we did these other little exercises with that which would basically take up the whole day. And on Tuesday and Thursdays, which were my days off, I’d still be doing a bike session, or a swim to keep the cardio going. Then on top of that, you’ve got to fit in the meetings with the main group and all the game style reviews, and reviews from training. So you’re pretty busy; it’s a full time job. I’m probably more mentally fatigued then physically, just because it really has been a long year. I just can’t wait to start.
MD: When you were sitting out on the sidelines you must of learnt a lot about playing and being in the AFL, even though you weren’t out on the field.
CP: Yeah definitely, I think the biggest thing that I found was that talent only gets you so far, you could have another one of these injuries and your career might be over. It’s a really cutthroat industry and one minute you could be pick No.1 and the next minute you could be delisted. You’ve just got to work hard and earn respect, and that’s the biggest thing that I found. At the start of my career, I thought I’d rather be liked, but it’s more about working hard and earning respect from your teammates.
MD: You went to the US recently to take part in a rehabilitation program, what kind of different stuff were you doing over there?
CP: I was actually surprised, it was quite similar stuff, but Billy Knowles, the ACL specialist, made things a lot more specific with the drills we were doing. It was a lot of hard work, it was two two-hour sessions a day for five days, it would be all legs, a lot of gym, and a lot of focusing on landing, jumping and controlling. Obviously he knows a lot of statistics and he was telling me a lot of ACLs are done when you are decelerating, so not when you’re speeding up, but when you are slowing down. That’s how I did my knee, so we were focusing a lot on how to plant your feet or when you’re jumping and you get hit in the air, learning how to land properly. It was really good, it gave me a really good insight and I’ve come back from Philadelphia really confident in my knee. Mentally it was really weird: he sort of connected the wires from my mind to my leg, he made me think while I’m up in the air, this is how I’m going to land. I didn’t really know how to do that kind of thing, but now that I’ve gone there it really gave me a good insight on how to do it.
MD: So do you feel like your knee is back to 100%?
CP: I don’t think it will ever be back to 100%, I still have deficiencies in some areas, but I’ve spoken to a lot of boys and they’ve said similar things – not every ACL is the same. But at the moment it feels really good and I’m doing everything I can, and when we get to Day 1 of pre-season, I’m sure I’ll be able to do a lot, probably not the contact work, but I’ll probably build into it.
MD: Explosiveness was one of the words used to describe you coming into the draft. Do you feel you will have to modify your game in any way to still have the same impact?
CP: Not at all, I’ve always been quite an explosive player. The most frustrating thing about the injury was that I did it while I was moving. With my strength being agility, playing a lot of basketball, it really frustrated me because I’ve probably done that action so many times on the field, but I don’t think it will change my game in any way. I’ll still be the same player.
MD: Melbourne showed some really positive signs. Didn’t win too many games, but there were some really good signs from young blokes like Hogan and Brayshaw. With you coming back, how strong is the foundation for the footy club over the next few years?
CP: We’ve shown this year – well it’s been a bit inconsistent with the wins on the board – but we definitely have improved and we’ve got a really good base of young guys who have really helped us.
It’s really good going to a club every day knowing there are young guys around your age who are really there for one reason – to win premierships. It’s a really good feeling to know we definitely have the group to do that in the future.
MD: So, what’s your personal goal for the season ahead? What do you want to accomplish?
CP: I have some goals that I like to set, but for now it’s really just getting through pre-season unscathed. If I play Round 1, I do, if I don’t it’s really just focusing on playing some games this year. Pre-season this year is shorter, the NAB Cup starts in early Feb, but for me I think if I can get through Christmas I’ll be on the home straight.