David Shillington played 200 games in the NRL including 14 caps for Australia and 18 Origin appearances. Dave is now the manager for the QLD Men of League Foundation, an ambassador for the NRL program, State of Mind and a Rugby League coach and mentor with PlayBook.
Playing 200 rugby league games in the NRL is a big achievement, what do you think contributed to having such a long sporting career? I imagine it took quite a toll on your body?
I retired 18 months ago and it does take a toll on your body, I have had 10 surgeries. I had three knee surgeries, two shoulder surgeries, broke both of my hands and a couple of other things along the way. I think the main thing that did help me have such a long career, and a few qualities that are important if you want to play sport as a career, is resilience and self determination.You can’t rely on other people to get you up and get you going. When I talk about resilience, the road of a sporting career is up and down and is rarely smooth sailing. You do get a lot of injuries and setbacks like non-selection, poor form, team underperforming, off field problems or you might have to change teams.
You do get obstacles thrown at you, but an athlete’s ability to bounce back from that and to be able to thrive is what is really important. You can’t use those as excuses for your bad form and that takes a lot of self motivation.
People who rely on coaches and captains speeches for motivation don’t usually have a longevity. Every year for myself I was proactive in my training and I was self-aware by setting my own goals and also buying into the team goals and be a team player.
Post football you are now manager of the QLD Foundation, Men of League. Why is something like this important to you?
Retiring from football was pretty challenging. I had always heard that people don’t always adjust very well [after professional sporting careers]. I wanted a job that was worthwhile and meaningful. When I applied for it I didn’t think I would be successful as it was a bit higher than my current capabilities. I was really lucky that they brought me into the role and unskilled me, because now we are helping the broader community of Rugby league. The men, women and children and not just former players. The office is 9-5, which is a lot different to the footy field, kicking the ball around, lifting weights. Adjusting to that was pretty hard early on, but doing something worthwhile in the community is something that got me through it. We provide all sorts of assistance financially, medical procedures, and we do things to reduce social isolation. So myself or one of our well being officers or former players will head out and have chat to them, just to give them some company for a couple of hours. It is something that I really enjoy.
Former players are probably the smallest group we support, grassroots is the biggest part we support. Junior footy have so many people involved and make junior footy what is it and they are all the people we help. I was able to play the sport I love and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support of the grassroots and to now be able to support them is really special.
You are also involved with the mental health program, State of Mind. Did you find that the stigma around Mental Health in Rugby League has changed over your 11 year playing career?
It was a really dramatic change. When I first started in 2001, there was a lot of stigma around mental health. We were strong capable men and didn’t want show any sign of any weakness and if you did speak about your mental health or if you mentioned that you weren’t coping emotionally the coach would probably pull you a side and say Rugby League is not for you. But, how it has changed is incredible. When I finished up at the Titans they put so much work into emotional well being. We would train for 2-3 hours, shower and then before we would head up to lunch, we laid down in a function room, the trainer would dim the lights and would play a 10 minute guided meditation. The first couple of times we did it, the boys had never done meditation before and they were giggling a bit and thought it was a bit funny. After a couple of times of doing it everyone realised what it was actually doing for them positively. They would rush from showers to the function room, just so they could get a little more down time and to be able feel what they were actually feeling.
The trainers did it because of the science behind it, the boys just did it because it made them feel good. The squad are doing things like that still, they are writing in their gratitude journal after training which has a lot of science behind it.
I have carried on those meditation practices since I have retired. I like to tell people about it and what changes it has made for me and what changes I saw it make in some of the biggest names in the game.
Is there any particular coach that made a big impact in your career?
I had a few coaches, lots of different coaches with different styles and experiences. The coach for me that stands out would be Brad Fittler [the current Blues Coach], I think everyone thinks of him as a quirky character. He is an incredible footballer and really epitomises what it means to be an origin footballer. For me, he did so much because I was only a few years into my career, I am a naturally laid-back person, quiet, more shy than out-going and as a front-rower you need to be aggressive and dominant. I couldn’t really get my head around being dominant. Freddy really taught me how to be assertive and aggressive and demand the ball from my dummy-half, getting ruck momentum for my team and in defence slowing the ruck down. Before Freddy, I had Ricky Stuart, we probably didn’t connect as well as I did with Freddy. Ricky spoke a lot about aggression and that didn’t really resonate with me. When Freddy, reframed that for me as competitiveness, assertiveness and dominance and that really struck a cord for me.
After Brad Fittler, I went down to Canberra and after the couple years with Freddy, that is where my career really took off, I was selected for QLD and Australia. Brad Fitler brings out the best in people and getting teams to combine.
During your sporting career, did you ever engage a private coach?
I did, I actually really enjoy telling people about, because it was a really important part of my career. I was down in Canberra, playing for the Raiders. I had reached all of the great heights but I was starting to go back wards in my game. I felt sluggish on the field and not very powerful. I wanted to engage a speed coach, I was never the fastest as I am a bigger guy. I made a few phone calls and the AIS was down the road. I worked with Lee Smith, and we are still great mates today because of the journey we went on together. I would meet him down at the park, once a fortnight and we did that for about four months during the season. He would help me with my foot placement and how I was taking off.
The rewards were pretty profound, I felt like I was performing again. Off the back of that training I was given a new contract with another club, the Gold Coast Titans. The investment of private coaching really ignited my career and ultimately prolonged my career.
I knew I needed someone specific to my needs. Whilst, our trainer at the raiders knew about speed, he wasn’t an expert in it and the way Lee coached me was great and I took a lot out of it.
Are there different coaching structures between club level, origin level and the national level?
At the origin level, what I think made it really successful was the structure and the people Mal Meninga had chosen. He had people in positions that lived and breathed origin and were really specialised in what they were good at. He put people in places that were experts and wanted the best for the team and players. During my origin time, I had Trevor Gillmeister as a defensive coach and he was an expert in it. He is half the size of me. Alfie Langer had a dual role attacking role and social co-ordinator. Alfie was great for team spirit. Mal provided the intent, desire and why you wanted to win for QLD if you didn’t know already. It is pretty similar in the Australian camps.
What would you say to young people who are just transitioning in to NRL so early days of their sporting careers? If you are coming into the system and starting your career, surround yourself with successful people, learn from the best in the club. When I first started at Roosters, Adrian Morley was the top front rower. I partnered with him, in all of the fitness runs I was on his hip, in the defensive drills I went against him and challenge myself. He was also really aggressive, which I wanted to bring into my game.
By surrounding yourself with successful people, you are able to learn off them. Generally, what the successful people are doing off the field is also what you want to learn and you are able to pick up their advice
I also studied while I was playing, making sure I was doing different courses. I did finance, business, health and fitness. I wished I did a days work once a month just to get familiar with office skills. So definitely study while you are playing and try and get some work experience if you can.
You’ve covered so much in your career, what has been your sporting career highlight to date?
The year 2010, I was down at the Raiders and we had a great run into finals. I was player of the year for the Raiders, at Origin Level we won the series 3-0 and it was a great year for QLD. I also played for Australia in 2010. It was an enjoyable year from my personal achievement as well as a team achievements.
Feature image from Men of League Instagram