Expectations have derailed our youth. How did wounded Will overcome them?

Before he had made his first touch in the AFL, Will Ashcroft was shackled with expectations.

Expectations to be the next great Brisbane Lion, the forthcoming superstar to spearhead an era of premiership dominance, having been signed through to the end of 2026.

Will Ashcroft.Credit: Getty Images

Coverage of the now 19-year-old’s exploits began when he was in high school, his success in the junior ranks and national programs making him an enticing and highly touted draft prospect upon his graduation.

So, how did he free himself of the burdens that have felled many young, aspiring athletes before him? How did he evade the hype?

Simple. He didn’t read it.

“There was always a little bit of expectation coming in, but all the way through I haven’t really read too far into it,” Ashcroft says.

“Even last year, coming into the year as a highly touted pick, it didn’t really mean much to me. It’s just I always talk about sticking to my processes and doing everything I can in my power and control the controllables to get the best out of myself.

Will Ashcroft has been followed by hype even throughout his high school years.

Will Ashcroft has been followed by hype even throughout his high school years. Credit: Getty

“I think if I’m coming in each day trying to get better, that’s all you can really ask for, and I know my best will stack up.”

Injury has put Ashcroft at a crossroads.

Sidelined with an ACL rupture suffered in Round 19, unable to partake in the Lions’ quest for premiership glory, his inevitable return will be largely dependent on how he handles a daunting rehabilitation phase.

Brisbane coach Chris Fagan confirmed his young prodigy had returned from his family in Melbourne this week, having gotten through his surgery well.

But he says this has been a confronting period for the livewire. How he manages not just the expectations others have of him, but his own, may prove critical in his resurgence.


“It’s obviously been a challenging time for him mentally – you’re a young man, you’ve had a great first season, you’ve played 18 games, your team’s going pretty well and are going to play finals – and then that’s taken away from him,” Fagan says.

“Obviously, mentally that’s tough, and I daresay he’ll still be dealing with that for the rest of the season because he’ll watch the team run out and just want to be a part of it.

“But he’s got a good family around him, he’s got a good club around him and pretty soon he’ll lose himself in the process of recuperating from his surgery.”

Media scrutiny and the expectations on rising stars to perform or perish has proven an overwhelming burden for some.

In February, Australian youth mental health organisation Orygen called for more research into young athletes and their mental wellbeing, citing the increased risk of elite 12 to 18 year-olds falling victim to the demands of life in the limelight.

The likes of North Queensland Cowboys five-eighth Tom Dearden made his move to Townsville from Brisbane “gun shy”, according to his coach Todd Payten, failing to immediately meet the expectations others had of him.

Tom Dearden has been a revelation since escaping the Brisbane scrutiny surrounding him.

Tom Dearden has been a revelation since escaping the Brisbane scrutiny surrounding him.Credit: Getty Images

Since escaping the media stranglehold, the now 22-year-old has gone on to become a State of Origin player.

Others, however, never quite shook the tags.

Former Cowboys halfback Jake Clifford battled labels declaring him Johnathan Thurston’s heir apparent, while former Gold Coast Titan Ashley Taylor contended with the challenges of being a $1 million man before reaching his prime years.

The Broncos have kept young hooker Blake Mozer out of the spotlight as talk swirled of the “next Cameron Smith”, while the Gold Coast’s Keano Kini has been labelled “Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2.0″.

Between the four Queensland-based NRL sides, 41 of the 137 contracted players are 22 or younger, not considering junior academy pathways such as the Future Titans, Cowboys Young Guns and Broncos and Dolphins academies.

In the AFL, the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast Suns have 32 of 100 signed players of the same age bracket, with coverage of their endeavours beginning while in high school.

The reality is the heightened coverage of sport right down to the elite schoolboys levels has often praised kids as stars before they establish themselves among their code’s upper echelon.

In turn, for all their talent and potential, they are then exposed to the same criticism as their older colleagues.

Orygen chief of knowledge translation Professor Rosemary Purcell said early intervention was critical for developing athletes.

One-quarter of all teenagers report mental health concerns, but she believes the figure could be far higher, given an athlete’s reluctance to speak at the risk of their future.

“On top of the normal pressures teenagers experience, youth elite athletes need to deal with the intense focus placed on their sporting performance and winning in high-pressure environments,” Purcell says.

“This pressure to perform can lead to an unhealthy focus on results.

“We know from research that young elite athletes can also be at risk of problems such as burnout and overtraining, abuse and maltreatment, parental conflict and risk-taking by training through pain, injury and exhaustion.

“Research that is centred on their voices will help us to get the design right so that we can break down the barriers that currently stop young athletes seeking support when they need it.”

Amid the ubiquitousness of social media, and professional sport’s 24/7 news cycle, former Brisbane Broncos premiership winner Karmichael Hunt stresses it is down to the individual’s personal networks to support them through the hype.

Former Broncos fullback Karmichael Hunt burst onto the NRL scene as a 17-year-old.

Former Broncos fullback Karmichael Hunt burst onto the NRL scene as a 17-year-old.Credit: Getty

The champion fullback came into the NRL as a 17-year-old and was put on a media ban by coach Wayne Bennett to keep him away from the attention.

Hunt says those around the individual are crucial.

“The landscape has changed these days. With social media, you can’t escape the attention or the understanding of how much attention is on you,” he says.

“Now it’s another stream of income for some players and another stream of attention I didn’t have in those days.

“A lot was being written of me as a 17-year-old and going as well as I did, but what Wayne tried to do was control what he could control, and that was me not entertaining the media with commentary throughout the week.

“I got the time to focus on what’s important. That was a big lesson early in my career, worrying about what was important – playing football and getting better each day.”

Ashcroft’s reality check comes from his Lions teammate, roommate and fellow father-son draftee Jaspa Fletcher, as well as his own dad in three-time Brisbane AFL premiership winner Marcus Ashcroft.

While the teen sensation says he and his famous father continue to discuss his career, maintaining balance away from football with his fellow rising star and family keeps his mind from buying into what others expect of him.

Welcome to the pride: Jaspa Fletcher and Will Ashcroft.

Welcome to the pride: Jaspa Fletcher and Will Ashcroft.Credit: Getty Images

“[Fletcher and I] try to keep the footy talk out of the house just to try and maintain that balance, but little things are thrown around here and there,” Ashcroft says.

“I just do what I can do week-to-week to best prepare myself and just speak to the right people, form the correct relationships to help best support me through the journey.

“I think [my father] has found, especially now moving away from home, a good balance between just being a good supporting role model to me as a parent in general.

“We’ll chat a couple of times throughout the week and after most games. I love reviewing the game with him and picking his brain about what I could have done better and things like that.

“I think that just sets me up to be better prepared the week after.”

Coming in Pressure to Perform, part three: Injury resilience saved Wallaby’s career. Now he is calling on the next generation to train themselves.

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