‘Destructive’: Karmichael Hunt opens up on mental demons
FORMER Maroons and Australian rugby league star Karmichael Hunt has lifted the lid on the mental demons that forced him out of the game.
Hunt had played 126 games for the Broncos, 10 State of Origin matches for Queensland and 11 Tests for Australia when he sensationally quit the NRL to play AFL in 2009.
Hunt has had a chequered career off the field in AFL and now rugby union and he traces his troubles back to his early years as a professional sportsmen.
"I was 17, a kid, when I first walked into my first professional sporting environment at the Broncos in 2004," Hunt recalled in an article for Players Voice.
"Being part of a dressing room that included real hard men like Tonie Carroll, Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva was an incredible experience, but it also reinforced a feeling within me that the old school notion of toughness - never revealing frailties of any kind - was the only way.
"In footy, you want your leaders being stoic and battling forward no matter the circumstances.
"As a kid who was borderline shy, very innocent, quite naive about the world and eager to impress, I took that persona on just as a lot of other young players do."
Hunt's rapid rise to stardom in rugby league came at a young age. He looks back now with the beauty of hindsight, believing he chose the wrong outlet to deal with the pressure.
"The stress and pressure can bubble over and manifest in ways where it's looking to get out," Hunt said.
"And the only real release I knew came in the form of alcohol and binge drinking, which could then lead to other bad decisions.
"It was destructive and in no way consistent with a happy life. In fact, turning to binge drinking resulted in exactly the opposite. I couldn't see that then. I do now."
While Hunt doesn't blame rugby league for the bad decisions he has made in his life, it was his inability to choose the right ways to deal with the pressure and anxiety of professional sport that brought him undone.
His inability to find a happy medium in his life led to him exploring a career in the AFL, but in the search for a new challenge, he underestimated the repercussions a code switch would have on all facets of his life.
"One of the toughest periods of my life was when I transitioned from rugby league to AFL," Hunt recalled.
"I was presented with a fantastic opportunity to test myself at the Gold Coast, albeit by putting myself at the bottom of the pile in a new sport after a relatively successful, comfortable, brief career with the Broncos.
"My intention in switching to the AFL was not only to test myself but to help bring success to the Suns.
"I didn't expect anything to be handed to me on a platter. I was prepared to work my arse off to make it on merit."
Hunt was criticised at the time in rugby league circles for deserting the game that gave him his start, and criticised by AFL experts who doubted his ability to make the transition.
"I consider myself a realist," Hunt said.
"In no way did I think the transition was going to be easy. The conditioning required, the new skills, the tactics and strategies were all going to be challenging.
"However, I underestimated the physical toll it would have on my body.
"I also had no doubt there'd be blowback in the media and from traditionalists and what not."
Hunt scored six goals in 44 games for the Suns over four seasons, including a match-winning goal on the siren against Richmond in 2012.
Although he has fond memories of the training and on-field challenges he was able to negotiate, Hunt was unaware of the negative toll his switch to AFL was having on his vulnerable mental state.
"Although I was prepared to weather those storms and more, deep down the negativity really took a toll on my mental health," Hunt admits.
"There were days when I would drive home after training in a depressive state.
"I was consumed with stress and anxiety about the constant disapproval I was surrounded with and - for the most part - I didn't share it. I didn't talk about it. And I certainly didn't seek any support."
Hunt is now on the comeback trail in rugby union as he tries to get his sporting career back on track with the Queensland Reds.
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