Cronulla wellbeing and education manager Amanda King was driving home from a Newtown Jets pre-season match last year when her phone started filling with messages about son Cameron, who was playing for the Sharks in Port Moresby.
“They were all like, ‘what the f… ’ and ‘oh my God’,” King recalled. “I just thought I’m not going to listen this until I get home.
“I didn’t know if it was good or bad. When I walked in the door my daughter burst into tears and then [fellow wellbeing manager] Jordan Atkins called me from the dressing shed in Papua New Guinea, with Cam.”
It was King’s first and only match for Cronulla after suffering what turned out to be a career-ending ACL injury and Amanda could do little other than try to console him over the phone.
However, she was grateful that Atkins was there with her son and had made the call so she could speak with Cameron in his time of need.
“If nothing else you at least know that they are being supported,” Amanda said. “To the parent or partner, or whoever it is at home, that is very important.
“When Cameron did his knee at the Cowboys I got taken straight into the sheds. That was very traumatic because it was very real and raw, and I was there to watch it all unfold, but it is a completely different type of helplessness when you are not there.
“To receive that phone call almost immediately, when you are sitting at home not knowing what is going on, makes all the difference in the world. I think it does for the player too to be able to speak to their loved one.”
It’s one of the roles King performs for the Sharks as clubs and the NRL place an increasing emphasis on player welfare.
With every club required to have a wellbeing manager with the team in Queensland, King joined the Cronulla players at the NRL’s Brisbane hub last week after quarantining for 14 days with their partners and children on the Gold Coast.
“That was challenging and fairly stressful,” she said. “There were mothers with kids and I know with my crew, I had said ‘this is going to be great, we are all going to be there together’, but unfortunately we were grounded onto our floors and we weren’t all together in our clubs.
“A few of the players and staff would call me when they had their wives upset on the other end of the phone and then I would follow up with what their needs were.
“It made my heart happy when they all got reunited, just to see the kids back with their dads and the smiles back on the faces of the mums.”
Helping build resilience
King has been involved with the Sharks for five seasons, starting with the club’s pioneering women’s team in 2017 and joining the NRL squad when Atkins returned to Queensland after the Telstra Premiership was suspended for 10 weeks last year due to COVID.
However, the former events manager has been an “unofficial welfare officer” for most of her life as she helped Cameron and his mates such as Kyle Stanley, whose career also ended prematurely due to a series of knee injuries, cope with the ups and downs of sport.
“There are so many ways that your spirit can get crushed so there were lots of boys who went through all sorts of things who would end up on my doorstep,” King said.
“It was just a matter of having someone around to prop you back up and give you some tools to build resilience and also to have another plan.”
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Now King delivers the same message to the Sharks players – 14 of whom are studying counselling at TAFE, including Josh Dugan, Andrew Fifita and Braden Hamlin-Uele.
She also provides support to players if they suffer serious injuries, advice about dealing with social media trolls or scrutiny over on or off-field incidents, such as Dugan’s recent biosecurity breach, and is continuing to assist the families adjusting to life in the NRL hub.
"In the wellbeing space we are really big on education and making sure they are studying something but that all went out the window last year," King said.
"Then you had all the young ones who couldn’t play when the squads were limited and we had our Jersey Flegg boys [whose competition was cancelled] as well.
“All of that created a lot of upheaval and we thought that we wouldn’t have the same issues this year but when you are taking families apart and new babies are being born, and you are leaving behind pregnant partners, all of that just causes a different set of problems for this year."
In their hour of need
Injuries are a regular occurrence in professional sport and King said the support players need is little different whether they are at the start of their career or nearing the end.
In the past 12 months she has been on hand as Shaun Johnson suffered an Achilles injury that sidelined him from last August until this May and Dugan injured his neck at training.
“I am usually at games so I’ll go into the sheds with the injured player, listen to what the doctor is saying and if it is a concussion I will stay in there while they have their testing done,” King said.
“If it is a knee or something like that, I will get their phone and make sure they are supported while they call their family. If a player is getting taken to hospital then either find their parents or partner in the crowd or call them and tell them what is going on.
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“There has been many a time where the wellbeing person has called me from the dressing sheds with Cam in tears on the other end of the phone so I know that feeling and I can build a rapport with parents and with the players because I have experienced it from both sides.”
However, King’s assistance goes far beyond game day and she often helps the players and their families as they deal with the injury.
“With Shaun and Kayla [Johnson's wife], I babysat for them a few times so Kayla could go with Shaun when he was having tests,” King said. “I try to support them in any way I can.
“When we thought Duges had hurt his neck at the start of the year in a training run, I just made sure I stayed with him in the hospital the whole time while he got the X-rays to make sure he was OK and then I drove him home. “
COVID a whole new ball game
Most of the Cronulla players have their families with them in Queensland but not all do, and King has also been providing support to them, while acting as a contact for those staying at the team hotel in Brisbane.
Along with Canterbury’s Steve Pike, King was seconded to help NRL staff at the quarantine hotel on the Gold Coast cater to the demands and concerns of about 500 partners and children of players, who were forced to abide by strict conditions imposed by the Queensland Government.
“All of my crew dealt with it really well, and overall everyone did," King said. 'It was just those first few days that were pretty awful but when we could have the balconies open it made a difference.
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“I’ve got lots of working mums so I said 'when you need to work just schedule it and I will take the kids off to play'. That was the idea of how it was going to work and then it didn’t end up anything like that at all.
“I was doing my exercise in the room and it was nine steps between my balcony door and my front door. I put on my exercise clothes and my joggers, and I set my timer for 30 minutes, and then just walked back and forth for 30 minutes.
"Now that everyone is out of quarantine and back together it is good to see that it has all been worth it.”
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