Shillington on a mission to make a difference

David Shillington’s life has not slowed down since hanging up the boots in 2016.

The 36-year-old, who played 215 NRL games, 14 Tests for Australia, four for the Prime Minister’s XIII, eight for Queensland and two NRL All Stars, said since retiring due to injury, his focus had been on making a difference.

Shillington first spent time in his “dream job” as the Men of League Foundation Queensland manager.

“I really loved that job. I got to focus on building the commercial side of the Foundation, which fuelled the wellbeing side. So the more money we made, we could give more out to the community. I loved that concept and worked really hard at it,” Shillington said.

Now, Shillington is an NRL State of Mind project officer and involved with PlayBook Coach. 

“I was really lucky to get a job with NRL as a project officer for their State of Mind program, which focuses on mental health around junior rugby league clubs and their communities,” Shillington said.

“When I retired I really wanted to do something meaningful or worthwhile to the community - to feel like I was doing something valuable, because playing sport as a profession doesn't feel like a job.

“I never felt like 'I'm going to work today' or 'geez work was tough today'. I never got home and talked to my wife about my job. I never did that. I always thought 'I'm playing football and getting paid - how good is that?'

“So when it came to retiring, I thought I actually have to get one of those jobs that all these people whinge and complain about and aspire to do better at. 

“I thought whatever job I choose, I can't just do something that doesn't have purpose.”

Shillington, who played for the Sydney Roosters, Canberra Raiders and Gold Coast Titans during his 12 years in the NRL, said working within the State of Mind program was very rewarding.

David Shillington in action for Australia. Photo: NRL Images
David Shillington in action for Australia. Photo: NRL Images

“It’s a program that aims at reducing the stigma around mental health difficulties and encourages help-seeking behaviours,” Shillington said.

“And understanding that half of Australians will experience a mental illness or mental health difficulty at some stage in their life.

“I really think that mental health affects all of us. If not you directly, it will be someone close to you like a loved one, a colleague, a friend, a family member. So I think increasing the knowledge around it goes a long way to decreasing stigma.”

Shillington said when he played at the Roosters, his coach Brad Fittler – “who I held in high regard, I thought he was the man basically - unstoppable, bulletproof sort of guy” – recommended he see a sports psychologist.

“I was pretty embarrassed when he suggested it. My thought process was I am a 6'5 115kg front rower in the NRL, I don't need to talk about my emotions thank you very much,” Shillington said.  

David Shillington in action for the Sydney Roosters. Photo: NRL Images
David Shillington in action for the Sydney Roosters. Photo: NRL Images

“But I went and saw this guy and I was a apprehensive and thought I had nothing to talk about. I put a bit of a block up there. But the guy had his witchery or black magic, sorcery... he juiced all this information out of me, he got me talking," Shillington continued, laughing. 

"And all of a sudden he couldn't stop me talking and he was tapping his watch saying 'alright Dave, I've got someone else to see, you're going to have to go'. And I was like 'no wait, I've got so much more to say'.

“Once I started talking I really enjoyed it and I felt such relief. He gave me a lot of coping strategies to deal with the ups and downs of rugby league and dealing with that identity and environment and I went back and saw him a whole bunch of times.

"That was in 2008 and I feel like it was no coincidence that I started playing my best football in 2008 and in 2009 I really kicked on and debuted for the Maroons and Australia. So, from that experience I've become an advocate for reaching out when you need a hand."

David Shillington in action for the Queensland Maroons in 2009. Photo: QRL Media
David Shillington in action for the Queensland Maroons in 2009. Photo: QRL Media

Shillington said the "investment I made in my mental health paid huge dividends for my career and was strongly associated with the success and longevity of my career".

"As humans, especially in sport, we work so hard on our physical ability - we want to run faster and longer, we want to lift heavier and more powerfully, we want to have a six pack and big biceps, but we don't put one 100th of the effort into the mental side of things," Shillington said. 

“That's learning to appreciate things, learning how to calm down in stressful situations, learning how to express your thoughts rather than bottling them up. So the effort I learned to put into that did me wonders.”

Shillington said having advocates within the NRL State of Mind program such as Michael Morgan, Dane Gagai, Darius Boyd helped the cause.

"The stigma around mental health is that you should be ashamed of it, that you're weak, that you're soft. But if we've got guys like Michael Morgan and Dane Gagai talking about it and they've played in the toughest sporting arena in the world - State of Origin, I think that goes a really long way to turning that negative stigma that it's soft,” Shillington said.

“I think there's room to be a tough, successful person and also have your struggles from time to time. And it's okay to talk about that - it's normal, it's okay not to be okay.

“I think those messages are important to tell people and having a platform and a profile like a lot of us do, like myself and Michael and Darius, I think that's an important role we can play in the community to change the stigma around mental health.”

Shillington said about 18 months ago he also picked up a coaching role with Playbook Coach.

"I saw so  much potential in it, so much purpose. I thought it was a meaningful thing to be part of. All of the things sport brings people - opportunity and social cohesion and confidence. I wanted to be part of that and thought I could lend a hand with my experience and expertise and strategy," Shillington said.

“Playbook is a sports coaching platform where we have, at the moment, a couple of hundred coaches and we're expanding rapidly.

"Coaches in all different sports and all different regions. Young, old, male, female - and all of the coaches come from various backgrounds. Some are your average mums or dads or people who want to coach, like we see at junior sports clubs. And some are really high profile current or former players who want to coach as well. And those coaches will all offer different things - different types of experiences from their lives, and they'll all be priced differently.

"So the consumer, which I love about it, gets to weigh up what's important to them and they can think 'well, do I want someone who is from rugby league and played for Australia or do I want someone with a lot of experience coaching junior football?' And how much do I want to pay?

"So now mums and dads, if they have a 14-year-old son for example, and they're coached by a volunteer coach at their sporting club, and they want to get a little bit more expertise, and maybe inspire their child or get them exposed to a higher level of coaching from someone who has been there and done that, they have the option now to book through Playbook Coach and access that expertise.

"I think it's fantastic. It has given athletes who want to coach a platform to do that. I know when I played professional sport for - in the system for 16 years - if I was a young person - like a 20-year-old on a small contract that needed to work to top up my income, I would've loved Playbook to be around then, to have that opportunity.

"If I was a 27-year-old on good money, but had a lot of free time and wanted to make use of that free time, I would've loved Playbook to do that. We have AFL players in Melbourne who are doing that. They're using their time off to earn really good money doing something they love.

"But then also, when I retired a few years ago, it's a really unknown period or transition. You don't really know what's happening or what you're good at or what you'd like to do. If I had Playbook then, to do what I knew and what I loved, it would have made the transition a whole lot easier. 

"So, from all different angles, from an athlete through to coach point of view - it's fantastic. And that's why it resonated with me and why I wanted to join.

"It's great to see every day young people getting coached by coaches of all different levels and the benefits it brings to not only sporting aspirations, but also all the things sport brings to building character and personal development - as far as learning how to make sacrifices and being disciplined, and grow and aim high, and have that growth mindset. So, it's enjoyable."

Shillington said despite not being formally involved with Men of League any more he continued to volunteer and help out. 

"I think they do a great job. We worked a lot on reeducating people on what the foundation actually does because so many people, even still today, think it supports just ex football players, but that's not the case," Shillington said. 

"In fact the majority of people the foundation supports are the women and children in rugby league communities. 

"You may not like rugby league so don't support the foundation, but the women and children in rugby league communities are your colleagues, your sisters, your brothers, your sons, your nephews.

"The rugby league community represents such a broad range of people that have been brought together by the sport.

"We're just helping everyday people that are connected to the game. It's a great thing to be part of."

Shillington, dad to Eve, five, and Ted, four, said he would not be able to do what he did without the support of his wife Sonia Shillington. 

"My wife is a machine. She picks up the slack when I get a bit too over committed to work. And then she also gives me a bit of leeway to go fishing or surfing when I get a bit of spare time... so I have all the praise in the world for her," Shillington said.