As the conversations around mental health evolve, our sporting heroes who once seemed so infallible are suddenly becoming far more human, and far more relatable.

There’s no denying Emma Kearney is an absolute giant of women’s football. A trailblazer who represents North Melbourne with pride ... children and adults alike all over the country aspire to be just a little bit like her.

Her immense footballing talent coupled with her fearless leadership and open nature make her the perfect person to lead the club’s AFLW side. She personifies so many of the Shinboner values that have been held so highly in the history of the club.

When someone like Kearney speaks, people listen, which is why it’s so refreshing to hear her so openly discuss mental health in women’s football.

Speaking on episode two of the ‘Happy Dais’ podcast, Kearney says she’s trying to change the approach to mental health of the people around her.

Check out the full interview with Emma Kearney and all the previous episodes via the player below. 

“The definition of healthy is a funny one. When people say you’re healthy they tend to be focusing on your physical health, whether you’re the fittest in the team, or you’re eating well,” Kearney said.

“Going through an elite environment, you put pressure on yourself to perform, and at times I’ve had unrealistic expectations of what I should be as a player, and when I don’t meet those expectations I often get really down on myself.

“What I’ve realised is I play my best footy if I’m feeling good mentally, so I’ve had to work on that, and I’m more than happy to talk to people about it, especially some of the younger girls coming through.

“It’s funny, if you have a broken leg I’ll ask how it’s going and you’ll tell me about it, but not often do people ask how your anxiety is going.

“It’s something I’ve tried to normalise and ask about. Hopefully that opens up the conversation.”

It’s one thing to talk about mental health, to discuss the best and worst ways of dealing with it and helping others through a tough time. It’s another thing entirely to actively pursue improvement within yourself.

While playing friend and confidant comes naturally to so many of us, it can be difficult for people to practice what they preach.

Opening up on her own problems with body image, there’s no doubting Kearney’s willingness and desire to help those around her comes from a place of personal experience.

“Before AFLW even existed I was a uni student, so my lifestyle wasn’t as healthy as it could have been, and then I started playing footy and I know our club captain at the time told me I could be a much better player if I got myself fitter,” she said.

“Then you get yourself fitter, you lose weight, and then you start getting compliments for looking better.

“It’s an unhealthy cycle when people start making comments on that, because then you think you have to get fitter and fitter, and you sometimes have unhealthy relationships with food. You might treat yourself but then think you have to do exercise to burn that off rather than just enjoying it.

“I think it’s a work in progress, it’s certainly something I deal with on a daily basis. Sometimes I’m really happy with how I look, sometimes I’m not and I get quite down on it. 

“We’re lucky we’ve got club [psychologists] to talk to, and a club dietician as well to make sure our relationship with food is sound. I think it’s a pretty common issue amongst all athletes, but particularly female athletes.

“It’s something we have to be careful with when we talk about what people look like.”

As part of joining North Melbourne as a player, Kearney also began working in the community outreach section of the club, ‘The Huddle’.

As part of her role delivering education programs to school children in the North Melbourne area, the captain is boots on the ground and truly immersed in the club’s home suburb from both a personal and professional standpoint.

Kearney says the programs The Huddle delivers don’t just impact the people they’re designed to help, but they’ve also had a profound impact on her own understanding of herself.

“Currently we’re delivering [programs] online. There’s one called ‘True North’ which is a holistic personal development program which helps build resilience and a greater sense of self in young people,” she said.

“There’s another one, ‘Voice Your Voice’. Students explore different social issues, find one they’re really passionate about and then create a media campaign on that.

“It could be something like racism, sexism, climate change. Whatever it might be, it’s about emphasising the huge impact young voices can have on social issues.

“I think the last three years I’ve seen enormous growth in myself and being comfortable with who I am … I’ve certainly got a bit more of an understanding of the person I want to be and the values I have.

“I credit The Huddle and the young people I work with enormously.”