AFL Star Reilly O’Brien Discusses His Career, Study and Hopes for the Future

AFL player Reilly O'Brien

Torrens University Australia attracts all kinds of students from different places, backgrounds and walks of life. Many students already have a career, but decide to enroll because they want to try something new.

However, it’s not every day that a professional Australian rules footballer playing for the Adelaide Football Club (AFC) enrols in a postgraduate degree. 

Reilly O’Brien was poached by Adelaide as their first pick in the 2014 AFL Rookie Draft at the young age of 19. He joined the club as an understudy to Sam Jacobs, and since then his football career has gone from strength to strength. During a strong season last year, he won his first Malcolm Blight Medal, and the Members’ MVP award at Adelaide’s Club Champion event.

After all his years of training and hard work, Reilly now has the football career of his dreams. 

So, why has he decided to enroll in a double Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Health at Torrens University, and what is he going to do with his education?

Luckily, Reilly O’Brien has agreed to answer this question and more. He’s shared a few of his thoughts on being an athlete, professional sports, public health and the future, in a special Torrens University Australia student interview feature. 

You already have a bright career in AFL at the AFC at the age of 26 - and now you are starting a new path with study. How does it feel to begin something totally different after all those years of being so focused on one thing? 

“I am very, very fortunate to do what I do currently in the AFL. I am surrounded by amazing people and get to do what I dreamed of as a kid, and I certainly remind myself of that every day! 

But, I am also reminded time and time again that football does not last forever, and it can be over quickly. I’m also careful not to tie up my whole identity in my football, and I certainly know that I am far more than just a footballer. 

Its amazing to be able to embark on a new challenge with Torrens University. It certainly helps me to escape the bubble of AFL football and immerse myself in something totally different.” - Reilly O’Brien

Have you found it challenging to move in a new direction?

“I have really enjoyed my time so far. It certainly has its challenges, primarily in balancing my university with my intensive training commitments, but good organisation has been the key. I have loved the intellectual stimulation as well as the great support from those within the University.”

You have just started studying a dual MBA, Master of Public Health. Why did you choose this course exactly? Were there any previous studies or life experiences that led you to enrol in this degree?

“I have previously completed a Bachelor of Medical Science, and have always had the ambition of one day studying Medicine and becoming a Doctor. With my footballing commitments, this is not currently possible, and postgraduate Medicine cannot be studied part time. So I explored other courses of interest that would broaden my horizons and open up other doors for me. 

I am interested intensely in Public Health measures and how to collectively improve health within the population, as there is so much work to be done in that space. In addition to this, I am interested in leadership so the MBA part of the course appealed to me greatly. 

It would be great to combine business principles with knowledge in public health, to generate innovation and growth in this field. It is a super exciting area, and Torrens is an amazing university to be able to complete these courses with.”

Is public health something that you have always been passionate about, or did this passion come about because of your career in Sports? 

“I certainly have always been interested in health. This probably started with intense passion for my own health and wellbeing and for those within my family. 

I am always interested in how diet, exercise and lifestyle factors can promote health and longevity. 

I was first introduced to the concept of public health and public health interventions in year eleven at school in Melbourne, studying physical education. I was fortunate enough to Dux the state in this subject and receive the Premier’s Award for the subject in 2012. 

Since then, I have been interested in public health policy and how we can encourage people to take control of their own health and ultimately their own life, through various interventions. With the COVID-19 pandemic and public health policy front and centre, my interest has only intensified.”

Writing public health policy seems quite a jump from running on the field. What kind of life lessons and transferable skills do you think you will bring from your football career into your next career?

 “It is funny how many parallels there are between football and other industries, as well as with life in general. The lessons I have learned from my football that stick out most would be the influence of leadership and culture on individual and group performance, and the importance of personal responsibility and hard work.”

What would your dream role after your football career be, and what are some of your aspirations for the future after you graduate?

 “I would still love to study Medicine and become a Doctor. I am not entirely sure what specialty of doctor but that is still the dream. 

Failing that or ideally in partnership with that, I would love to be involved with businesses generating innovation in health care. My main goal will always be personal growth and with that I am genuinely open to anything and look forward to whatever path I am able to forge for myself. I would also love to live overseas at some stage.”

How does the double Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Health at Torrens University align with your career aspirations, and what are you learning right now?

 “This course is really helping me to learn and grow. Learning more about public health sets me up really well for a potential career in medicine and in the health industry. 

Combining this with the MBA to develop my business skills and leadership qualities is the perfect supplement to this, bringing skills together at the intersection of business and public health.”

How do you manage your time, studying and being an elite athlete all at once? Do you have any time to have fun and meet up with mates, too?

 “Organisation is key. We do get a full weekday off per week as well a half day which gives me enough time to fully engage with and complete my studies. It's just about maximising my time and being really efficient. 

It's easy to waste time, especially when you're fatigued from training, but I find that with some discipline the routine with time has certainly become easier.
I certainly have time to meet up with mates and have plenty of fun. I really prioritise spending time with friends and family, especially being in my twenties, and with good organisation and discipline I feel like I don’t have to give much of this time up.”

Do you think it’s important for athletes to set themselves up for the future, while still managing a sports career? 

“It is super important. A career as an athlete is finite and can be over very quickly. The world of AFL can be all consuming and it's easy to neglect life post-football, but it is crucial to be setting yourself up and thinking about the future. 

I feel like it's also important to ensure that your whole identity does not become tied up in your sport and you reinforce to yourself that you are more than just an athlete. 

A lot of guys leave the game and really struggle in this space, as without football and the adulation that comes with it, they feel hollow and incomplete. I am certainly very aware of this. I am also extremely lucky to have such intense interest in my areas of study, but I encourage other athletes to keep developing and exploring such interests.”

How are you finding the course so far, and what are some of the best and the most challenging parts of your degree?

“My studies so far have been great! The content has been very relevant and engaging, and I love the flexibility of my online study with Torrens. That has been awesome, and my teachers have been very understanding and accommodating with intense periods of training and games. 

The biggest challenge has been the discipline to use my time well to balance my study with my football, but I have loved the challenge. I can’t wait to continue my journey with Torrens and I’m so lucky to be able to study while pursuing my dream of AFL football.”

Do you have any advice to offer to other young people just leaving school?

 “My advice would be to work hard at something and throw yourself into it. You may not know exactly what you want to do, but it is important to know there is not just one set dream career or pathway for you, so don’t feel too much pressure to get it exactly right. 

The most important thing is to work hard and develop yourself. Have a growth mindset and be willing to learn and grow. I truly believe this is the most important thing for success in your life and in your career.”

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