Juggling life on-field and off-field in the AFLW space is challenging enough at the best of times. That’s where St Kilda’s industry-leading AFLW Mentor Program comes in.

Nicola Xenos was set to make her long-awaited return from injury in January of this year, but with her previous mentor Nick Dal Santo appointed as Senior Coach, she found herself without that added support for the season ahead. 

But Nick phoned in old friend and ex-teammate Luke Ball, who quickly stepped in to become the perfect fit for Nicola's journey.

While the two share a similar tenacity and grit when on-field, their relationship also focuses on their many similarities off it, such as their time rehabilitating from injury, passion for business and drive to succeed. 

Tell us a little bit about your mentor-mentee relationship?

NX: Being a previous Collingwood supporter I knew a little bit about Luke. We met over Zoom during lockdown, but once we could go we went and got a coffee together straight away. We’ve covered a lot of things relating to footy both on and off the field.

Luke's been different to Nick but in a good way, they’ve both got their differences. I’m really fortunate to have had two great mentors.

LB: Nick had to step away from being a mentor, so he recommended me as someone that might be interested in working with Nicola. I was very flattered and thankful to get the call and opportunity.

Can you speak about some of the similarities you share?

LB: Nicola was coming back from a knee reconstruction this season, which I could unfortunately relate to as I had one during my career. 

She is also completing a degree off the field. The program is very much aimed towards relationships from a footy point of view as well as life outside of that. We had a few things in common which made it so easy to connect.

NX: Luke has also done his ACL, so it was super helpful to see how someone else - especially from the men's competition - handled it. It was amazing to get his insight and to draw on things that he felt worked well for him.

Luke, how did you view Nicola's season?

LB: I thought she came back into the team really successfully at the start of the season. In the end, she seemed a bit disappointed that the season was finishing up because she was starting to gain some really good form and feel pretty good. 

It looked to me that the more she played/as games went on, the way she was moving and attacking the footy (and her opponent - the part of her game I love) meant that she was back to her best and that her knee wasn’t troubling her.

I love the intensity she plays with. It's the defensive aspects of her game which I value pretty high and I know her coaches do too. It was amazing how many times she was rewarded on the scoreboard for her hard work. 

Nicola, what does Luke help you with outside of footy?

NX: If we only focused on footy that wouldn’t cover everything I do. I’m also at University and I work as well.

It’s really good to talk to Luke about his career and his work at a financial services company. He studied commerce which is what I’m doing at the moment. Once he finished up his footy career he went from playing to coaching, then thought he’d use his degree and he found his love for finance - which I can relate to 

He's also spoken about point of contacts that I can be associated with (I’m majoring in Marketing) and he's given me opportunities to speak with people in his business within that department.

Luke, what impressed you most about Nicola?

LB: Definitely Nicola’s determination and drive for her to get back as soon as she could from her knee injury. She missed a season of footy and I can very much relate to how frustrating that is. I was very impressed by her work ethic, she put herself in a position to play within twelve months.

When she was nearing that milestone (to return), I told her to try to be patient and not rush it too much. She needed to make sure she ticked all the boxes so when she went back she felt super confident, like it’s a thing of the past. 

When I came back from my injury, I remember I got to the point where my knee that I had reconstructed became my good knee because I did that much work on strengthening it and getting it right. 

What are you looking forward to most about working with each other ahead of the upcoming season?

NX: I’m looking forward to building on what we’ve already established within our relationship.

It’s exciting to know that I’ve got a mentor like Luke. Now that I’ve returned from my injury it’s all guns blazing for the season ahead. I’m really grateful to have him by my side and he’s been great for me.

LB: I’ll catch up with Nicola soon to focus on the upcoming season. I hope she feels comfortable that at any stage she can pick up the phone or shoot me a text.

It was a good first year together and was very much about getting back on the track and out playing. It’s only upwards from here for Nicola. Another pre-season where she can get more strength into her legs and feel more confident - I think she’ll be even better for it. 

I was able to get to the final training session and brought my two eldest girls down. They ran out and did the warm-up with the players and they loved it, so I'm looking forward to ramping up my involvement as a mentor.