By Russell Bennett
The last thing Caleb Serong ever wants to hear is “keep doing what you’re doing”.
He’s continually on the hunt for ways to improve his game – acting as a sponge for any advice he can soak up.
It’s a trait that has the former St Paul’s student and Warragul footballer so well placed to succeed at footy’s elite level.
The hard, uncompromising midfielder is a star seriously on the rise – there’s no two ways about that.
He was recently named Vic Country’s Most Valuable Player, and received All-Australian honours in the NAB Under 18 National Championships.
He also co-captained the side, coached by former Gippsland Power mentor Leigh Brown, which came agonisingly close to winning the title – pipped at the final hurdle by Western Australia.
Serong’s leadership – particularly by example – is clearly one of his standout qualities, and has been all through his staggering rise over recent seasons.
The Gazette spoke to him in 2017, after a badly broken collarbone as a 16-year-old still failed to dissuade selectors from picking him in the Vic Country squad just two weeks post-surgery.
He starred in that subsequent national carnival in Queensland.
“Back in the under-16s I was relying on what I’d already done and what they’d already seen to make the team,” he explained earlier this week.
“Once I got to the championships, I just wanted to prove to them that they’d made the right decision to show faith in me. They kept telling me that the reason they picked me was because I was good enough, and they backed me in.”
Another show of faith, then from Brown and Gippsland Power talent manager Peter Francis, saw him selected in the under-18s for the Power later that year.
And his rise has been meteoric since. So much so, that he’s now predicted to be among the first crop of prodigiously-talented youngsters to hear their names called out come AFL draft time.
And it’s all come about through sheer, relentless hard work and determination.
It hasn’t all been easy, and the advice he’s received hasn’t all been easy to stomach.
But he’s taken it all on board in his quest to improve.
Serong knows that it’s more about taking his chances. It’s about taking even the half-chances along the way.
“Sometimes that full chance never comes,” he said.
“You might only get one game or a quarter to really stand up in and make your mark.
“If you go alright, then they’ll keep picking you. That’s when you take the opportunities you get and try to make the most of them.”
Last year, Serong had a heart-to-heart with Brown, Matt Ross, and AFL Academy coach and Brisbane Lions icon Luke Power about his game.
“They just said I was playing really good footy and they were happy with that side of things, but it was just my body shape – they wanted to see if I could trim down a little bit,” Serong explained.
“I was pretty fit last year – my GPS numbers were up and that sort of thing – but it was just about trying to take it to the next level so I could make it to more contests out on the field.”
So, as he always does, he took that advice to heart and over the 2019 off season did everything in his power to get himself into the best shape possible.
“People like Luke Power, Browny, and Matty Ross showing interest in me and giving me some of their advice, and what they think I should improve on, has really helped me,” he said.
“I just want honest feedback on what I can work on because I’ll never be satisfied – I always want to improve. Getting fitter and trimming up over the pre-season has really helped me through the year.”
Serong explained the modifications he’s made.
“I kept putting on size (in the gym) so it wasn’t necessarily fat – it was muscle – so it was just about getting leaner and doing a bit more cardio, so boxing and bike riding rather than just doing bicep curls,” he said.
“It’s a fine line between doing too much, and doing too little.
“It just comes back to listening to people. You can’t just go through life thinking you know it all because a lot of time you don’t. Listening to that advice you get is really important.
“I want something I can work on to keep improving. As soon as you get satisfied or complacent, that’s when everyone either catches up to you, or you go backwards.”
Serong has divided his footballing time between Geelong Grammar, the Gippsland Power, and Vic Country this season – and his maturity in dealing with the workload and expectations placed upon him just continues to impress.
It comes down to more than just his on-field performances on game days – but also his work ethic at training, and even with his schoolwork at Geelong Grammar.
“You have to be mature like that,” he said.
“You do get out what you put in, and that’s something I live by for sure.”
The whirlwind of 2019 so far, and his stellar performances along the way, were given a push-start by his performance in the Future Stars game on grand final day last year.
Serong’s approach remains consistent, whether it’s at school footy for Geelong, in the NAB League for the Power, or at national carnival level for Vic Country.
“I definitely wouldn’t have become the leader I am without listening and talking, and asking questions from other people at whatever level,” he explained.
“I’ve got Cameron Ling at training once a week at Geelong, so I’ve been able to pick his brain and have a chat with him too,” he said.
“Last year was based around footy a lot – stoppage craft, and the likes – and he taught me a lot there, but this year a lot of it’s been about the off-field and dealing with the pressure and the leadership side of things. Being able to pick the brain of a Geelong great and premiership captain has been just amazing.”
And the skills he’s learned have transferred on to the field in a big way.
“We really played as a tight, collective group,” a proud Serong said of Vic Country’s efforts in the championships recently.
“If someone lays a good tackle, you get around them and help them up. We have a couple of rules like no one getting up by themselves, and celebrating goals – things like that. And none of that stuff takes talent – it’s a mindset thing, and a collective understanding of what you’re doing together.
“The talent side of things will come if you continue to work hard. We’re all talented enough that if we do the team things, and all the things that don’t require talent, our skills will really shine through.”
On-field, Serong’s trademark attributes – such as his strong and fast hands, his leadership, his footy smarts, and his ability to take a strong contested grab – speak for themselves.
But it’s his continual endeavour to improve that not only defines him now, but will well into the future.
“When you put something in place to work on, you focus on that – I’m focusing on the team at training, not what could happen down the track,” he said.
“In games it’s the same thing – all I’m doing is focusing on winning with the team.
“The rest will take care of itself for anyone trying to get drafted, as long as you just focus on the next thing in front of you and doing whatever you can to improve.
“There’s nothing else you can do except play good footy and train hard, and try to be a good person.”