Over the past 12 months, young Gold Coast midfielder Sam Flanders has had to take a good look in the mirror.

After playing 21 games in his first two seasons with the SUNS, the former No.11 draft pick spent a good chunk of 2022 playing VFL after being dropped from the seniors early in the year.

Like most that make the AFL, the 21-year-old Victorian is ultra-competitive, and the early part of his career was not following the trajectory he envisaged.

But rather than bury his head in the sand and look elsewhere for blame, Flanders went about fixing his game, both mentally and physically.

Speaking to AFL.com.au at the SUNS' pre-season camp on the Sunshine Coast, the powerful midfielder said he identified a clear area of improvement when speaking to development coach Rhyce Shaw and club psychologist Tristan Coulter.

"I had to work on little things mentally," Flanders said.

"I felt like that was the weakness in my game, I would fade out of games too easily if something went wrong.

"Now if I make a mistake, I can let it go and move on, whereas at the start (of my career) that's what I wasn't doing, and it was holding me back.

"I would dwell on it for too long and shut off my teammates and not connect with them.

"When I got dropped in round three, it was probably the best thing to happen to me.

"I was able to go back, learn a lot about myself and get a lot of confidence back."

Flanders spent almost three months in the VFL before being recalled to the seniors, where he played eight of the final 10 games.

At AFL level, he was used primarily as a half-forward that could pinch a few minutes each quarter in the midfield. He's dynamic, has good footwork in congestion and can kick goals, but would often get lost in his role and drift out of games.

At VFL level, that role was flipped, with Flanders spending a majority of his time at the coalface, getting better with his hands in-tight and then having an impact when he was 'rested' forward.

That back end of last season would see him gather real momentum following his senior exposure.

Flanders played enough games to qualify for Gold Coast's VFL finals campaign, and it was here he would show he was far too good for that level, gathering 37 disposals against Box Hill, 46 against Sydney and 43 in a preliminary final loss against Southport.

Flanders is at ease with his progress now, a constant voice in training sessions and someone now more willing to share in others' successes.

"I've battled times where you get those thoughts of 'there's other players drafted around you playing a lot better' and I've definitely got caught up in that sometimes," he said.

"When I did some work with the club psych we touched on that, everyone's journey is different and only in the last year I've accepted it and realised my journey is different.

"The more I accept it the more things start to progress, you stop worrying about external things and start worrying about yourself and your own strengths.

"Everyone progresses differently and I've started to, instead of thinking of it as a negative, being pretty happy for those blokes.

"The biggest step for me over the last year is the maturity and leadership side of things.

"The focus for me this year is trying to become a better leader, figure out the type of leader I am, the ways I can help this group."

His withering finals run continued through the off-season and into Gold Coast's pre-season. Flanders was hungry to continue improving and has been one of the big head-turners early in the campaign.

The pre-draft question marks over his aerobic fitness are now a thing of the past, having stopped the clock just inside six minutes for his most recent 2km time trial – a mark that indicates he well-and-truly has the capacity to play big midfield minutes if his skill matches.

It won't be easy, Gold Coast's midfield is crowded with Touk Miller, Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson the trusted starting rotation, along with David Swallow, Alex Davies, Brayden Fiorini and off-season signings Connor Blakely and Jed Anderson all fancying themselves as options.

"The biggest thing for me is embracing that it's not going to be perfect and that there's going to be a bit of chaos," Flanders said.

"I think early on I was all about perfection, perfection, and when I didn't achieve it, I saw it as a negative, whereas I think I've got to embrace it's going to be a bit chaotic.

"There's going to be times when I'm playing positions I probably don't personally like, but for the team it's the best and for me it's about going out there and doing my best to help the team win.

"I don't just want to make the team, I want to help us win games."