Inside the Sydney Swans Academy

This is my first foray into writing for The Footy Almanac. Usually I spend most of my time dodging punches from ice addicts in the St. George area of Sydney as a psych nurse, but my eldest son is commencing at the Sydney Swans Academy in February 2013 as part of the U/11 squad. I thought I would write a piece on the journey so far to get that prized selection letter of approval signed by Paul Roos and what stood out to me as an outsider about the process of one AFL club trying to find players for their valued members to love in ten years time.

Over 160 boys tried out for the U/11 squad in mid 2012. Whilst the body types, ability, self belief and willingness to listen were different across the group, the dream of being an AFL player was certainly the key ingredient for all of these young sportsmen. Late comers were loudly ushered into the group of boys already seated in front of the swans staff member with a “Hurry up, leave your mum there, she can’t help you now.” The skills stations were impressive and were weighted heavily on co-ordination. I was surprised just how little AFL was related to most of these mini tests in the first try out, except for the kicking. It was mentioned by Paul Roos in his skills station lecture the importance of the skill of kicking and that by U/15’s if you still couldn’t kick well, which meant at a national U/15 carnival standard that you wouldn’t be required at U/16’s. The boys were tested in kicking the AFL ball as well as a soccer ball, both at mini goals and at targets behind the normal sized AFL goals. Running with a tennis ball around obstacles while simultaneously throwing the tennis ball in the air and catching again and again. Touch football was a ten minute station and finally, trying to knock three cones over with an AFL drop punt from about fifteen metres.

Half a dozen red and white wearing disciples wrote furiously on clipboards for about 90 minutes the numbers the boys had textered on their calves, like triathletes their own little ID for both positive and negative achievements. I saw all of them write on the clipboard when an eager kid pushed in a line to go first. I saw only three write down when one young gun knocked the soccer goal over with the power of his left foot.

The letter arrived some six weeks later to say congratulations you made it to the final try out. Be here at this time on this date. My boy reminded us of the way late arrivals were highlighted and begged us to be on time. The final try out was on the field right behind the SCG members stand. Walking past the beautiful old ivy covered brick walls I could feel he had a relaxed attitude to this try out like he had already exceeded his own expectations. Six boys from his club side had gone to the first session but only he and a friend had been asked to today’s trial. I gave him one last piece of advice, not about taking his marks or hitting the target but about listening. It was evident the academy was commencing a no dickheads policy from U/11’s.

Once I had a chance to look around when my boy ran off to warm up it was evident he had been cloned. The first trial was a group of players you could easily make a full team from. This group was a bunch of runners. Whippets. 130cm boys that run all day because they can. Spindly little ankles and calves that propel an eleven year old all day on the beach sand or the footy field at lightning speed. These are the kids that look edgy at three quarter time that they’ve been asked to stop running for five minutes. These kids were not only the fastest but the cross country champions of their regions. A quick voxpop with some of the parents and all their boys were natural runners. The Swans were looking for inside and outside running centremen. The Swans were hoping to unearth a future Brownlow medalist from this group of forty five kids. The other stand out with this group was that they were the listeners. There was complete silence when being instructed and silence when running back to the starting point of skills tests as they got themselves ready to perform.

This time the stand out test involved two tennis balls and a partner with the object to throw each ball separately but keeping it moving from your left hand to your partner’s right hand who was facing you without dropping it. When the boys got in a rhythm it was like a cross country skiing arm movement and looked spectacular for boys of that age. The final drill involved bouncing a footy as they sprinted flat out across about 40 metres over and over. Fumbled balls meant the clipboards came out. And then it was over, another long wait to get the letter which began dreams or in many cases ended them at aged nine and three quarters.

Driving home he told me it was the most fun he’d had all year and said it wasn’t nerve racking. I guess he will have to wait until he may have kids of his own to understand the stress I felt in watching him putting himself out there to be so wholly judged. I can only imagine the fun he has ahead of him in 2013 as he puts in hours of hard work doing what he loves. The day the letter arrived to say he’d been accepted into the academy was the same day he was going to be presented with his Foster Shield U/10 reps cricket cap, designed to replicate the district cap Don Bradman wore at St. George. He decided to wait until after the ceremony in case the letter had disappointing news. I will forever remember the look on his face as he read aloud the words he wanted to hear wearing this perfectly sewn baggy maroon cricket cap. I remember reading somewhere only about a third of boys drafted to an AFL club ever play a senior game. If by some fluke he is still on the radar of an AFL club when it’s his year to apply, I hope as parents we have mastered the art of dealing with the emotion that comes with him being judged on his talents.

About Matt Schoemaker

I grew up on the Bellarine Peninsula in Drysdale, enjoying a brilliant childhood with all the adventures of a great group of sport loving mates. After attending St. Joseph's and Deakin Uni I left Geelong with the beautiful Emma Wisbey to see some of Australia. It's been thirteen years now since we have lived in Victoria and we plan to return to Geelong with our three children at the end of 2014.

Comments

  1. All the best of luck to him.

    Mick

  2. Matt, Great insight. Hope you write again. So many times have I heard about “acadamies”. Particularly, the Swans Acadamy. To have an insight into what goes on, and to know what the Swans side will look like in 10 years, is remarkable. Terrific yarn.

  3. Great article and I had strong images in my mind as I read all about each of the stations. I could just imagine Lachlan going through his paces. Hopefully the Swans Academy builds strong minds and life skills in the little AFL men of the future.

  4. Rocket Nguyen says:

    This is terrific stuff!
    Footy has come a long way since the dedicated few got junior footy going down in the St George area back in the 50s and 60s. No lure of AFL academies back then…

    Matt, what club does your son play for?

  5. Peter Schumacher says:

    This was a really interesting read, for me a gave a really good insight as to how a great club goes about recruiting the young. My one jarring note in the whole thing is nothing really to do with this piece but just that how a club that most admire for its “no dickheads” policy went after their new full forward. I hope that this does not have another Fevola type ending.

  6. Matt

    Great read and welcome.

    I really enjoyed ‘seeing’ inside the Academy through your words, as well as riding the bumps with you as a caring, proud and nervous dad.

    I coach U13 footy having done U12 last year, so appreciate completely what you say about body types and abilities. My son is lucky enough to be in a slightly similar AFL affiliated academy in Victoria, so I know what the process is like. Getting boys that age to sit still and listen is still a challenge, so the Swans must have the senior attitudes of respect and behaviour instilled early on.

    Good luck to him, he sounds like an all rounder, and hope you write again

    Sean

  7. Matt Schoemaker says:

    Thanks for the positive response. His local club is the Penshurst Panthers and they play in a league including Miranda, Cronulla, Heathcote, Barden Ridge and Ramsgate to name a few.
    Rocket, we are certainly grateful for the way the league has been set up all those years ago. Today there are dedicated Auskick committee’s at all of these clubs and each Saturday runs really smoothly so the kids get the most out of the two hours of footy they wait all week for.
    Thanks for reading.

  8. Rocket Nguyen says:

    Thanks Matt,

    The Penshurst Panthers have a fine tradition. Think they may have celebrated their 50th year just a few years ago…
    Two of my good mates palyed for the Penshurst Panthers.
    Greg “Huey” Harris who played at St George under his father, then coached East Sydney to 3 flags in the early 80s. After that he coached the Swans U 19s then was chairman of the match committee under Baraas and Rocket Eade.
    Greg Steven was his rover at the Panthers. His father, Neil, now in his 90s, represented NSW at the 1947 Carnival in Hobart. He roomed with Keith Miller!

    Great to hear footy going well down south in St George and the Shire!

  9. Angle Zissis says:

    Rocket and others, yep footy alive and well in Sydney South. This year the mighty Penshurst RSL Panthers celebrate our 58th year as a junior Australian football club playing in the St George area. We are certainly proud of all our players, we have a fine tradition. Players like Matt’s son abound at the Panthers. We are fortunate to have around 20 players in the Swans Academy across a number of age groups. Not only is it an enormous feat for each of these boys to be selected in a program like the Swans Academy, it is also fantastic for the Club and footy as a whole, because these boys bring new leanings and experience back to our Club. Long live Aussie rules footy. Angle Zissis, President, Penshurst RSL Panthers JAFC

  10. Steven Chichester says:

    Fantastic description Matt that gave me fond memories of when my boy first went along. He is now in Under 15s and each week still cant wait to get to training. I hope you son enjoys every moment and especially the overall approach the Swans have to making positive young men, it is not all just about the footy and the Swans should be very proud of that. Good luck to Lachlan.

  11. Matt, great article. My son sounds like he is in the age group above your boy at Panthers and Academy. I echo your sentiments on waiting for “the letter”. We had an extra layer to the experience, as my son didn’t make the final cut at his first attempt in 2011, when a bunch of his Panther mates did. He was gutted and he/ we did a lot of soul searching and spent the year working on his skills. When the trials came around the following year he wanted to go back for more, and I won’t forget the effort and zip he put in at those trials and he was asleep in the car on the way home after each. When he opened that final letter it was the greatest life lesson for him to date…perseverance! It’s with a great sense of pride that his swans tattoo wearing (’05 roadtrip) grandfather takes him along to academy to watch him develop.

  12. Hi Matt, great article.
    Was wondering if you had an update on your son’s progress? How have things gone? What changes have you noticed? Does the Academy do what it’s set out to do, and lift the overall quality of AFL in Sydney by disseminating skills throughout the leagues? Inspire more sportspeople to consider AFL as a career?

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Great article Matt and I ditto , Damien’s post directly above

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