I’ve been a slut lately. Coming back from injury, on the road because of the footy book. Last week I trained six nights in a row, with five clubs and one social group. The Bats, a nomadic club without a pub from the Pubs League, the Pakistani National Australian Rules footy team, preparing for the International Cup. My old team up in the ranges. The Wednesday Nighters – a group of blokes, mostly white collar, who can’t play on Saturdays for varying reasons, so, for years, do non-stop circle work at Princes Park. And, come Thursday, another mob, near the Melbourne Zoo. I’ve trained with them three times, now. They’re called the Vultures and seem like top blokes. Beyond that, I don’t even know their name. Just walked in, met a fellow Tassie boy, Chuck, and was away.
Those ex-Tassie boys. Every club has one. They come for school, they come for work. Few of them return home. “Boags or Cascade?” we asked each other. The standard North v South question, just to prove you’re local.
The club appears healthy. There must have been 50-60, plus juniors, on the track. We warmed up well, then the coach announced:
“Tonight, boys, something different. Brent Stanton will be taking training.”
Brent was a natural. He spoke clearly, with authority, and a warming smirk, as if talking to a best mate. Everything he said made sense.
Brent didn’t patronise us, somewhere in the lower Amateur divisions. He gave us AFL drills. Five-on-four, he showed us where to be, how to set up, how to get around set-ups. How to break and spread, how to tackle and corral. Each drill took so little time to set up, so little to explain. Each drill lead to a bigger drill with the same principles. You can teach an Old Dog new tricks. I learnt a lot. Not just about the game, but delivery.
He called us in after one drill that involved seven-on-five around the middle, kicking to six on six in the forward-line, then running the pill out again.
“Looked like chaos, didn’t it?” he smirked that corker smirk. “Messy.”
“Yep,” someone agreed.
“That’s great! That’s what a game is. The trick is to turn chaos into something crisp.”
And in that he validated everything I’ve ever thought about training and amateur and bush footy. That it all starts from training, and all witches hats should be burned.
For thirty-two-bloody years I’ve been listening to one well-intentioned coach after another, good people, smart people with sound game plans, as they’ve put out the cones and said: “Right, for this drill, you go from this cone to that cone and like in a match, switch to that cone and run to that cone.” Then: “Right, for the next drill, we’ll go from this cone to that cone, and work it to that cone who will run across and deliver to that cone.”
Not only does it teach you bad running habits, giving you non-match fitness, there are no cones out there on a Saturday.
Players at training don’t learn to think, they learn to run to cones. Then come game day, there is no game plan, there is not default reflex. Every drill bar the warm-up, eye-hand, touch-the-footy stuff, should reflect a match.
Every drill should involve the player with the ball having to making a decision.
Because that’s where game plans fall down. In the coalface. Because they’ve never been practised under pressure. Not to the point where it all becomes good habits.
Time and again the difference between a good team and a bad one is simply decision-making under pressure. With cones, you never, ever practice making the right decision.
I coached for nine years. Almost every drill in that time involved chaos. Options. Creating order. Even in handball drills.
Sometimes I stand at the back of the group, watching the cones being placed about as a player who wants to coach one day is given a go. Keen, earnest, he looks at his piece of paper and says: “Right, we’re going to start at this cone, and go to this cone, then…” And I’m totally blown away at how, in this modern world, stretches, diet and training can still be abandoned in the 70s.
I can only assume because it’s easier that way – starting stretches with lunges not backs, only eating carbs on a Friday rather than week-long programs, trying to keep drills nice and orderly.
Over half the AFL training facilities don’t have fences these days. How hard can it be, as a coach, to go to one Kangaroos training run, or Whitten Oval run, and learn something? To spend 20 minutes looking up modern stretches on the internet? Hell, to delegate someone from the leadership group to earn the title by spending 20 minutes on the internet. To get a sports dietician down for one night, for the 25% of the team, the kids, who want to take it seriously?
I watched Port versus the Hawks last night, with the volume off, so I couldn’t hear all the “special comments” morons talking the game down just to talk themselves up. The blokes around me got sick of my breathless ohhs and ahhs of wonder, and “How good is that?!”s and “My fucking God!!”s. The pace, the quickness of hand, the ability to handle a random ball, the ability to stand and deliver in a tackle, the ability to keep their feet, the way backmen charge through chaos, using the most amazing reflexes to create order, was electric. Mind-numbing. The game has never, ever, been further from its lower levels. AFL and Aussie Rules are almost not the same thing. It is a different beast entirely.
And in one, casual, perfectly spoken training run, Brent Stratton showed me why.
Later, he gave a small, casual Q&A. Smiling and looking each questioner right in the eye. Giving good, honest, polite answers. From the moment he arrived, to when he was done, we learned, or should have.
Brent was a true ambassador for his footy club. For football. A champion, good on him!
The Vultures are run by great people. From coaches to barman. It’s obvious. I’m curious about their training from here on in. And know that next time the cones come out in force, no matter where I am, I’ll have to bite my tongue that bit harder.