Yarra Man: The lowdown on the elite

By Tavis Perry

THE talk of whether Lou Richards should be inducted into the AFL hall of fame coincided with Jason Akermanis’ 300th game. Aker is undoubtedly one of my favourite all-time players. The subsequent articles on him and the hall of fame inductees made for some interesting reading on one of my favourite topics: what separates the elite from the rest.
I was intrigued reading about Mark Bickley, who was originally overlooked by Adelaide, then went on to become the Crows’ inaugural premiership captain. Bickley stated that the initial setback of being told he wasn’t up to AFL standard gave him the impetus to really improve his training habits. In subsequent competitive training drills he made sure his intensity was greater than his teammates. This approach obviously flowed on to his footy and it was his competitive spirit that helped cement his place among the elite.
Guy McKenna also made a fascinating statement when he was asked to name his hardest opponent. He said Gavin Brown. When asked why, he didn’t mention Brown’s skill, pace, endurance or agility. He said it was because of the former Magpie’s uncompromising attack on the ball and the man. It didn’t matter if the Pies were up by ten goals, down by ten goals or the game was in the balance, Gavin Brown would hit the ball and the opposition with unflinching courage and determination.
Jason Akermanis was born with an abundance of natural energy, which, on advice from doctors, he used to help improve his pace and endurance. He also tirelessly practised his all-round foot skills, which improved to such a level that Leigh Matthews hailed him as “probably the most gifted all-round kick the game has seen”’ Aker’s work ethic, discipline and dedication coupled with his high running capabilities have ensured his place among the elite.
I played for the Bendigo Pioneers in the under-18 competition from 1996-98. several players were drafted from the Pioneers during this period, all with assets that set them apart. Mark Alvey went on to play around 70 games for the Western Bulldogs and Essendon. He wasn’t necessarily quick, he didn’t have outstanding endurance, but he had the knack of being able to pre-empt where the ball was going to be. Where a lesser player may have arrived at a contest a metre too soon or a metre too late, you could be sure that Mark would arrive at the exact right time.
His two best mates also had attributes that set them apart. Dean Solomon and Chris Tarrant were more than 190 centimetres and had amazing athletic ability. They were both incredibly quick off the mark, had great leaps and were strong. Those characteristics did, and still do, make them extremely difficult to match up against. Even as sixteen-year-olds you could tell that those two were certainties to forge successful AFL careers.
Daniel Harris’s main attribute was his strength over the ball and his clean hands. When he was about sixteen he really wanted to accentuate this strength so that he was basically unstoppable when the ball was on the ground. He turned himself into a clearance machine and even up until last year was ranked one of the top clearance players in the AFL.
There are some players whose physical features mean they’re “custom made” to play AFL football. Then there as those like Mark Bickley or Gavin Brown who have special mental qualities. These traits are un-coachable. However, the hard work, discipline and willingness to practise as shown by Daniel Harris and Aker are definitely able to be coached.
A lot of coaches tell junior players that hard work alone will ensure they make it to elite ranks. Yet I believe they need to be more specific and encourage their players to focus on ironing out deficiencies or exacerbating strengths
One of the great features of AFL football is that you need to have only one outstanding element to your game, whether it be physical, mental or skill-related, and you can scale the heights of the elite.

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