Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 12: Drafting predators

12… drafting predators



In my examination of the recent AFL draft, I suggested that it could be functionally adaptive for the new draftees to embody the John Lennon sentiment that to make it, one has to be a bastard – and by extension, the bigger the level of bastardry, the higher the level of achievement.


Upon reflection, I did a poor job outlining and clarifying the nuances of how Lennons’ notion of bastardry could relate to AFL draftees making it.  This was further highlighted (to me) when former Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke (in a timely yet unrelated and independent forum from my commentary) opined that Australian cricket would benefit more from a philosophy of being respected, rather than being liked – which I take as an endorsement of Lennons’ view.


In light of this, perhaps an examination of what draftees should not be, may supplement the lack of precision from my last piece.  To do this, I’ll draw from a neuropsychological perspective – my attempt to more safely inform and illustrate how not to be bad.


In his 2010 book, The Master and his Emissary, author Iain McGilchrist examines the human brain and in particular, its structural organization. One compelling insight from McGilchrist’s work (richly drawing on insights from philosophy, psychology, neurology and many other ologies) is that each hemisphere of our brain (i.e., left and right) evolved to manage two fundamental and competing issues of life – the organism as both predator and prey.


Over time, and especially during the formative stages of our evolution, humans have been predators and prey.  As a consequence, to satisfy these opposing modes of being, the brain must interpret, interact, and react to the world in two functionally distinct ways.  The organization into two separate hemispheres, one for each mode, seems a logical evolutionary solution to this complex issue of competing environmental circumstance.


As a consequence, our brains, wired by an immense evolutionary catalogue of success and failure, filter the information in our environment to compel us toward whatever aids survival whilst simultaneously driving us from the harmful.  Much of our nervous system is geared toward approach or aversive states of being and a task of the brain is to inhibit one of these behaviors (indeed, much of our brain is designed for inhibition).  Therefore, when absorbed in predator mode, our approach systems (play, reward, explore) are activated whilst the braking mechanism of our aversive system (fear, disgust etc) is inhibited.


For the AFL draftees therefore, using the lens of predator would be the most adaptive response to their newly found situation.  A predatory mindset (the approach/appetitive network) will more likely view discomfort as a challenge for a stronger future self whilst settling trepidation and fear enough to proceed forth. This mindset will scour the environment for opportunities to improve, grow and flourish and help constantly orient their attention to the task at hand.  It is the realm of explore and play.


Conversely, the prey mindset will anchor toward threat, failure and the insufficiencies of the individual – constantly finding the gap between where they are and where they should be. We tend to find what we’re looking for, so prey mode will overestimate threat. This is commonly experienced as anxiety and to resolve this dissonant state, the brain starts to think…and thinking begets thinking and a spiral of rumination and excessive self-monitoring follows.


This unfortunate spiral of distress increasingly occupies our thoughts, thus limiting the cognitive resources available to attend the task relevant information in our environment.  We miss the helpful cues present in the game and the likelihood of poor performance increases – compounding our stress and deepening our mental dance of despair.


Sadly, out-of-form athletes often bear a resemblance to being in prey mode – they share a timidity and sense of fear that is consistent with lacking confidence.  The prey mentality is not a weakness – it emerged as a highly adaptive survival mechanism – but it is more associated with surviving, as opposed to thriving.


To be clear, I use of the term predator mode to refer to the engagement of the play and explore circuitry within our nervous system – I’m not sure how John Lennon or Michael Clarke would interpret being a predator.  I’ve made this connection by combining the ideas of two different theories (drawn from my understanding of the work by McGilchrist and Jaak Panksepp).


To me, seeing athletes at the top of their game and playing confidently is analogous to watching a predator circling and stalking their prey (Viv Richards springs to mind).  An athlete in this mode is free (from over-thinking and being over-cautious) to play and so ends up playing freely.


*             *        *


I would like to thank you for reading my contributions to the Almanac this year.  I’m particularly indebted to John Harms for his encouragement, patience and input (a sentiment no doubt shared by many) and I look forward to firing up my philosophical theory factory in the new year.


Take care and have a good break.




Read more of David’s pieces HERE.





About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Didn’t Dermie once say that Leigh Matthews has no natural predator?

  2. Yet another thought-provoking piece.

    How do you explain the situation of someone who started life very competitive but has been drained of every competitive fibre in his being? (Just asking for a friend)

    And your own observations and explanations have been very engaging in recent months, and as well, you’ve intorduced us to numerous thinkers and theorists. #morereadingtimerequired

  3. DS – read this piece not long after reading your GF reflection in the Eagles Almanac book. In your GF piece you talked a lot about the country boys – Hurn and McGovern – and how they stayed in the moment even when Collingwood led early.
    Made me wonder what changed for them between 2015 and 2018 other than time and experience. Hurn had a Barry Crocker in 2015. I recall him missing a set shot from 20 metres out straight in front in the 2Q. In 2018 he had a ‘mare in the first quarter. 2 turnover kicks resulted in Magpie goals, and I recall thinking “they are his 2 worst kicks of the season”.
    In the crowd I was “here he/we go again” but the men in the ring seemed to be able to compartmentalise and return to the task at hand. I dunno what would have happened without those 2 late settling goals just before QT. I know I thought “we’re back in it; we’ve settled and are playing the better footy if we can avoid the nerves/clangers”.
    And so it proved. McGovern was similarly ordinary in 2015 and crucial in 2018.
    I wonder if it was more than just phlegmatic country boys and experience. Was there something of the near death experience about 2015, and a new found philosophy of ‘nothing outside us can hurt us as much again’.
    The contrast between the 2 GF’s is just so stark.

  4. Really interesting, David (thanks for your pieces this year which I have been thoroughly enjoying). Coaching a couple of different sports at junior levels it’s an idea I’m fascinated by. Watching two kids with vaguely similar physical attributes and skills perform with very different results on the field. Watching a child who dominates a scratch match at training shrink into obscurity on game day. I suspect this has a fair amount to do with it – the key, then, is to work out how to get them into the correct mindset.

  5. david stiff says

    I love the Leigh Matthews quote – having no predators comes with being at the top of the hierarchy I guess. As for the denuded competitive state, I can see more of that happening with the domesticating effects of leftist equity – not keeping score in junior sport for example.
    Bad experiences are often more transformationally powerful and informative if they’re accepted for what they are – a learning experience. I agree with you about the near-death experience – from the outside it is consistent with what happened with the Eagles this year. They chose to respond from past trauma adaptively and they flourished from it. My question is how much luck was involved?
    I think if the coach is consistent in their relational behaviour with their athletes and a secure base is established (along with a sense of fun and growth), then the chances for them to find the correct mindset increases. For a long time I thought I was just a soft-cock for preferring to play with freedom and a nothing-to-lose mindset but as I have tried to present in this piece, I think it naturally links with our physiology. A sense of playing-with-freedom switches on our play and exploratory circuitry, just as a specific goal can switch on our appetitive drives (the dopaminergic system that crucially underpins addiction). Individuals vary as to which “system” drives their behaviour (Helen Fisher has some interesting insights into this) and that is why coaching is an art – working out how to best help different individuals unite to a common end.

  6. David, Great use of that grossly under-used ‘denuded’. If you want a persuasive study of the playing with freedom concept try Geelong FC 2006/2007. I can remember Cameron Ling taking a mark and then being paralysed with fear across half-back and after many seconds chipping sideways. An inyeresting cahnge in mindset from many Geelong players in 2007 – which coincided with the arrival of Joel Selwood and Neil Balme and Tom Harley becoming skipper. Three very interesting characters Quite different, but with much to offer.

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