Remember when Tony Lockett kicked his 1300th goal? There’s a video on Youtube. Watch him as he lines up the kick. One after another he performs the motions that comprise his routine. First he bends and rubs the grass with his right-hand. Both hands then straddle the balls’ laces as they hang, ape like, in front of his knees. Two breaths and he straightens, walks, skips and accelerates. At the right moment, with his balance even, he opens his left arm wide and lowers the ball with his right onto his boot, swinging, metronomic, towards goal. His hips are square, his eyes on the ball. It was a routine replicated many times in school yards and local ovals. The walk back, the breaths, the left-hand salute before putting the ball straight through the sticks. That routine won him four Coleman medals and more goals than anyone, ever. Plugger is long retired but since then, there haven’t been many like him. Are they all gone, the legendary goal kickers?

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True, kicking for goal isn’t easy. There’s the man on the mark, the sense that you have little room to miss (the goal posts stand 6.4m apart), players yelling at you, distance, angle. Add to this a crowd, which in the AFL averages nearly 35 thousand and it’s a tough gig. Goal kicking isn’t a position many thrive in, certainly not in the AFL. AFL teams are collectively kicking at 53 percent this year. That’s to say, every time a player has a shot at goal, they have a 50/50 chance of success. How is it that a skill so rudimentary to the game, one of the first taught at school clinics and refined through the club years, is so inaccurate at the elite level?

Historically, 53 percent in front of goal is about par. 20-years ago the league collectively kicked goals an average of 52 percent of the time. And that’s where it’s been since (give or take a percentage point). Meanwhile, kicking in play is much more accurate. Teams are taking between 74 and 107 marks per game on average this year, as opposed to 64 and 81 in 1991. That’s a big swing. It shows that clubs are putting greater importance on in-play kicks than they were twenty years ago. There has been a shift from positional play, to controlling the ball at all costs. ‘Dominated clearances’ is the winner’s moniker in 2011. Whereas players used to hold their positions, freeing up space at stoppages, they are now more concerned with how often they can get the ball inside 50 and how long it stays there. Conversion rates are redundant if the ball doesn’t go to your opponents’ end; just take another shot. Games are being won on behinds. In their 2010 premiership winning season, Collingwood kicked accurately on averaged less than 50 percent a game. Control the ball, you control the game.

This mindset, ‘more shots are better than straight shots’, is at the heart of the success of 2011’s competition leaders, Collingwood and Geelong. Collingwood has won on five occasions this season despite goaling less than 50 percent of the time. Geelong, the only team to beat the premiers in 2011 did so with a dismal percentage of 32. Geelywobbles anyone? These are not isolated. See Richmond over Sydney in round 21, or Carlton over North Melbourne in round 19.

The Sydney Swans, who average the worst in front of goal per game in the league (46 percent as at round 22), are known as one of the pioneers of ‘flooding’; a strategy used to increase the time the ball is in your forward 50; ideally increasing your shots on goal. In 2005 Sydney was seventh on the list of the season’s top goal scorers and still they won the flag. Collingwood, Carlton, Geelong, Hawthorn, West Coast all practice flooding now. And it’s effective – these teams make up the top five.  Accuracy almost doesn’t matter.

But there are moments, often big moments, when a match hangs on the competency of an individual’s kick. With the siren imminent, less than a goal down, the player with the ball in his hands will tell you accuracy matters alright. Ask Brendan Fevola. Against the Hawks in ’09, round six, I’ll bet he wished he’d taken 30 more pot-shots that week at training.

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The mind plays a big part in goal-kicking, just like it does in golf and cricket and Rugby. Any action where the athlete has time to talk themselves into a big moment and out of confidence is susceptible to embarrassment. It’s embarrassing because the skill required in those big moments is usually one the player’s practiced since Kanga cup or Milo cricket or Auskick. To counteract the mind games, players develop a routine. Like an old jumper, your body knows a routine and can more easily cope with moments where your brain decides to get loud. It’s sports psychology 101. Rugby goal-kicking guru Braam Van Straaten suggested ‘mental toughness’ is the reason James O’Connor will be the heir to Dan Carter’s kicking throne. A routine trains the mind, makes it tough. Look around the AFL; how many set-shot routines can you think of? Buddy Franklin’s maybe. Jonathan Brown’s perhaps. Can you emulate them? Could your kids? More likely they’re down the oval copying Chris Judd’s pick-up and dish or Stephen Milne’s step. Most Rugby players of both codes have a conversion routine. Watch as St George Illawarra’s Jaime Soward scratches the turf with his boots, turns in a circle and visualises the kick before taking the shot. Or O’Connor’s stationary robot-run and clean follow through. Both kick at more than 75 percent. Sure, in Rugby the ball is stationary but all the other elements are there. The fact is Rugby players split the sticks much more often than AFL players. Up until round 20 of this season, the NRL’s first and some second choice goal kickers were kicking a collective 76 percent. There’s no reason AFL players can’t get closer to that.

Ex-player Luke Darcy criticised AFL’s goal-kicking earlier this year. He too pointed out the lack of routine to the 2011 set-shot. “Incredibly, there are still large numbers of AFL players who don’t have a consistent goal-kicking routine. They simply run in, take aim and fire without any real understanding of what went wrong when the ball sails through for a behind,” Darcy wrote. The stats back Darcy. Just nine players who have missed one or two games have managed more than 70 percent this season. Of them only Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt has kicked more than 50 goals. The competition’s leading goal scorer, Lance Franklin, who kicks at 57 percent, has 66 goals. In a game where everyone’s a potential goal kicker, nine players are too few.

One argument for the lack of accuracy is today’s players are worked harder. Three-time Coleman medallist Matthew Lloyd revealed recently that he used to have to approach coaches for extra set-shot practice during training. According to Lloyd, training and fitness staff place precedence on the hard yakka which consequently means more time recovering. Players have also blamed the intensity of the game of which the sub -rule has played a contributing factor. These seem like funny points of blame though considering how often players are called upon to win a game from a set-shot. Come that moment when a player in your team has one kick to win it, wouldn’t you want them to have more than a 50 percent chance of success?

Considering how few players who have more than a 50 percent chance of success, Tony Lockett is the Glenn McGrath of goal kicking. He sits on an echelon rarely frequented and only ever for short periods. The secret to McGrath’s success was patience and diligence. If a player wants to kick like Lockett, they’ll have to show patience and diligence. It isn’t easy. But look what happens when teams do start converting their opportunities. Sydney very nearly upset Collingwood in round 14 after they kicked 14.9 to the premiers’ 13.21 (this was one of the Swans’ six plus-50 percent efforts up to round 22). Geelong’s thumping of Melbourne in round 19 was in part thanks to a 77 percent hit rate. Winning is not, nor has it ever been a goal-determinate pursuit. But the players who take a bit of extra time to grind out a routine may well win their team a premiership one day. There’s still only one Tony Lockett.


By Keiran Deck


  1. Alovesupreme says

    I agree with the general thrust of the article, but I’m unclear as to whether you’ve conflated set shots and all shots. The problem with including all non set shots, is that some are the dribbled from the goal square to an unguarded goal, while others are a wing and a prayer shot from the boundary under pressure, or a desperate long bomb from outside 50, with no unguarded option available.
    I can’t recall who the Australian golfer was who made a similar criticism of goal shooting accuracy, but he had some pithy observations to make about, the need for practice (cf. golfers’ putting), and the need for focus, no mock leads from team-mates etc., as well as the critical importance of a routine.
    Aussie Rules players are at a disadvantage compared to both codes of rugby, where the game is literally halted, no intereference, no distractions at least from inside the playin g field.

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