Training in ‘smarts’ makes more intelligent footballers
Posted by Dean Holden at June 30th, 2014
by Jenny McAsey, 19 April 2008
Collingwood’s Alan Richardson discusses some concentration drills with a group of players.
KICK and catch. Lane work, up and back from one plastic cone to the next. Push-ups if you dropped the ball.
That was about as sophisticated as training got when Leo Barry moved from the country NSW town of Deniliquin to Sydney in 1994.
It stayed that way for nearly 10 years. Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, going through the training motions, no matter where or when the Swans were playing.
Drills were designed to produce silky skills. Trouble was, when it came to game time, it wasn’t that easy to hit your team-mate when there were 18 opponents with other ideas. Training bore little or no resemblance to games. Clubs practised skills in isolation. “All we used to do was run and catch and kick,” Barry says.
Now most clubs, and especially the teams who are heading up the ladder this year, including Geelong, Hawthorn, Sydney, Adelaide and Collingwood, have radically re-shaped training.
“Nowadays apart from a bit of skills, it is all game-plan and strategy-based,” Barry says. “It gives players an opportunity to make decisions on the ground and really focus on the opposition team you are playing.”
That is why most clubs have introduced closed training sessions. It is a dress rehearsal for their weekend show.
At the Swans, they often use handball games to mimic working in heavy traffic. It sharpens decision-making and awareness. In 2004, coach Paul Roos started game simulation that is so realistic the reserves players wear the jumper numbers of that week’s opposition.
This week, for example, young Matt O’Dwyer, who hasn’t yet played a senior game, may have pretended to be Cats’ premiership player James Kelly. Gary Ablett and James Bartel look-a-likes would have been lurking at the stoppages against Kieren Jack or Jude Bolton.
When Roos blows the whistle in 2008, it is usually to ask questions of his players, not to bark instructions.
“Tell me what’s wrong with that?” Roos will query, and it is the players, not the coach, who have to find the solution.
At Collingwood, Alan Richardson heads the development academy which has fast-tracked young players such as Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas, Travis Cloke and Irish greenhorn Marty Clarke into the elite ranks with spectacular haste.
“In training, we try to replicate both the time and space pressures the game demands so they have the ability to make the right decisions,” Richardson says.
“There has been a strong shift. The biggest difference is we hardly ever have witch’s hats or cones out on the ground now because they don’t allow players to train with instinct. We need them to work in movement patterns like they are going to do in a game,” Richardson argues.
It is called game-based training or game-sense training and it has been used in European soccer for the past few decades.
It has come late to Australian football, where coaches have generally been champion players not expert “teachers”.
David Wheadon, who is responsible for skills acquisition and game development at premier Geelong, is one of the main instigators of the AFL training revolution.
Wheadon spent a couple of years as a rover at Collingwood in the late 1960s, but that is not how he has made his impact in football. For the past 21 years he has worked with five different clubs and is an expert in teaching skill development to players and coaches.
He has just released a new book Drills and Skills in Australian Football, published by the AFL — a practical guide for coaches at all levels. He first wrote a book of the same title in the 1980s but in 2008 the content is markedly different.
Back then drills were based on improving players’ kicking, marking and handball technique. Now they are primarily based on bettering a players’ ability to think through on-field situations and then to use technique as a tool to carry out the decision. “If you think about it, games are played and playing involves tactical challenges,” Wheadon said.
“Even if it is chasey, you have to decide where to run. You don’t run and say, ‘Oh I have a good high knee-lift’. You run and you hide and play. In football, before every kick or handball you have to make a decision.”
No surprise, the new way has been adopted wholeheartedly at Geelong.
Wheadon joined the Cats at the end of 2006 and found coach Mark Thompson and his assistants were gifted football teachers who were like-minded and already heading down that path.
Wheadon is not taking any credit for Geelong’s ability to play on a different plane to every other team in 2007.
And he gives credit for his conversion to game-based training to sports scientist Damian Farrow, skill acquisition specialist at the Australian Institute of Sport.
Wheadon says Farrow is a “guru” to Australian coaches when it comes to decision-making training.
Farrow has a consultancy with the Adelaide Crows, one of the most innovative AFL clubs, where he has introduced both practical and computer-based programs to improve game-day decisions.
Farrow believes all clubs are now using the new training methods in varying degrees, and points out that the past four premiership teams – Port Adelaide, Sydney, West Coast and Geelong – are all exponents. “Look at a team like Geelong and you look at their teamwork, particularly the players that don’t have the footy, what they are doing off the ball,” Farrow said.
“It is a skill that has to be trained, to position yourself to get the next kick. You see it in the ability of players to communicate and organise themselves.”
The scientists and the coaches have been convinced of the need to focus on teaching football “smarts” by global research on the best players in invasive sports – sports where players encounter traffic and can enter opponents’ territory. Volleyball is not an invasive sport but AFL and basketball are.
Research showed the elite players were the smartest players, not necessarily the best technicians.
In Australian football, the champions read the play more intuitively.
Wheadon says they often come from rural or regional backgrounds where they have played against older kids, or are indigenous and have had many hours of unstructured play as kids.
And then there are the moments that come once in a lifetime, as Leo Barry learned when the ball headed towards the West Coast goal face with the Swans leading by four points in the 2005 grand final.
Should he punch the ball or should he mark it? In an instant, Barry decided to go for the mark and by making the right decision, history was made.