My Take On Congestion

Morphing of interpretation over time is an interesting dilemma.

Back in the day if you were caught with the ball it was a free kick. Everyone was acutely aware of how quickly you could get rid of it and most players had the awareness to know they were about to be tackled and would act accordingly.

Players knew this and would either get rid of it immediately (and haphazardly) or didn’t take possession and knocked the ball on.

In fact the ball was not handballed to them in the first place. (That is probably the reason there are 420 possessions a game these days and not 220 as was the case.)

The other interesting aspect was it nearly obliterated the need to have multiple handballs in a confined, contested-ball area because sooner or later the tackler would nail someone with the footy.

The other outcome was the ball being cleared from congested areas by hand or foot immediately.

The critically important effect of this contested ball mayhem was the need to have players forward of the ball to contest the haphazard kick, knock-on or handball.

Over time players – through coaching – have learned the art of bluffing umpires. Put simply players will not release the footy to space or opponents and if they do they will be front and square at the video review getting pilloried by coaches for releasing the footy.

I find it amazing the hand speed of players executing handballs to teammates in general play, yet equally astonishing how slow they are when a teammate is not available to receive it?

The rule does not stipulate prior opportunity “only when an option is available”. When there is no option watch players make a simple, nanosecond handball a long drawn out clumsy attempt that ends up being adjudicted a ball up by the umpires because he didnt have prior opportunity.

I find it equally amusing how players no longer raise their arms just prior to the inevitable tackle to release the ball. If their hands are free they must release the ball – which they dont want to.

They want a stoppage, reset, start again.

Players – Nathan Buckley & Chris Judd immediately come to mind – were outstanding at raising their arms keeping them free from being pinned by the tackler and able to release footy to a teammate on the outside. In this current tactical minefield, coaches have become paranoid of the footy being released in a pressure tackling situation. They believe the more controlled, conservative approach is to accept the tackle, create a stoppage and start again. This is a similar premeditated approach to moving the ball around the boundary line and avoiding the corridor so that at any point in time it is easy to get it out of bounds for another stoppage. It also makes the situation easier to defend.

This is the mindset all over the ground – defend first, attack second.

The upshot of all this tactical genius is a boring, manic-defence driven, conservative display to the fans. Coaches couldn’t care less about this of course. They think they are doing the best thing for their footy club – how wrong they are.

There was a time when teams believed the greatest form of defence was attack. Getting the ball into dangerous positions – corridor – was the best way to put the opposition under the pump. That’s not the case these days. Apart from finals football and definitely Grand Final day at the MCG.

Coaches – from both sides I might add – are comfortable to have a defensive, conservative, risk averse approach to their ball movement which is ably supported by 36 players in the back half and no options going forward on the turnover.

So what do the AFL do?

They form a committee of guru’s to think tank over 30 options to change rules. These possible options are seen as ways to unclog the game and make congestion more difficult.

What they haven’t considered is the ability of coaches – with too much time on their hands and too many involved – to counteract the potential rule changes with equally controlling, conservative measures that renders the new rules useless.

The option I consider most effective is detailed in the first part of this article; if you are caught with the ball it is a free kick, unless the ball is knocked out in the tackle without prior opportunity.

It is how the rule was meant to be but we have morphed it over time (decades) into giving much more time and flexibility to the ball carrier than they need to get rid of it.

Now before you jump to the ridiculous assumption that players will not contest the footy and will stand back and wait for a player to take possession to tackle him, think through your logic deeply. Take time this week to watch a game whilst applying the simple authentic application of the rule and I am certain you will see its ability to change the game dramatically. It will arrest it away from the conservative, defensive approach adopted by coaches and give the game back to the players and significantly improve the spectacle.

On top of this if teams do not have players forward of the ball to receive these “haphazard” kicks it will be at their peril. This will assist the structure of teams and the excitement with enhanced, multiple contested-ball situations.

Finally I am a strong advocate of leaving the game alone. Focus on the people – the coaches – that are adversely affecting the spectacle and hold them to account. The media needs to delve more deeply into the psyche adopted by coaches in their defensive set ups. Ask the questions and when you get your standard lame explanation ask “why” and then ask “why” again. Eventually you’ll get to the root cause of their strategy – fear and security!

Culture & People Managers Drive Success Not Tacticians

Through trial and error, media pressure – and seemingly the end of the road – coaches are finally understanding that footy is actually not about footy.

Dimma Hardwick was under massive pressure prior to his resurgence and ensuing premiership. Now I must state from the outset that I have no inside information on how or why coaches have transitioned themselves from tactical coaches to cultural coaches however it has become very apparent (evidentiary) to me that there is a move in the right direction.

Neil Balme appears to have been the catalyst for a change in thinking for Dimma. My external view of Dimma is that he is a jovial people person with a good handle on tactics. In my opinion he didn’t completely understand the impact of culture management and had an imbalance between the “like” and “respect” aspects of the leadership role. This is a real coach-killer for inexperienced recently retired players. They desperately want to be liked and received well by the players – some of whom they’ve either played with or against.

It seems to me that Neil Balme was able to slightly adjust Dimma’s thinking and approach to coaching which enabled his real strengths and attributes to be displayed. The now legendary “Triple H” sessions conducted by the team was a real driving force to their premiership win. Telling your fellow players about your Hero, Hardship and Highlight is an intimidating and emotional process however the impact is dramatic. The level of trust, respect and understanding gained through those sessions enabled the side (a group of talented individuals) to come together as a team (a group of selfless, considerate, trusted, team focussed players).

Similarly we are seeing a shift in management style from Nathan Buckley with equally dramatic results. There is no doubt in my mind that Buck’s has previously lacked empathy and connection with his players and his rapport has been built around their talent, effort and discipline to follow instructions. His approach has somewhat “softened” in my view as he is now considering his players as people along with addressing the cultural aspects of his club. Empathy is vital from your coach and I think Buckley has realised his players want him to be more considerate of their personal and off-field circumstances and not just their ability to be in the correct spot at the right time or make the right choice and execute perfectly.

His recent internal deal (bet) with the players on not shaving whilst his team obeys a certain rule at stoppages has gained significant momentum from the media regarding his appearance however the real gem in all of this is his humility and engagement with players. They now feel very connected to him and that feeling appears mutual.

Strong, assertive leadership with empathy and compassion are vital ingredients for coaching success. For some they seem at odds with each other however the true talent is dealing with the confrontation of leadership and relationship.

Most coaches still think footy is a game of chess and can be won on the stats sheet or magnet board. Thats rubbish.

The coaches who really come to terms with cultural management, people management, strong leadership with care and understanding are able to apply their technical nous on the game to greater effect.

Those that think it’s unnecessary will come to a grinding halt over time until the penny drops.

Coaches who have been outstanding assistant coaches or development coaches should be left there to be great at what they are excellent at. Unfortunately we pick them up and thrown them into the Head coach cauldron expecting them to be a success and yet we are effectively dooming them to failure. Why? Because they don’t understand some of the key components of leadership – or if they do they do not know how to implement it.

We are seeing more and more evidence of technical coaches failing and its not their fault.

The criteria for selecting a coach to lead your club, drive sustainable success and cultural change is far more complex than a former player with a couple of years excelling tactically or developmentally.

Tackling, Bumping Madness!

Jordan Lewis recently mentioned how players are now laying players on the ground when they go limp in a tackle so as to protect them from injury (and probably avoid suspension the truth be known). One solution is to ban tackling and adopt a “touch footy” approach?

Thats a joke of course!

Western Bulldogs captain Katie Brennan, has been suspended, lost an appeal and missed the AFLW Grand Final for a tackle that for 150 years would have been applauded from both sides – it was a beauty!

Katie didn’t want to focus attention on her situation and distract the preparation from the team so she withdrew her court appeal and just filed proceedings with the Australian Human Rights Commission challenging the AFL rules instead – that’ll get some attention!.

I’m reluctant to mention the last few years bumping incidents because of the breadth of inconsistency.

So here we have two great (fundamental) elements of our game severely under threat – no, relatively extinct. All in the name of community or society values and sending brand enhancing messages. I’m sorry but I just don’t get it.

How can a competition that has been so respected for its raw courage and physical contests be reduced to this?

Before you cry foul, let me once again say – for the umpteenth time – the courage displayed and physical attributes (including sublime skills), of current day players is beyond reproach and unquestionably the best its ever been. I will go on to say that fact has also been a constant for 15 decades. Each era is similarly improved in all aspects of the game.

If a player bumps another player and both players hit heads and are concussed, does the bumping player get suspended or is it put down as accidental contact?

Players should be allowed to bump if the first contact point is the body. Any resultant whiplash scenario’s should be put in the “that’s footy” basket. Perhaps players with the footy will accept more responsibility to protect themselves rather than the completely open approach they currently adopt. Merrett was wide open, reaching in. In bygone days he would’ve had a choice to make in a split second. One option was the decision he made, another would have been to turn his body whilst taking possession and the third would be to meet the opponent physically whilst taking possession.

My point is we are taking the physical contests and clashes out of the game and in my mind they are vital to the spectacle. Players are rarely hurt.

Secondary to that why hasn’t the media focussed their attention on the untouchable medical/sports science staff? Why has it taken them so long to be paranoid about player concussions and act in a more protective manner? If player management was of a more professional standard perhaps future repercussion concerns could be avoided?

Maybe its time players miss 4 weeks and the rest of the season if they have 2 concussions?

It may give the player and club something to think about when writing reports also?

My point is; don’t completely ruin the game for the sake of professional mismanagement.

The tackling dilemma is an even more simple fix. Any player caught with the footy should be penalised for holding the ball. Watch players keep the ball alive!!!

It will be fascinating as I expect they would release by hand or foot a nanosecond prior to being tackled (much like yesteryear). The ridiculous situation at the moment is players only release if they have a team mate in the vicinity, otherwise they are directed to hold on to it, create a ball up and start again.

The benefit here is less ball ups, more contested footy, more one on one contests and excitement. Just think of the last few minutes of a game when teams are tied? They play on and release the footy every time instinctively and its spectacular to watch.

Coaches are diluting the spectacle with tactics that disallow players to do this in any other situation other than the aforementioned close finish.

Another reminder to the AFL; allow the AFL to be a very different set of rules than every other competition in the country. Make state, country, metro, women, kids, footy send the messages to society.

AFL Needs a Rejig

The basis of most hysteria and discussion, followed by “knee-jerk” rule changes are generally one of the following;

1: “A really bad look for footy”.
2: “A bad example for kids footy”.
3: “Wrong message to send players including kids”.

I have a novel idea that should have been introduced 20 years ago when officials took their oath to destroy the game as we knew it and adopt a community minded and vigilant approach to footy.

How about make a distinct gap between AFL and EVERY other competition in the land from juniors to seniors, country to metropolitan, women to men and seniors to reserves.

There is no doubt in my mind that the AFL executive and Commission completely lack courage and conviction and do not truly understand what they stand for and what the game fundamentals are. It seems the AFL executive is most interested in junior footy and every other league and uses the AFL to define it, rather than perhaps the other way around?

In their bumbling attempts to represent the community and be the lighthouse for society standards they are destroying the fabric of the game and diluting its greatest differentiating factor.

When anybody from overseas came to see our game they were gobsmacked with its physicality, intimidation and power. It was a tough, relentless game.
Before anyone jumps to the defence of today’s players let me make this crystal clear – they are easily as tough and brave and courageous as any other era, they just don’t have the rules or the coaching to allow them to display it on a regular basis.

I find more recently that people from overseas no longer hold that gladiator type view. Instead they just think its highly skilled and athletic, very difficult to understand and the rules are hard to follow.

This change in perception would be considered a major success by the community conscious AFL leaders.

Simply – in my mind – the AFL should be the big boys, the gladiators. All other competition’s outside the AFL should not be allowed to have the same rules, interpretations or guidelines.
Use all other competitions and grades to send the message to society about safety.
That’s not to say the AFL does not have that overlay, it just isn’t bound by them. Similar to pro boxing and amateurs. One has head gear, bigger gloves and less time the other doesn’t.

What has been happening over the last decade or so is this; players are becoming very poor at awareness and self-protection because the rules have been so heavily weighted to “clean footy”. The by-product of this is players do not know how to protect themselves at all times. The have relinquished that duty and think its the AFL’s job. An example is, “I’m allowed to drive heard first into a contest because I’ll either get a free kick or the umpire will protect me.”

An example would be the recent Toby Greene incident raising his leg into Dahlhaus’ face to protect the area whilst marking. Dahlhaus 10 years ago would’ve expected contact from Toby Greene and prepared accordingly. There are many incidents where players are being concussed because they just do not have the awareness or self protection in the first place and rely too heavily on the rules and umpires.

AFL is still the most dynamic, skilful, intense game going around however it could be 20-30% better if they stopped being the moral compass for society and advertised AFL as a dangerous, powerful and unique game with “pro rules” as distinct from all other grades. People want danger, they like to witness sportspeople overcoming adversity and handling fear.

The head can still be protected, punching and thuggery would still be completely outlawed however the element of danger needs to rise and the responsibility for self protection must lay with the professional gladiators – not the Commission, executive, rules committee or umpires.

After that, all we have to do is convince the coaches to change their risk averse, interest-sapping, un-Australian, boring tactics/strategies and we will return to the lead as the most amazing game on the planet.

Coaches Culpable for Concussion

Let’s make one thing very clear, coaches determine if players hold on to the ball or release it. 

Game reviews are brutal both as a group and one on one.  Coaches hate the ball released to a 50/50 situation or – worse still -directly to an opponent. Coaches like to control the game to within an inch of its life and in doing so demand that players hold on to the ball, create a ball up and start again. 

Coaches have become so risk averse that the game presents a neutral Mexican stand off on too many occasions. 

Interestingly come serious finals time the shackles are released and teams take many more risks. 

Players can release the footy in a nanosecond – believe me. They do it when it suits but when it doesn’t they revert to holding the ball close to their chest & absorbing the tackle. On most occasions it’s a ball up, “let’s structure up and start again” – mission accomplished. 

The rule doesn’t say you must have a team mate in the direct vicinity to release the footy to, however coaches demand it, players fulfil it and umpires accomodate. 

By holding ball close to chest the tackler is able to wrap the player up completely and subsequently he has no hands free to protect the fall. The result is sometimes concussion. 

There was a phase when players raised their arms to avoid being wrapped up and released footy to team mate.

When was the last time you saw a player raise his arms in this manner? Interesting isn’t it. Coaches have decided it’s unreliable and asked for more security by creating a ball up. 

In essence players are putting themselves into vulnerable positions at the request of their coaches. 

Unfortunately, media, AFL & others are looking at the effects and ignoring the causes. The effects are dramatic. Nobody wants to see concussed players. Like boxers, AFL players need to protect themselves at all times. 

The answer is to pay holding the ball to any players that are caught with the footy standing up. The upside is the ball is kept alive and released to a contested situation. This is what gets fans on the edge of their seats. There is nothing more deflating for the game than a ball up. When the ball is kept alive it creates a manic anticipation & excitement for fans  – albeit too much for the coaches to handle. 

If the ball is released just prior or during tackle – irrespective of where it lands – the player has his arms free and can protect his fall or even better still, tackler will release otherwise a free kick will be the result. 

Players are concussed and it’s somewhat of a badge of honour because its avoidable. Coaches need to have the courage and conviction to direct their players to release the footy. This is not the tacklers fault. 

Nick Riewoldt

Guangzhou China November 2005;
It was our final day before departure after an amazing cultural and training experience. The players were keen to pin their ears back, enjoy a few cold Tsingtao’s and perhaps introduce themselves to the local club scene. The 3 week session was incredibly taxing so the last night social was eagerly anticipated.
“Sunshine we need to thank our hosts tomorrow for their wonderful hospitality at the training camp.
They’ve struggled for 3 weeks trying to understand English so I thought it may be a nice touch for you to do the presentation on the clubs behalf in Chinese?
It would be good for your development and show great leadership.”
“Yeah I’ll give it a crack.” says Nick.
The following day Nick delivers a (near) faultless display thanking our Chinese friends.
What we didn’t know is that Nick gave up his right to go out with his 40+ team mates and sat in his room all night researching and putting together his 60 second Chinese thank you.
That says something.
People have said that Nick Riewoldt runs his opponents into the ground – rubbish.
He has never had a preconceived idea to run an opponent off his legs. He is such a competitive, driven beast he is on a never-ending pursuit of winning the footy. I’m not even certain he could name his opponent after a game – such is his fanatical focus on winning the ball.
The fact his opponent usually drops off is simply this; after 50 or so inside 50’s Nick has probably made multiple leads on all of those. That amounts to somewhere around 150 top-end sprints of varying distances. They are not to drop his opponent off, they are to win the ball.
That says something.
Nick has three primary qualities when meshed together provide a outstanding sportsperson.
Firstly he is a sponge for knowledge, information and development – he wants to get better, he wants to be the best he can be.
Secondly he is incredibly driven – hates failure and lack of effort.
Thirdly he is the pro’s pro – the ultimate professional. Leaves nothing to chance and dedicates himself to the task (sport) and challenge.
When you have a very good learner, who is motivated to succeed and prepares themselves in an “elite” manner, you have a superstar.
That says something.
Nick came to see me at my office in 2012, somewhat down in the mouth and on the precipice of throwing in the towel.
“Thomo I’m a bit flat and wanted to have a chat about my footy. How do you think it’s going?”
“Well Rooey I have a view as usual but it doesn’t really matter what I think – what do you think?”
“I think I want to start enjoying my footy” said Nick.
In essence the grind of successive Grand Final defeats was taking its toll.
“So you want to give up, toss it in, walk away? Because as sure as hell I won’t sit here and listen to this crap from you when you still have so much to give and do” I said (with a few more statements added in).
Needless to say Nick received a little “reality” about his desire to “enjoy” his footy. Nick was left with a decision to either retire from the game there and then or dig deeper into his heart and mind for an even greater effort and commitment to his game (which I wasn’t even sure was possible to be frank).
His response on the field was dramatic. He clearly understood that football enjoyment was an outcome not an input. Nick understands the cause and effect theory very well.
You don’t have a career for 17 years without a few of these hiccups. Nick is defined by the way he handles pressure and stressful situations. He’s had his fair share. The agonising and bitter circumstances around those close Grand Finals were used as a catalyst to dig in, recalibrate, re-align and go again.
That says something.
Nick Riewoldt is an amazing athlete playing footy. He has taken more marks than any player in the history of the game, and he did it with raw courage.
Not the type of courage we all admired at the SCG against Sydney when he put himself and others in serious mortal danger. Without consideration for his own circumstances he launched himself at a football he had no right to contest. Robert Harvey kicked the ball towards Stephen Milne and Nick wasn’t that far from Harv’s when he kicked it but he put his head down and sprinted with all his muscles pumping in unison to get him to a severely dangerous contest some 40 metres away. How he didn’t hurt himself or others is still a mystery. I was only able to watch from the coach’s box with one eye closed and the other squinting in anticipation of a dreadful outcome. In a strange way it defines Nick; his grace, his courage, his athleticism, his artistry.
That says something.
You see I have heard more opinions about Nick Riewoldt than I care to remember. The mystique around him is palpable. Through every publicised event during his incredibly successful career. Today at his press conference he put it all to rest. He joined the dots for all those fans who thought they knew Nick and wanted to believe he was something else.
He is just a remarkably talented guy from terrific family network that loves his chosen sport and was prepared to do anything to extract every ounce of potential out of his body. Simple to him. Extraordinary to us.
That says something.

Daring, Bravery Trumps All

Roger Federer said “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, the brave will be rewarded here.”, and “play the ball, not the opponent”.

What he meant is; he was not afraid to lose and was prepared for that outcome in an attempt to win.

He had many more unforced errors but also many more winners than Nadal, who is renowned as a defensive brick wall, keeping the ball in play. This seduces opponents to play the same – just keeping the ball in play and getting it back in. The problem is Nadal is the best in the business at this.

In a similar seduction the Swans and Eagles went through a bore fest during 2005 and 2006. Both teams exerting maximum negative, defensive tactics on each other and willing them into low score defeats.

When you are afraid to lose you provide manic support behind the ball, congestion at stoppages, control the ball movement patterns and maintain possession by passing the ball backwards and sideways.

There is a lot of sport these days that engages in an Indian arm wrestle of conservative counter punching – too afraid to deliver winning shots, knock out blows, 3 pointers, length of ground tries, dangerous passes, daring touchdowns and magnificent goals.

Basketball is a classic example. Whilst its a tad unfair (nevertheless the point is made), that its only worth watching the last 3 minutes of a basketball game because only then are they interested in actually winning the game.

I am of the view that if the Patriots were a bit closer to the Falcons in SuperBowl ’17 they would not have succeeded!

It was the enormous gap that provided the coaches with the daring and the players with the freedom of spirit to concoct the unbelievable cocktail we all witnessed in Super Bowl ’17. If it was closer, the entire mental dynamic over the game would’ve been different. Falcons are still driving the nail in the coffin and Patriots are still under the pump trying to release themselves and get into the game.

When sportspeople do not stay in the exact current moment and they start to think about the outcome (predict) or delve back into the past by either salivating over good performance or stressing over poor performance, incredibly bizarre things can happen. It happens in a nanosecond, may not even be a conscious thought you remember – but nevertheless the effects are catastrophic.

Without doubt the Falcon’s quarterback Matt Ryan was already on the dais accepting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He will not acknowledge that fact but take it to the bank – its fact. 

Both teams thought the game was over, however one team reduced their intensity to coast to the line whilst the other team rolled the dice and said “we have nothing to lose”, “lets make the score a bit more respectable through daring”, “who cares what happens now, lets just flick it and chance some things”.

It’s with the aforementioned in mind that I ask with bewilderment why is Suns coach Rodney Eade asking AFL to implement zones to counter congestion?

I was of the understanding that coaches dictated game strategy? Why doesn’t Eade just keep 3 keys forwards in his F50 zone and 3 key defenders in his D50 zone?

What is stopping him?

The answer is that unless other clubs do the same, coaches are concerned the negative, defensive tactics applied by opposition coaches will not allow their team to score as effectively or efficiently. So why bother?

The AFL are in charge of most things and are far too controlling of the game but to suggest they are now in charge of playing patterns, strategy, tactics, ball movement and structures is a bit much for me to comprehend.

What Rodney Eade is staying is this; 

Us coaches are petrified of the media, our board and executive and public criticism of performance. We want to keep our coaching role for a very long time so self preservation is our primary aim. There is no way I’m going to be the fall guy, test the market or try to break the defensive, congested nexus that envelopes the game at the moment. Why should I do it if all the others are just going to counterpunch, strangle and congest?

The easy way is to get the AFL to change rules so coaches have no option other than to play the game like Federer or the Patriots or any other great sports person or team that possesses the bravery, courage and verve to look defeat in the eye and suffer the consequences of trying to win – with honour.

Thank heavens for Bevo and Clarko!