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As a Team Captain or Leader, the athlete has the tough job of keeping the big picture in sight, managing, directing players and helping them to be at their best physically and mentally, while still leading by example. It’s a tough gig, especially in Australian football, where 18 guys are running around a massive field in a game that goes at breakneck pace. Here Captain Andrew Swallow, together with Drew Petrie from the North Melbourne AFL team leadership group talk about how they manage the mammoth task.
“As a leader you need to not worry about your own game so much and turn your attention to your 17 teammates,” Drew says. “Directional talk as soon as you get on the field is really important. Help instruct teammates to make the right decisions when they’ve got the football in their hands and also when the opposition have the football.” Andrew adds that a vital part of the leader’s role is observation so you can direct the team.
“But it’s also important to set the example on the field, especially for the attack on the footy.”
“You need to educate players so they understand that the more successful you are as a team, the more successful you’ll become as an individual player and as a person,” Andrew says.
For the viewer and the media, the post-game talk is usually about the big flashy individual plays, but Drew points out that it’s teamwork that leads to a situation where these plays are possible.
“You have to reward players for things which make their role so crucial to the team, which might not necessarily be a really flashy goal or an impressive mark. That can be the teammate who is chasing down his opponent to prevent him from kicking a goal, or the guy who spoils the ball or shepherds the ball-carrier – the ‘one percenters’ we call them.
Andrew says that it’s important to set a framework for how you want the team to play, but at the same time every player must know their role and be allowed to play with freedom and to their strengths when the time is right.
“We encourage the players to back their own instinct and judgement. For example, Lindsay Thomas can be so impressive and creative in front of goal, so we want him to have the freedom to do that while still sticking to the team structure.”
“Players need to be allowed to show their natural talents and flair on the field – when the time is right,” Drew says. “For example, I love seeing Brent Harvey baulk around players and take five running bounces on the wing to kick an awesome goal. We encourage impressive stuff like that, but it has to be done in addition to what’s needed from a player’s individual role.”
At North Melbourne, feedback from other players is encouraged around the club, at training and in the game – but Andrew says it’s important not to let it distract you.
“As Captain, you do need to take it on board, but at the same time you have to stick to what you think is best and what the coach wants out of the group.”
Drew points out that as Leader, it’s also good to encourage players to give feedback to each other, too.
“It’s almost more important than hearing the Leader do all the talking. If you have all of your teammates wanting to contribute vocally and really invest into what the club’s doing, then the club will be successful. It’s a whole team effort.”
“I’ll regularly sit down and analyse a player’s performances to make sure they’re lining up with what their role and what the team requires,” Andrew says. You need to continually encourage, reward and support players when they’re doing things right.” Drew says that the key to getting players to stick to the game plan starts at training and continues after the game has finished.
“The team’s strategy has to be taught at training and then you learn by repeating game situation. It’s also really valuable to go through vision with your teammates and coaches so you can see examples when things work and don’t work both in games and in training. This is what helps brings results and a better understanding of how things are supposed to click togeher as a team.”
Sometimes when the game gets tight or it looks like you need a minor miracle to come from behind, the temptation for the team leader is to take the risk to win and for players to take the game into their own hands.
“We aim to play to the same strategy no matter what,” Swallow says. “The only time we alter that is maybe in the last few minutes if a game is on the line. When you need to keep the opposition guessing, you might change things up and do something they’re not expecting.”
For Drew, it’s important to show some faith in all the plans and strategies that you’ve worked out for the team – but there’s sometimes a time to press the hammer down.
“We’ve got a game plan that will allow us to beat anyone if we stick to it. In a case where we might need to kick three goals to win a game, the players on the field will know and take the initiative to play more risky football to give ourselves a chance of winning. It really does depend on the situation, but you train for these so you recognise them. Then if the game demands risk, you go for it.”