Understand Footy

MEMO: G. Lyon, J. Brown, M. Maclure, J. Dunstall, D. King, W. Carey, G. Swann, J. Leppitsch, D. Hardwick, P. Roos, sundry coaches, Robbo, Llordo, Caro, random panelists, B. Anderson, footy writers, fans.

FROM: The Game

DATE: May 2015

RE: You’re reading me wrong


Dear football lovers,

Forgive me for breaking my silence, but after roughly 120 years I need to speak up for myself and my players. Things have been getting out of hand.
A lot of commentary goes on around me, especially from those of you trying to fathom that all-important question of why some teams win at me and others do not.
The trouble is, a lot of your analysis is either a small part of the answer, or populist nonsense.
Sometimes I tune in to TV panel discussions of what’s happening during me and roar with laughter. Entertaining? Sure. Accurate? Not even close.
No-one can explain me satisfactorily by random observations drawn from sifting through statistics on clearances, tackles or inside-50s, comparing “game plans”, or citing six-day breaks or fitness levels.
You’ve tried valiantly, but I’m still confused. What seems to explain one result fails on the next.
When an analyst—or a losing coach—says he knows what the problem is and how to fix it, citing some stat or tactical nuance, I just know he’s kidding himself. I’m about to confound him again.
The reason is that in a professional, equalised competition like mine those details are not so important. They explain very little about how I roll.
The main thing no-one grasped for years is the vital importance of momentum and the profound effect it has on energy, skills and teamwork.
I am a momentum sport.
Try explaining the wild swings in the Bulldogs-St Kilda game without reference to momentum. (Luke Beveridge was onto it — I like him.)
That contest wasn’t to do with match-ups, or tactics. It wasn’t about individuals. It’s inexplicable until you realise that it was all about the team momentum.
Every game is! How about all those “upsets” last round? How can you explain them?
Analysing me via the stats sheet is like seeking spiritual enlightenment by studying the literal stories in religious books. You will miss the forest for the trees.
I don’t care how many times you’ve played me—or at what level—if you don’t grasp this you’re missing something fundamental.

Momentum explains pretty much everything that happens in me.
The reason I am a momentum sport is because there’s a scoreboard, which I don’t have to explain is a measure of who is succeeding and who is failing. This separates competition from recreation.
And it makes me a mental as much as a physical game. I’ve even heard you say so.
“The game is played 90 per cent above the shoulders,” you trot out, then offer no further insight on the topic.
It’s hard to fathom that in 2015 everyone could continue to misread me so thoroughly, but as one of my favourite coaches often says, it is what it is.
If just a few of you cottoned on, I could enjoy a far more enlightened coverage.
You could talk about how teams get momentum and how they maintain it; why it swings; how to train for it; which players handle negative momentum; what it means to have a “competitive spirit”; to what extent pre-match beliefs feed into the in-game psychology; how
loss aversion drives momentum, and so on.
A few players and coaches may be on to this. They realise I’m not merely a ball sport.
In 2014, Geelong’s Jimmy Bartel told
Inside Football of strategies the Cats use for maintaining and swinging momentum.
This publication also related how Port’s Ken Hinkley trains for it with his players. I know he understands me better than most.
More AFL coaches of late seem to be referring to the momentum in me. Some, though, have no more idea than you do. They have a lot of catching up to do. It’s the next frontier.
(Incidentally, I fear for the Richmond bloke still flailing around for explanations for his team’s sub-par performances. He’s been looking in all the wrong places. And he won’t find his solution in the VFL either.)

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you to believe whatever you want about me. I am a kind of religion, after all.
You want to believe I’m all about tackles inside 50? Believe away.
You want to think it’s the mystical power of the pre-match address, or coaching “masterstrokes”? Knock yourself out.
What bothers me, however, is that in your constant misreading of me you unfairly condemn my players. This week it’s the Blues.
You can be like a bunch of high priests providing opiate for the masses and outing the sinners. However, you’re using an outdated interpretation of your playbooks to do so.
I am amazed how from distant vantage points in grandstands or through TV screens you can impute all sorts of sins in my players.
Just by watching how much energy they seem to be exerting and their body language, you can tell how much effort they give, how much they care about the outcome, and even to what extent they respect their senior coach.
You can even find a piece of footage from me to dubiously support your proposition.
I direct your attention again to scientific research on competitive sport which shows that negative momentum saps players’ energy, makes them error prone, undermines belief and sabotages teamwork (
Inside Football, May 7).
And I put to you that this combination of side effects eventually gives the impression that players on the wrong side of the momentum are not trying hard enough. In fact they have simply spent their physical and psychological capital on a lost cause.
In your lack of understanding of the psychological forces at work in me, you accuse players of not caring, not coming to play, or the biggest furphy of all the “unforgiveable sin” of insufficient effort.
You hold them up for contempt and ridicule.
They are lazy and selfish, until such time as they win, or produce a sufficiently narrow defeat in which they had the momentum themselves for a period of play, whereupon they have clearly learnt the lessons of their humiliation and can achieve salvation.
On AFL 360 last Thursday, just for one example, Robbo was declaring that St Kilda’s effort varied. It wasn’t there against Collingwood, but it was against Essendon.
Jonathan Brown was saying similar things about the Lions. (So was their CEO.)
Seriously, what? The 22 players tried harder one week than another? Their “effort” varied that much? You could tell?

C’mon. This is passing for expert analysis. People are paying extra for this.
You also condemn the coaches on the same basis, because you think it’s ultimately their jobs to ensure the players give that effort.
Just a fortnight ago some were saying the Suns weren’t on the same wavelength as Rodney Eade. A week back the Carlton players weren’t playing for Mick Malthouse.
Based on what? Their inability to change the momentum of the games they lost and the take-home impression this gave you.
If your view of the world is right, you ask us to believe that players in defeated teams all simultaneously decide the same thing—to withhold their effort, or maybe “go into their shells,” stop running, ignore instructions, or perhaps even to suddenly recall that they are from a different generation to their coach and thereupon lose all interest.
In fact 22 players appear to act as one when playing me because they are all subject to the same psychological forces at the same time.
Frankly, the level of football discussion that your view of me is producing is driving me to distraction.
You are missing my true dynamic and making judgments about my participants on a series of false assumptions. But everyone accepts it because you are the experts on me.
Not to put to fine a point on it, the failure is not theirs but yours.
Sometimes I think of that old Theodore Roosevelt soliloquy about the warrior in the arena and his critics. I’m sure you know it.
My friends, you are getting me all wrong.
Please make an effort.

First published in Inside Football, May 2015