With Jason Stevens, Senior Coach White Hills Football & Netball Club
SUMMARY: How many coaches have asked their players to crack into a contest and win the contested footy? If I was to take a stab in the dark, I would say that about 95-100% of us have asked our players to do exactly that – “crack in, win the hard ball, attack the contest, get in there etc.” My question is; are we actually asking our players to do something that is negatively impacting team performance?
Winning contested footy helps teams win games, that’s true and the statistics back it up. Take a look at the Adelaide Crows in 2012. The Crows are averaging around 156 contested possessions a week (leading the AFL), a whopping 19 contested possessions more per game than their 2011 average. The 2012 Crows (after 1/3 of the season) are winning games of football and certainly look to be a much improved group.
That alone is probably enough proof that contested possessions truly help sides win matches.
But, how many coaches have watched one of their players make a decision to run toward a contested ball (because we have asked them to win the ball), only to arrive too late and have the footy exit the contest before they can make an impact?
If your sides are like the sides I’ve coached, you would have seen that exact thing happen hundreds of times. It’s deflating for the player who is trying to carry out coach instructions and it is equally as frustrating for the coach who is often left wondering why the player ran there.
Finding a sense of balance
So, we come to the question that I am constantly grappling with as a coach. How do we as coaches keep a balance between wanting our players to win contested footy, but not end up exposed by our player’s exuberance or desire to win that contested ball?
Think the answer is in the message. We need to tailor the message that we are selling, to ensure our players aren’t blindly chasing the ball around the park. Yes, we want our players to win the contested ball when it is there turn to go, that is a non-negotiable. But we also don’t want to see our players get exposed away from the contest.
Making a defensive decision
In 2012 I introduced a new message to my playing group at the White Hills Footy Club. We started the message early in preseason and it is going to take some time to get the players to fully understand the message that we are selling. That message is: “make a defensive decision”. I am asking our players to look at the contest in front of them and make a decision based on what is happening at that contest.
The Adelaide Crows are winning more contested football in 2012, and they are winning more games of football, we’ve established that. But how are they winning so much more contested footy? I think the answer is a combination of method and numbers. Their method (set-up, structure, knowledge etc.) may have improved but more likely the numbers that Adelaide now gets to the disputed ball has improved.
We’ve based our “make a defensive decision” instruction on my opinion that contested ball is usually won by the team that has more numbers at the disputed ball. 2 players Vs 1 player at the contest, the 2 players usually win the ball. 3 players Vs 2 players at the contest and the 3 players usually win that ball.
With my assumption/opinion that numbers win contested footy I’ve challenged our players to make decisions during a game based on what is happening at the contest in front of them. If you are away from the disputed ball and you can see that our team is outnumbered I don’t think it is worth you making an attacking decision to go and win the ball (unless you can impact the contest). I want you (as one of my players) to make a defensive decision and the defensive decision in most circumstances is either man up, or make the ground smaller by guarding a dangerous space.
I’ve made it clear to our players that when the opposition has an advantage at a disputed contest (which is going to happen at times if we like it or not) we shouldn’t be attacking or running forward. It’s been a dramatic change for the team; because previously we had a team that was all about attack. But, I’m prepared to wear some pain in the implementation of a new message because I believe the long term benefits will outweigh the short term teething issues.
This approach is aimed at minimising the amount of times our players make that bad decision to run and impact a contest that they never make. It is also aimed at covering the contested possessions that are won by our opponents (which will happen).
I certainly don’t want our group to shy away from winning contested football, in fact my desire is the complete opposite. Like all coaches I want our group to win the contested footy (and why wouldn’t I, the stats above don’t lie). The difference is the way I am trying to sell the message.
I’m asking my players to make decisions based on the contest while they are in the heat of a match. If the numbers at the contest are even, I’m asking them to get there and put the numbers in our favour. At the same time I am trying to minimise the risk of over exuberant players being exposed away from the contest by asking them to weigh up the decision to go or defend.
This approach is in its infancy at our football club but the signs are already looking promising. This year we’ve been beaten in contested possessions (an area we are improving in) but we haven’t been exposed very often at the back of a contest. Our opponents have kicked goals from centre stoppages, from turnovers and from good transition but in 2012 we haven’t seen many goals kicked against us from disputed ball situations.
I’ve changed my message in 2012 and I hope the change helps us win the ball without exposing our team to lots of uncontested possession away from the disputed ball (contest).
The hardest part for a vocal sideline coach is refraining from demanding that our players “crack in & win it”. That is made so much easier by the ideal that our players are learning, and while they are becoming smarter defensive footballers we aren’t failing an attacking game style with too much defensive emphasis.