Our No-Holds Barred interview with Collingwood Defensive Coach, Mark Neeld

SUMMARY: Being one of the richest clubs in the AFL, Collingwood is famous for always being on the cutting edge of coaching strategy in football, and defence is no exception. In this no-holds barred interview with Mark Neeld, Collingwood’s Defensive Coach, we asked exactly what Collingwood was doing with their defenders, along with some other tips for our coaches. Here is what he revealed.

Background:

Mark Neeld

Mark Neeld

Mark Neeld, the current Defensive Coach at the Collingwood Football Club, first started his career as a player with the Richmond Tigers and Geelong Cats in the AFL, before eventually moving on to coaching which he has done now for the past 12 years.

Mark’s coaching career is certainly diverse to say the least. Mark spent the first 8 years of his career coaching senior football, including 1 season with St Josephs Football Club in the Geelong Football League, 4 seasons with Ocean Grove in the Bellarine Peninsula Football League, and 3 seasons with the Old Geelong Football Club in the Victorian Amateur Association.

Mark then moved into junior football where he coached the Western Jets in the TAC Cup for 3 years, before he finally took on his current assistant coaching role with Collingwood in the AFL.

The Defensive Coaching Role at Collingwood

Mark’s defensive coaching role consists of dealing with the whole playing squad during the preparation period each week and in particular, looking after the defensive aspects of the players. This includes strategies to win the ball back or cause a stoppage when Collingwood don’t have possession of the football.

But one of the biggest challenges Mark found when he first started was going from being a senior coach at a football club to an assistant working under another coach with different philosophies and ideas. This is something I am sure all assistants can relate to.

So what did the great Mick Malthouse do to prepare Mark for the transition and get the best out of him?

To start with, Malthouse was very clear in defining Mark’s role prior to him starting in the job. This not only allowed Mark to understand his role and responsibilities better, but also allowed him to jump straight into those roles and work hard to achieve his goals.

Malthouse also gave Mark enough scope to put his own philosophies and ideas forward. In fact, Mark emphasised to us that it is crucially important that an assistant not just be a puppet of the senior coach, but a coach who can put his own flair and personality into the role whilst still working within the parameters of the senior coach.

Mark also believes that assistant coaches should challenge the role of the senior coach and the other assistants to keep everyone as up to date as possible. At Collingwood, the coaching staff each have their own areas to look after and they generally each create much debate about different ideas, strategies and current trends in AFL football. And this has made their coaching department stronger!

This is probably why Mark describes Malthouse as not just the head coach at Collingwood, but also a manager of the coaches.

How Collingwood Trains Defenders

At Collingwood, the planning and preparation of each week’s training is spread amongst all of the coaching staff. Collingwood generally meet every Friday afternoon for a weekly training planning meeting where the following weeks training sessions are discussed.

This planning meeting covers all facets of their training sessions including the drills, the length of each drill, the intensity and all aspects of the session. This can take a couple of hours for each session and Malthouse overseas the entire process.

Collingwood run a number of training sessions throughout the week. And once a week (usually on Tuesdays), Mark gets the opportunity to work with his defensive group away from the main training sessions, which Collingwood call “divisional sessions”.

Here’s what Mark typically does during his divisional sessions with defenders.

  • The first part of the session involves sitting down with the players and analysing the upcoming opposition. It’s here that the defensive group discusses what set plays and match ups they will use against their opposition.
  • The second part of this session is then dedicated to getting out onto the park and practicing the set plays and strategies they will be using in the upcoming game, as well as doing some defensive skills training. Mark also uses this session to work with individual players on their tasks and needs as well.
  • Whilst being known as the defensive coach, Neeld will also spend time with the rest of the whole group, to bring the whole strategy together.

Neeld has his own thoughts on the defensive group under his control and firmly believes that his defenders must be a tight knit team within a team. Some of his philosophies include each defender being prepared to run and cover for each other, fill gaps when required and understand the balanced required to know when to defend and when to attack.

Recommendations For Young Players

One question put to Neeld was about his views on young players who wish to seek a career as an AFL player. His response was twofold.

Firstly, Neeld believes that young junior footballers don’t spend enough time practicing the defensive aspects of the game, especially what to do when your team doesn’t have the football. “I believe that young players are taught about attacking and kicking goals, but don’t spend enough time learning about defending.”

Interestingly, this point was also made by Chris Waterman at our recent Coach AFL Bootcamp. According to Chris, most players in the AFL system (including defenders) started off as midfielders as juniors.

This gives some food for thought to junior coaches. Do you spend enough time on these aspects of the game? It is vital to give junior footballers a well rounded training program because in all reality, that young gun midfielder in under 15’s, may end up being a back pocket player, and understanding the defensive aspects of the game will certainly help him reach the pinnacle of his football dreams.

Secondly, Mark also recommends spending more time on disposal skills, particularly kicking. In fact, one thing that Mark is still amazed by is the amount of young players who pass through elite programs and end up on AFL lists as either a contracted player or a rookie and who still can’t kick properly.

Conclusion

Assistant coaches are an integral part of the AFL system and more and more emphasis is being put on specialised line training with midfielders, forwards and defenders. Collingwood is no exception.

While assistant’s at the AFL level are perhaps more involved with their teams than they are at amateur and junior levels (there is an argument that our game is headed towards the NFL gridiron model in America where each specialist team has their own coach), there are still some great lessons that coaches at any level can take away from Collingwood.

As an assistant coach, you need to follow Mark’s lead and don’t just be a puppet of the senior coach. Contribute your views and ideas forward whenever you can and always make an effort to better your knowledge and abilities.

And as a senior coach, you need to follow Mick Malthouse’s lead and define you assistants’ roles clearly and give them the freedom to contribute to the group whenever they can. They are a valuable asset that no club can afford to be without.

And regardless of where your players play, they can always benefit from specialist defensive coaching – just like they get at Collingwood.

Collingwood is often bagged as “the team that everyone loves to hate”, but if Mark Neeld’s selfless willingness to help other coaches with his knowledge is anything to go by, this tag is perhaps somewhat undeserving. With quality coaches like Mark at the helm, who knows, maybe the new Collingwood will be the known as team that “everyone hates to love”… 😉

Thanks for your insights Mark and good luck for the season.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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