SUMMARY: How are you planning practice matches this year? And how do you compare to what others are doing? In this feature article, we talk to Simon Goosey, coach of the Frankston Dolphins in the VFL, about how they have planned their practice matches this year. Includes insights into training loads, preparation and more.

Background

Practice matches are a vital part of any clubs preparation for a new season. But this creates many questions for coaches. What should the objectives be for your practice matches? How many games should you play? And what sorts of training loads should you maintain at training?

We sought the answer to these questions and many more from Coach AFL fan, Simon Goosey, coach of the mighty Frankston Dolphins in the VFL. And what he told us will no doubt surprise many in the coaching fraternity!

About The Frankston Dolphins

Frankston Dolphins Coach, Simon Goosey

Frankston Dolphins Coach, Simon Goosey

The Frankston Dolphins are a unique club in that they are one of only five VFL clubs not aligned with an AFL club.

On the one hand, this means they don’t enjoy quite the same level of support and financing as the other AFL-aligned clubs.

On the other, it means they are able to offer more playing and development opportunities to talented non-AFL listed players in Victoria. This is highlighted by the fact that Frankston has had more senior players drafted into the AFL system than any other club in Australia during the past 4 years.

At the head of their coaching helm is Simon Goosey, a footballing legend on the Mornington Peninsular who has leveraged his extensive community contacts to uncover and recruit some of Victoria’s most talented non-AFL listed players.

Simon is unique in that he has both experience and close contacts within the AFL coaching system backed up by extensive experience at the community level with his original club Mornington.

So how is Frankston planning their practice matches? And how can it be applied to the community level? Simon was happy enough to share some of their closely guarded strategies for our Coach AFL subscribers.

Practice Game Objectives

The first key to planning your practice games effectively according to Simon is to start from round 1 and work backwards to define your objectives.

In Frankston’s case, they have three main objectives for their preseason games.

The first is to test drive their strategies and set ups in real game situations.

As Simon explains, “Your players should already be familiar with your strategies and practiced them in detail at training by this stage. But let’s face it, nothing teaches your players better than playing against real opponents in a real game.”

The second objective is to give players important game time before round 1.

We want to get at least 3-4 games into every player before the start of the season to help them prepare them for round 1. That’s why we’ve planned 6 pre-season games, to try and give as many players in our squad possible the chance to get those 3-4 games under their belt.

Simon’s third objective is to simply give some of their new players a taste of what it’s like to play VFL footy, something he feels is important for two reasons.

Firstly, we run our players hard during the preseason. New players in particular don’t appreciate the importance of why we do all that running and prepare the way we do until they actually play a VFL game. While they may get away with a more casual approach at the amateur level, VFL football is much faster and demanding. So you don’t really understand why we do all the things we do until you play a game.

Secondly, getting an opportunity to play VFL gives our new players a taste. Even if they don’t get a game for the rest of the year, or only play a handful. Getting game time under their belt during the preseason and plying their wares against AFL listed players can really whet their appetite for more and intensify their commitment to train even harder!

Simon also emphasizes that no two clubs’ objectives will be the same. Clubs all start from different stages of development and different mixes of players. Coaches need to determine objectives that are right for their clubs because each club is different.

Practice Match Preparations

Another key according to Simon is to not leave all your game-based preparations to just practice matches. Instead, coaches should start introducing match simulation practice early in the pre-season.

Another key according to Simon is to not leave all your game-based preparations to just practice matches. Instead, coaches should start introducing match simulation practice early in the pre-season.

We do some basic designer games and match simulation drills from November 1 at the beginning of our pre-season. This slowly increases as the pre-season progresses and we move closer towards round one… The key is to not leave your match simulation stuff until the last minute. You need to be doing them as early as possible in the preseason.

As part of their practice match preparations, Simon and his team also introduce some basic 12 vs 12 and 15 vs 15 designer games four weeks prior to their first practice game.

To simplify the explanation of where these sessions fit in, we have broken down the practice matches and practice match lead up into week blocks. Weeks 1 to 4 represent the lead up to the first practice match and weeks 5 to 9 represent the practice match weeks themselves.

Week 1

Week 1 for Frankston occurs in January and is roughly 4 weeks before their first practice match and 9 weeks before round 1 of the actual season.

During this week, Frankston run a short 12 on 12 game at the end of their Friday training session. To be clear, this is an intraclub game run solely between Frankston players.

The game is made up of 2 x 6 minute halves and its purpose is to obviously give players some important match simulation practice and put their structures to use.

A 12 vs 12 game also offers an important advantage, namely less injuries. With less players on the park, there is more open space and less of what Simon calls the “bash and crash” of a real game.

Open spaces also mean more running because the game often runs like a basketball game with faster transitions. The ball invariably bounces back and forward between offence and defence much faster than a real game.

Week 2

Week 2 is similar to week 1. A 12 vs 12 game is run during the last session of their Friday night training. Except in this case the game is extended to 3 x 6 minute quarters.

Week 3

During week 3, the game is extended to a 15 vs 15 game. The increased numbers means there is now less space to work in and the game becomes slightly more congested. However the ball movements are still quicker than a normal game with the chances of injury still lessened.

Game time is also extended to 4 x 6 minute quarters.

Week 4

Week 4 runs the same as week 3.

Practice Games

With some simulated match practice under their belt, Frankston then moves into their practice match phase.

As previously mentioned, one of the objectives of these games is to give each player at least 3-4 games under their belt to help them prepare for round 1.

To achieve this objective with their large squad, Frankston has planned 6 practice games leading into round 1.

Week 5

Week 5 represents Frankston’s first serious practice match. Actually, Frankston play two matches during week 5.

The first match was played on the Monday night against the Northern Blues. In this case, Frankston played 26 of their players using an extended bench. They also trialled a few different players in new positions and experimented with match ups to see how players performed.

A second match, this time an intraclub between their players, was also played on the Saturday.

Why squeeze two games into the same week? As Simon explained, “I just felt that with our numbers, it was an ideal situation to get some more game time under our belt. No to mention, the games were only four 20 minute quarters and we had a 5 day break in between”.

Week 6

Week 6 was planned much the same as week 5, except Frankston played against Port Melbourne. There was also only the one match played for the week, meaning no intra-club.

Week 7

Week 7 will be against the Sandringham Zebras. It is important to note that Frankston also play Sandringham in round 1 as it influences their planning for this practice game.

“We play Sandringham in round 1 so we won’t be showing them everything in this game. In other words, it won’t be a dress rehearsal. We’ll leave something up our sleeve for round 1 and we certainly expect them to be a lot different as well. We will try some new players and play around with our match ups and I suspect they will take the same approach too.”

Week 8

Week 8’s game will be against Coburg, which Frankston will be treating as a dress rehearsal to the season.  They will be playing as many senior players as possible and treating this game as a regular season game.

Week 9

Week 9’s practice game will be against Bendigo and represents the final match before round 1.

Why not give the players a week off before the season? According to Simon, they tried that the previous year with mixed results.

We gave players the week off last year and found that it hampered our preparation a little. In our case, we had a few players who were coming back from injury and didn’t have the opportunity to get the game practice they needed before round 1. A practice match before round 1 last year would have helped those players immensely.

With this in mind, Frankston will be using the Bendigo game to give those senior players slightly behind in their preparation another practice game before the season and be playing them alongside a number of their younger developing players. Many of their senior players will otherwise be given the weekend off to freshen up for round 1.

Training Loads

Should player’s training loads be lightened during practice match weeks? The answer will probably depend on the periodization plans of your fitness staff and be approached differently be different clubs.

In Frankston’s case, their plan is to maintain heavy running loads at training during their practice matches with a view to easing off leading into their final game.

As Simon explained, “Our fitness guys have our players still running quite hard during our practice match weeks and really working on their pace. We’ve also been communicating to players that we understand they may run out of legs towards the end of our games because of our training loads.”

“But we want to freshen them up for round 1. So we will ease our loads [in the week] leading into Bendigo [the final practice match]. Players who play Bendigo will have lighter running loads in the week leading up to the game. Players who don’t play will get the week off, but do some extra running on the training track instead.”

Fitness Staff Input

Something that Simon also highlighted during our interview was how important input from fitness staff is when choosing who to play in practice matches.

Some players may be a few weeks behind in their preparation because of injury or other reasons. They will still want to play. They always do. I was probably the same. But if their bodies aren’t ready, we won’t play them because they will be more prone to soft tissue injuries and the like.

Simon also feels it is important to identify those players who have made the extra efforts and sacrifices during the preseason with the opportunity to play. Your fitness staff can help you identify those players.

Winning vs Playing

You will often hear commentators remark that winning preseason games is largely irrelevant and unimportant. Carlton winning the preseason NAB Cup many years ago only to finish dead last at the end of the season is often cited as the reason why.

Simon has mixed views. On the one hand, he certainly agrees that it is important to use practice matches as an opportunity to try players in different positions, give new players a run and trial different set ups etc.

At the same time, he thinks it is still vitally important to try and win preseason games. The effort and approach should still be the same, regardless. His explanation is simple.

Winning preseason games can really give your players some confidence going into round 1, which in turn can help immensely in their development. But just as important from a coaching perspective, it can give you ‘buy in’. While players may buy into your structures and messages to a degree at training, they buy in even more when you start winning!

“Not only that, but we want to teach our players winning habits. I think it was Vince Lombardi [the great American NFL coach] who once said that ‘Winning is a habit, but so unfortunately is losing.’ If we just go out and take a casual approach with our preseason games, it’s the same as taking a casual approach with training. It’s a losing habit! Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all the time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time.”

Conclusion

Practice matches are a vital piece of your preparations leading into round 1.

To get the greatest benefit from your practice matches, it’s important you work backwards from round 1 and identify your objectives clearly.

You also need to introduce match simulation early in the preseason and not just rely on practice games to prepare your players.
Then there’s the fitness component at training. It is important that you involve your fitness staff in the planning of your running loads at training and selection of players for games.

And of course, there’s winning. While development may be given a slightly greater level of importance when deciding on structures and players, it is still important that you and your players approach each practice match with the same winning attitude as a regular season game. It will help give your players confidence, encourage ‘buy in’ of your structures and messages, and reinforce winning habits from day one!

If past years are an indicator of the future, Frankston will once again lose a handful of senior players at the end of the season to the AFL draft. The preparations they make in the preseason will certainly play a key part in that success! Hopefully your club can follow a similar path!

Best of luck Dolphins!

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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