With Andrew Johnston, Calder Cannons Development Manager and Coach of the Under 16s Vic Metro Team

Summary: The Under 16s state championships are hotly contested each year between the major football states of Australia. It’s also a fertile breeding ground for the next generation of AFL stars. In this article, we reveal how the Vic Metro team – one of the big guns of the championship – are training and preparing. Includes some of the most incredible cutting edge training strategies you are ever likely to see outside the AFL.

Background

Those bloody Victorians! Always think they know everything about football… well we thought we’d show them a thing or two when we caught up with the coach of the Vic Metro under 16’s team this week. Sadly, the egg was on our face, not theirs, because what we found out about them and their program was impressive – very impressive!

This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Johnston, head coach of Vic Metro’s under 16’s side and Development Manager with the Calder Cannons in the TAC Cup. Andrew has worked with AFL Victoria for the past 8 years and has also been involved with the Vic Metro’s under 16’s team for the last 5 years as a selector and Assistant Coach. This is his first year as head coach.

As a player, Andrew spent 5 years at Essendon in their Under 19s and Reserves team, then 2 years with the Fitzroy Lions in their seniors. Following his AFL career, Andrew went on to play and coach in the Essendon District, Vic Country (Kyabram and Lavington) and in Tasmania (Devonport).

Here’s what he told us about Vic Metro’s impressive program for their under 16’s team.

Their Selection Process

According to Andrew, their program all starts with the selection process. Here over 50 of the best metropolitan players are selected in the Vic metro program. Andrew and his team break up this process into two main stages – the development stage and the final preparation stage.

Stage 1 – The Development Stage

The first stage of the selection process is the development stage, where a squad of 55 kids are invited to trial for the team. During this stage, the squad will participate in a total of 5 training sessions (1 a week) and play in 2 trial games.

But trialing players to see which ones should be chosen for the final representative team is not the only goal that Andrew and his team try to achieve at this stage of the game. They also take this opportunity to educate all squad members on what they need to do to make it to the next level.

This enables their development message to reach the greatest amount of kids as possible before the squad starts to be cut down. It also means that those kids who might not be good enough now, still have a chance to develop their games and get another crack at Under 18 Nationals selection the following year.

As Andrew explains, “All players in the up coming Under 16 AFL National Championships may be the ones that are considered for the Queensland and Sydney expansion teams in a few years so it’s important we show them what they need to do now to give themselves every opportunity to make it to the highest level.”

Stage 2 – The Preparation Stage

After the two trail matches, the squad gets trimmed down to 35 players. And it’s from here that the game day tactics and strategies are developed and worked on. The squad then plays another 2 more matches against the Vic Country squad before the coaching finally selects the final 25 players that will be representing Vic Metro in the July championships.

How They Tackle ‘Overuse’ Of Players

As you can imagine, the players that come to Andrew in the under 16’s squad, are also playing football at other junior footy clubs, school teams and in some cases, the U/18s TAC Cup. The trick is to manage the workloads of all players to prevent overtraining and injury. Here is how Andrew and his team tackle the issue.

# 1 – Working Closely With Other Teams

Firstly, Andrew and his team work closely with the TAC Cup teams, private school teams and any junior teams their players may be a part of. They work hard to find a compromise and balance between all the teams involved so that the player concerned isn’t overworked.

Andrew also makes it a point that the under 16’s don’t always get priority. In fact, players don’t necessarily have to participate in every U/16 training session but are required to attend, where they then under take medical assessments and perform a rehab session if able. The only thing that Andrew can’t compromise on is the fact that AFL Victoria’s policy is for squad members to play in at least one of the two trail games to be eligible for final team selection.

Once again, Andrew and his team aim to find a balance. And according to Andrew, “Most teams and schools are pretty good”.

# 2 – Educating Players

The other thing that Andrew and his team try to do is educate their players on how to protect themselves from injury.

The first issue they tackle is communication. As you can imagine, most 16 year olds think they are bullet proof and are often reluctant to communicate soreness or minor injuries to the coaching team. So the coaching staff educates their players on the importance of communicating injuries, soreness and other outside training commitments to them in order to manage it and prevent further injury.

According to Andrew, “This means a player is potentially only missing a session, not weeks.”

The second issue they tackle is educating players on general prevention. This involves things like going to the beach after a game, pool sessions and the like to aid recovery. This helps further insulates players from injury, soreness and overtraining during this demanding period.

Their Advanced Training Strategies

The way that the under 16’s are developed and selected impressed us. But when we switched the subject to training and game day preparation, we were blown out of the water. Just check out some of the things that Andrew and the coaching team are doing (and remember, this is under 16’s)!

Training Strategy # 1 – GPS Tracking at Training

Firstly, Andrew and his team are using GPS (global positioning system) at training to track their players’ workloads.

As Andrew explains, “We put GPS trackers on about 6 players during every training session. This tracks what each player does at training, how far they ran, when they rested, when they were jogging, when they were sprinting and how hard they worked overall.”

“We then put this data into the context of our training session, to see how much resting, jogging and sprinting a player is doing during a particular drill.”

According to Andrew, the data is then used for two main purposes.

Firstly, it’s used to examine the work–to-rest ratios of a training session. They can look at how much sprinting, jogging and resting their players do during each drill, as well as how much work they do overall in a session. This lets the coaching team examine the effectiveness of their training and pinpoint potential areas for improvement.

Secondly, this data is also used to provide feedback to the players themselves. The coaches can sit down with a player and show them how hard they worked during a drill. They can also compare it to what other players in the team did, along with what players in the AFL are doing. This lets players see how they compare to others in their position (eg. midfielders, defenders, forwards etc) and see what they need to be doing before they can be considered for the next level.
Note – Anyone who has invested in our Strength and Conditioning Secrets DVD will tell you that fitness is all planned around work-to-rest ratios now at the elite levels, and the use of GPS at training takes this strategy to a whole other level.

Training Strategy # 2 – Kicking Analysis

Andrew and his team are also using a high performance kicking coach to improve the kicking of their players. As Andrew explained to us, “If your kicks aren’t hitting targets, your team is going to be in a bit of strife and you are going to struggle at AFL level.”

The kicking coach basically takes a video of each player kicking from the front, side and back. He then studies each player’s kicking action and identified areas that need to be modified for improvement. High ball drop, knees not straight and hips not following through are the problems that are typically identified through this process.

Once these problem areas are identified, the kicking coach then develops a specially tailored kicking program for the player involved.

As Andrew explained to us, “Improvements don’t happen overnight and we only see players for a short period of time, so we can only give them their kicking program for them to do. The rest is up to them. We do however monitor their progress over the next 12-24 months to look for signs of improvement.”

Training Strategy # 3 – Game Sense Drills

Andrew and his team are also doing a lot of “game sense” drills – mostly handball games and grid work” – to help develop their players’ decision making. The drills are all designed around a particular goal (such as maintaining possession or scoring a goal) and aim to teach players to execute the right skill in a certain situation to achieve the desired outcome.

Andrew starts by running players through a drill. He then stops it and evaluates the performance with the players. He then runs players through it again so they can try and implement the feedback that Andrew has given to hopefully improve their overall decision-making.

Although this isn’t a new technique, it still is a great way to develop a player’s “footy brain”.

However one thing that we did find interesting was the fact that Andrew and his team also video tape these drills on occasion. And the reasoning behind it isn’t to provide feedback to players (although that can also sometimes be used), rather it is to help the selection team identify the better decision makers in the group.

As Andrew explained to us, “Players often do the right things off the ball that do not come to the immediate attention of the coaching staff. This might be running to position, shepparding, creating the loose man etc. So videoing our game sense drills helps us find the decision makers in the group, which in turn assists during selections later on.”

Training Strategy # 4 – Offensive and Defensive Coaches

Something that also impressed us was Andrew’s use of “Offensive” and “Defensive” coaches during the game review – something which probably differs to most other elite level teams.

Here’s how they are doing it.

Like most high performance teams, the U/16s have a specialist forward coach, midfield coach and backline coach who all monitor what is happening in their zones of play during a game.

But during a post match video review, the forward coach becomes what Andrew calls an “Offensive” coach, and examines all the offensive plays during a game, not just those that occur in the forward line. It could be an offensive play in the back pocket, half back line and midfield, as well as the forward line. It doesn’t matter. If it is an attacking situation, the offensive coach examines it to see how effectively players performed.

Conversely, the backline coach also becomes a “Defensive” coach and looks at all the defensive plays in a game, not just those that occur in the backline. This could be a forward running down a defender, as much as a defender spoiling a forward.

The midfield coach assists both in these areas.

According to Andrew, this specialized review process allows the coaching team to better analyze how well players perform in both offensive and defensive situations. Not bad thinking!

Conclusion

By the looks of things, it looks like it will take some effort to beat Vic Metro this year given the professionalism of the program that Andrew and his team have put together. I mean, GPS tracking, specialist coaches, video reviews… this would be cutting edge stuff at most WAFL and SANFL clubs, let alone an under 16’s team!

But the best thing about Victorian footy in this case isn’t necessarily the program. It’s the fact that Andrew has been kind enough to share their strategies with the wider community so we can all learn and benefit. This kind of commitment will hopefully help us grow the game faster and better around Australia – not just Victoria 😉

Even us Sandgropers in the West have to admit that’s “pretty awesome”. So thanks Andrew and good luck in Queensland this year.

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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