SUMMARY: Selecting a representative side is difficult at any level of our great game – Australian Rules Football. There are several considerations to make, such as making sure the right representatives are chosen, putting the football side together and getting them to perform on match day. One man who knows more about this subject than most is Gerard McNeil – this year’s coach of the Western Australian Under 18 State Side and both former coach of the East Perth Football Club (WAFL) and Football Manager with the Fremantle Dockers (AFL). In this article, McNeil spills his guts on some of the lessons learnt from putting together this year’s WA under 18’s for the National Football Carnival.

Selecting The Side

Selecting a “good” representative team is the most difficult task of any coach (or group of selectors). There are a number of issues to be discussed and decided before you even begin. These include – How can we make sure we watch all/enough games to be fair on all teams and players? Do we pick the best players or the best balanced team? Are there any special requirements we need to consider? (For example with the State 18’s, should we pick a player who is more suited to playing in heavy conditions?)

It is important to be fair in any selection process. I would recommend a clear set of criteria before you start might help, especially when it gets down to the last players selected. Decide as a selection panel whether or not you will include anyone with a poor attitude and clearly define how this will be defined (e.g. misses training without a good excuse).

It is important to see as many games as possible to get a true feel of form and fitness. Often by talking to the various team coaches one will get another view of the players you are watching. Team coaches know the prospective players better than you and can provide some insight into any special instructions provided to players on game day. They are also aware of a player’s overall fitness, attitude and his likely enthusiasm to commit to any representative program.

Team balance is often an excuse by coaches to not be totally open and honest with his players. It is, however, one of the defining characteristics of a good rep team, especially when one doesn’t know the characters of the players until they arrive for the program. By selecting players with the potential to play a variety of positions one is creating an environment where innovation and form can be encouraged and rewarded. This is especially true of junior/youth teams where the best players have often always played midfield or forward….leading to the question “who is going to play defense?”

The Training Program

Obviously the content of your training program will be significantly impacted by the number of training sessions you have available. Most importantly work out what you can realistically achieve in the time you have together. For the State 18’s we have about 10 full training sessions so this provides ample opportunity to achieve outcomes not possible for the WAFL State team that has only 2 sessions together.

As an example of “what is possible”, an outline of this years training and match schedule is attached.

Our major emphasis was to introduce the players to a more intense and urgent game simulation. By focusing on “physical presence” we attempted to introduce the boys to an environment more like that which they would encounter in Melbourne at the National 18’s Championships. Our other major task was to gel the group so that they became more familiar with each other and develop a team spirit to assist both on and off the field.

In short, the major task of the coaching group was to create an environment that enabled each individual to contribute their best to the team and along the way have an “amazing learning experience”.

I believe it is the responsibility of every rep team coach to ensure players have that type of learning experience. If they have merely played another game of footy then they have missed out! Rep footy is an honour at any level and should be enjoyable for all involved. Not much is learnt and retained if there is no fun to be had.

Player Engagement

Because we were dealing with 17 and 18 year olds, it was possible to treat them as mature and responsible and use predominantly adult learning techniques. As much as this may cause some concern at different times, I believe there is an enormous up side to engaging and involving any age group in a mature manner.

This can be achieved in a variety of ways….the most effective being in asking their opinions! As we know the role of any coach is to ask questions and encourage players to think. This is even more important in a rep group because everyone involved can be new to each other. There is often no familiarity to offer security. By asking questions and involving players one can start to provide an environment for players to feel more comfortable and committed.

We should assume that the players you have selected have been well educated back at Club football. There is no need to reinvent new strategies for stoppages or spend too much time on aspects of our game that they might already be well drilled in. The key however is to quickly identify what they already understand and then agree on what it is that will define your own game plan. Often this might be a mixture of many opinions and experiences….no problem! The end result must be easy to understand and clear to all players.

In the case of the State 18’s, the players also have input into the program whilst we are way together. This helps to guide everyone and engenders a sense of self responsibly. By coaches having an attitude that the collective genius is highly valued your rep team will hopefully gel more quickly and be clear about individual roles and responsibilities.

Posted by Gerard McNeil

Gerard was the Football Manager for the Fremantle Football Club in the AFL from 1994-2000. Prior to this Gerard also spent time as the senior coach of the East Perth Royals (WAFL) in the mid-eighties.

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