SUMMARY: One of the advantages of being drafted to an AFL club as a young player is the cutting edge development opportunities you get access to. But what about those talented young players who sadly don’t get drafter? How can they access a similar level of development opportunities to accelerate their development, reach their potential earlier and earn another crack at being drafted? We asked Anthony Rock, creator of the cutting edge new SKINS AFL Career Transition Program in Victoria and former assistant coach with Melbourne, St Kilda and North Melbourne. Here is what he told us.

Background

Anthony Rock - SKINS AFL CTP creator

Anthony Rock, former AFL assistant with Melbourne, St Kilda and the Kangaroos, and creator of the SKINS AFL Career Transition Program.

As an AFL Footballer, Anthony Rock had achieved success at the highest levels. He was drafted to the North Melbourne Football Club as a 17 year old and was a key midfield member of Dennis Pagan’s mighty Kangaroos team in the 1990’s, playing alongside the likes of Wayne Carey, Glenn Archer and co.

After winning AFL Premierships in 1996 and a pre-season Ansett Cup in 1994 and 1998 with the Kangaroos, Rock moved to Hawthorn where he played out 3 more seasons before hanging up the boots and moving into coaching.

His hard-working reputation and high level football knowledge saw him first take up a coaching role in the TAC Cup. He eventually moved back to the AFL as an assistant coach with the Melbourne Demons. Coaching maestro Ross Lyon later recruited Rock to an assistant coaching role at St Kilda in 2008, before Rock chose to return to his Arden Street roots and take up an assistant role with former team-mate Dean Laidley at the Kangaroos.

During his time as both a player and coach, Rock has been fortunate to have worked with some amazing football minds including Dennis Pagan, Ross Lyon, Dean Laidley, Neal Daniher and more.

But after more than two decades in the AFL, Rock was hungry for a new challenge. So he took his high level of knowledge and experience, along with a passion to work with young talent and created the “SKINS AFL Career Transition Program”.

The SKINS AFL Career Transition Program

One of the things that has always irked Rock was the lack of development opportunities available to young players in the VFL and other state league competitions.

“Through my experiences in the AFL with what happens to VFL listed players, I think the VFL player with talent misses out, usually from a lack of resources in the competition.”

“The bottom line is the VFL, SANFL and other 2nd tier competitions need to be able to provide the resources and services similar to what AFL players get so they can reach their full potential.”

Sadly, statistics show that if you haven’t been drafted by the age of 19, your chances of joining an AFL club are effectively over.

As Rock told us, “People don’t realize it but statistics show that only 34 per cent of kids taken in the national draft are 19 years or older, and in the rookie draft the figure is only around 36 per cent. That is alarmingly low.”

According to Rock, the low rate of drafting mature footballers is based on the flawed perception that every footballer has reached a parallel point of development by the time they are 18. But young players all develop at different rates and at different stages and there may be a host of reason why a TAC player doesn’t get picked up.

“Maybe they are a late maturer. Maybe they had a poor experience with their coach. Maybe they had issues at home. Maybe they were injured and just had a bad year,” explained Rock.

As a result, Rock has seen a number of talented young players fallen through the cracks.

“I played in a premiership at Box Hill with Sam Mitchell. He started in the VFL reserves that year and although he was a well-credentialed TAC Cup player, he hadn’t been drafted. There was also a guy called Matt Brewer who was captain of Box Hill who could have played AFL football. Another one, Jarrod McCorkell at the Northern Bullants, given the right sort of direction, he could have made it as well.”

Rock is passionate about helping young players develop around the country. But he is especially passionate of helping young players in the VFL where he has strong roots.

So Rock developed the “SKINS AFL Career Transition Program” to fill the development gap between the AFL and VFL. The program runs through a full-season from December to September each year and is available to players aged 18 to 23 years.

Through this program, young VFL listed players who miss our on being drafted are still able enjoy a similar level of development opportunities that their young AFL counter-parts enjoy, thereby helping them reach their full potential earlier and increasing their chances of getting a second shot in the AFL.

The unique part of the program is that it is complimentary. Players do not train independently with Rock away from their respective clubs, like an AFL listed player at a VFL club might. Rather, players in the Elite Performance Program still train with their clubs and receive Rock’s developmental programs outside of what they are already doing.

Real estate sponsors Cotton & Partners, RPM & Tailored Marketing solutions have been so impressed by Rock’s program that they sponsor a talented young player from each VFL club to undertake it. Other young players with AFL ambitions can also apply to join the program on a user-pay basis.

It also has the full support of the AFL Coaches Association, and a number of our colleagues in the VFL have given us some very positive feedback about it.

For this reason, we thought we’d speak to Anthony himself to learn more about his unique program, to allow other coaches to gain an insight into how they too can better develop their own young talent. So on a cloudy Melbourne afternoon in a noisy café somewhere in the backwoods of Essendon, that’s exactly what we did.

Here is what Anthony told us.

Gap Analysis and Testing

The SKINS AFL Career Transition Program begins with a rigorous program of testing, similar to that of the AFL Draft Camp. Here, players undergo:

  • sprint tests,
  • beep test,
  • vertical jump test,
  • agility testing, and
  • 3km time-trial testing.

Players will also undertake other testing similar to that at an AFL club including:

  • personality profiling,
  • GPS testing during a game, and
  • biomechanical kicking analysis.

The information collected then forms the basis of individual program development for each player. When developing a program, Rock told us that it is important for players to still work on their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. “All the diligent players will work on their weaknesses to improve themselves, that is a given. But don’t forget about training what you already do well so you feel good about yourself.”

Rock also feeds any information they collect back to each players’ respective club. As Rock told us, “The reasoning is simple. We give whatever information we collect back to each player’s club so their coaches can work with them on where the gaps on their performance are.”

External Pathways

Rock no doubt realizes how fleeting a sporting career can be and how important it is for young players to establish work pathways outside of football once their sporting careers. For this reason, Rock will not allow players to join his program unless they are in a job or study pathway outside of football.

He works hard with players to establish work external pathways for players so they have a solid foundation for life once their football careers are finished.

In certain situation, Rock may also assist a player to enter a pathway.

“We’ve built partnerships with organisations that can help put kids in those pathways. We put one of our players into an electrical apprenticeship through our contacts for example. We also got another player a job with the National Australia Bank through our contacts with the NAB as well.”

Kicking Analysis

As part of the SKINS AFL Career Transition Program, players also undergo a biomechanical analysis of their kicking. At the conclusion, players then gets a DVD containing footage of their kicking action, as well as a report outlining what areas they are doing well with their action and the areas they need to improve. A tailored kicking program is then developed for each player based on their own individual needs.

According to Rock, “Some kids might already be an elite kick and may not need to work on their kicking because we know they are proficient in that area. Other kids may require more work and in this case, will be given a tailored kicking program for them to go away with and work on. We will then check on their progress in 4 to 5 weeks to see how much more work they need to do.”

Kicking efficiency is paramount in today’s AFL football so this component of Rock’s program is no doubt an important one.

Tackling Program

If there is one skill that players and coaches underestimate in football, it is tackling. As Rock explained, “I think we don’t teach tackling early enough in our careers, especially at the junior level. It’s something I’ve spoke to the AFL about and it certainly is an area they are looking to improve because it is such an important component of our game.”

For this reasons, Rock has bought in Melbourne Storm (NRL) tackling coach John Donehue to work with his playing group. Incidentally, Donehue has also worked with a number of AFL clubs on their tackling as well. He is now a full time defensive coach at the Carlton Football Club.

According to Rock, to be a good tackler, you firstly have to have the right attitude to tackle. Once that has been addressed, players need to learn how to tackle using the right techniques so they are effective and don’t get hurt.

When Donehue works with the playing group, he does an introductory tackling session with the players during the pre-season. He then follows up with a second session about 6-7 weeks later. Rock would like continue the tackling training after these two sessions, however is unable to once the football season begins because of player workloads and scheduling.

Diet and Nutrition

Another area that Rock often has to educate players on is their nutrition. “Often we see kids who just don’t get it with their diet and nutrition. Some of the kids that come into our program have to lose weight to improve their performances. Others have to either put on weight because they aren’t strong enough.”

Rock has enlisted the services of a sports dietician for his SKINS program. When players first start the program, they undertake skin fold tests. Players then see their dietician and have a tailored dietary plan developed for them to address any issues and ensure optimal nutrition for peak performance.

Match Reviews and Coaching

Something unique that Rock also does with his players is take them to an AFL game and get them to conduct a match review. By examining a match through the eyes of a coach, players are able to look at a game in a different light and hopefully better understand different elements of the game, different game day strategies, how different players work on and off the ball and more.

Players also deliver a coaching session to a junior club as part of the program. This allows the players to contribute to the development of grassroots football. But just as important, it also helps players concretise the football knowledge they are taught in their minds.

As any coach will tell you, when you become a coach, you take a far more analytical view of the game than you ever did when you played and this according to Rock, will hopefully translate to improved performances on the field. After all, as the great American NFL coach Vince Lombardi used to say, “Football is a game played above the shoulders.”

Recovery Sessions

Because VFL players train and play at different times during the season, it is difficult to get them all together once the season begins. During the pre-season however, it is much easier. So Rock takes advantage of this opportunity and gets the players together regularly during the pre-season for recovery sessions.

Accelerated Football Development

Once the season kicks off, Rock transitions his program from one of training to that of education so as to not interfere with player workloads.

One of the unique components of the SKINS AFL Career Transition Program is the “accelerated football development” sessions provided to players. These sessions are designed to increase a players game knowledge and are typically delivered once a month during the regular season.

As Rock explained to us, “Last month, we have a recovery session at AAMI Sports Complex. We did a pool recovery session, followed by some ‘hot and colds’. We then had a nutritional dinner and delivered a workshop seminar.”

Some of the recent subjects covered during these workshops include forward leading patterns, stoppage work, ruck conditioning, game day strategy, recovery garments, and more. Because of existing player workloads at their respective clubs, players do not go onto the ground and train during these workshops. The presentations are simply a mixture of powerpoint presentation, game-day footage and player discussion.

Workshop seminars are typically covered by subject matter experts such as Essendon great Scott Lucas, strength and conditioning guru John Quinn, former West Coast and Brisbane ruckman Alex Ishchenko, respected boxing coach Glen Walsh and many more.

Something we also found interesting was the fact that these workshops often cover non-football related subjects such as financial planning and property investment. This is no doubt a result of Rock’s philosophy of providing players with external pathways to prepare them for life after football as well.

Elite Mentoring

Players also receive elite mentoring throughout the SKINS AFL Career Transition Program. This starts off at the beginning of the program with each player sitting down with Rock, a career education coach, a mental skills coach, and the program coordinator for an interview.

At this initial interview, the panel discuss the program with each player, as well as their goals and aspirations. The panel then gives each player feedback about how to achieve their goals. Rock and his panel will then continue to communicate with each player during the course of the season and give them feedback about their progress and approach.

One of the biggest things Rock emphasises during the mentoring is a player’s attention to detail, because this is what separates the great players from the rest. “Players need to make sure they are professional in all areas. I’m talking about communication, eating properly, getting their body right, calling someone back when they call you. You need to do little things like that to reach the next level.”

Playing At The Highest Level

Outside of the information he gave us about the SKINS AFL Career Transition Program, Rock also offered this final piece of advice for coaches. According to Rock, coaches should be encouraging their young developing players to play at the highest level they possibly can to reach their full potential.

This doesn’t always happen as Rock explained to us. “In Victoria, TAC Cup players probably put in 4 years of hard work into their football and when they miss out on getting drafted, get dismayed by the system. All of a sudden their local clubs offer them large sums of money to return back to their club and the young player doesn’t enter the VFL system.”

“At 18 years of age and without the proper advice on what pathways to take, sometimes these kids take these opportunities to get paid $800 a game and return to a local club. To be fair, I probably would have too because there is no-one telling them not to.”
But this, according to Rock, is a mistake because players need to play at the best level they can to reach their full potential.

Rock cited the example of Fremantle wunderkind Michael Barlow, whom Rock had followed for some years before he entered the AFL.

“I was at St Kilda when Michael was overlooked by the Saints, North Melbourne and Essendon because he was apparently too slow and couldn’t kick. To be honest, I couldn’t understand it as Michael was tested and ran 2.9 seconds over 20 meters which is in the elite level. He was also an endurance athlete and got the ball 30 times a game, which wasn’t a bad habit to have.”

“But the whole thing with Michael was that he made the decision to go from the Murray Bushrangers in the TAC Cup to Shepparton United, rather than transitioning into the VFL straight away. I don’t know his reasons why, but Michael should have been playing VFL, because he probably should have been playing league football in the AFL two years earlier.”

Conclusion

Let’s face it, as coaches, we all coach to win Premierships.

But we shouldn’t forget our underlying duty to also provide the best development opportunities for our players as well, regardless of age. With the right guidance, who knows what they could become. Just ask mature age recruit Michael Barlow.

If the AFL have the greatest development opportunities on offer for young talent today, then Anthony Rock’s development program must be the next best thing for players outside the AFL system. It also serves as a fantastic model for grassroots coaches to emulate and apply in their own teams. Your young players will no doubt love you for years to come if you are able to implement just some of Rock’s strategies in your program. And who knows, you might just have another Michael Barlow on your hands.

On a sidenote, if you know of a young player who could benefit from some extra assistance with their development, Anthony Rock has a number of different programs on offer to help them. The elite performance program has the support of AFL-Victoria, the AFL Players Association and the AFL Coaches Association, and is highly regarded by both coaches and players within the VFL and TAC Cup competitions. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit Anthony’s website athttp://www.accelerate-epp.com.au/.

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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