SUMMARY: What advice can you give to your players to improve their kicking efficiency? Namely, how often should they practice their kicking? What’s the best way to hold the ball for a drop punt? What types of kicking should they practice? With defensive pressure all the rage in today’s AFL, kicking efficiency has never been more important. So who better to ask for advice on kicking a drop punt than one of the best kicks our game has seen on both sides of his body – Jason Akermanis! Here’s what he shared.
If you ever doubted the importance of effective kicking in our game, you need look no further than the meteoric rise of the West Coast Eagles in season 2011.
The Eagles had just come off the worse season of their short history, finishing dead last in 2010 with just 4 wins and a meager 77.09 percentage points next to their name. Two of their Brownlow medal winning midfielders, Chris Judd and Ben Cousins, had earlier left the club. Their All Australian ruckman, Dean Cox, and other blue chip midfielder, Daniel Kerr, both had injury clouds hanging over them. And a third successive bottom eight finish saw the local media calling for the coach’s head.
With his back to the wall, the Eagles’ embattled coach John Worsfold eventually decided upon a course of action that would see the club’s fortunes shift dramatically.
According to media reports, Worsfold decided that kicking, and in particular, the clean use of the ball, was going to be the club’s main benchmark. Those good at using the Sherrin were going to be given chances; those who weren’t had to get better quickly or make way; and those who were targeted by the club in the national draft had to be proficient with the “pill”.
To say this transformed the club is an understatement. In the space of a season, the club went from dead last with 4 wins in 2010 to finishing fourth in 2011 with 18 wins. It was the single biggest turnaround of a club’s fortunes since the formation of the AFL.
Of course, getting blue chip players like Dean Cox, Daniel Kerr, Luke Shuey and Andrew Embley back from injury helped; as did picking up a couple of gun recruits in Jack Darling and Andrew Gaff. But few could argue that improved kicking efficiency also played a major part in West Coast’s reversal of fortune.
With all of the modern advancements in sports science and game-day structures in our game today, the simple skill of kicking a football and hitting a target still remains one of the fundamental keys to Premiership success.
So how can we as coaches improve our players’ kicking skills? What can we do to help them hit targets more often with their kicks?
Who better to ask than one of the greatest kicks to play our game – Brownlow medalist and triple Premiership player with the Brisbane Lions, Jason Akermanis.
About Jason Akermanis
To the footy obsessed, Jason Akermanis requires no introduction.
Aker made his name as a speedy midfielder/forward with blistering acceleration and an uncanny ability to kick exceptionally well with either foot; talents which helped him win the AFL’s coveted Brownlow Medal in 2001
He was part of Brisbane’s all conquering early 2000’s side, which many regard as the greatest ever team to play in the AFL. As part of their “Fab Four” midfield, Aker played in Brisbane’s 2001, 2002 and 2003 Premierships, as well as their losing grand final in 2004.
Many football commentators regard him as one of the best kicks our game has seen on both feet.
He won the AFL Goal of the Year in 2002 with a freakish 45 meter snap shot from the boundary against Carlton on his non-preferred side. In a match in 2005, he kicked two incredible goals within minutes of each other from almost exactly the same spot; deep in the right forward pocket while running at full speed.
How Jason Akermanis Became An Elite Kick
Aker’s footballing journey began as a 7 year old playing for the Mildura under 11s in country Victoria (he would move to Brisbane a few years later as an 9 year old).
Like many junior players, his parents had steered him into football as a means to funnel his boundless energy into something productive. The fact Aker kicked balls around the house and park endlessly may have had something to do with their decision as well.
From that point on, Aker was hooked!
I was a football fanatic. As soon as the footy season started, I’d play with a ball nearly every day. We could hardly afford a footy back then so I’d kick anything. I remember we had plastic balls that would float away in the wind when you kicked it because we couldn’t afford a pump to blow them up”
As he got older, he became more serious about his football and began exploring ways to become a better kick. He studied vision of elite kicks on the television and experimented with different techniques whenever he practiced.
“I am a thinker. When I kicked I would ask myself ‘why is the ball going that way, why is it spinning that way’. I was a kid with no formal training, because there is no formal training with kicking. You just get given a ball and start kicking.”
“With a lot of practice and experimenting, I was able to locate the problems in my kick. As I grew older I could pretty much pick what had gone wrong with a kick if it had turned into a helicopter. All these little things I identified, I was able to practice them so I could solve all the problems. In the end, I was able to kick the ball in a straight line and make it spin properly without much swing.”
His quest for understanding allowed him to acquire an acute technical knowledge on kicking. He developed an ideal technique which allowed him to maximize the accuracy of his kicks and learnt how to identify problems and issues in other player’s techniques.
He demonstrated this fact during our interview, going through a laundry list of different kicks that he had encountered during his glittering career.
You can go through them all. Michael Voss sort of dropped the ball too hard in the transition (from hand to foot) and they would turn into helicopters. James Hird would drop the ball with two hands and didn’t guide it down with one (hand) enough, which caused a lot of floaters because it would hit his foot fairly flat on to the angle of his pointed toe.
“Nathan Buckley was the one that really stood out. Just a super kick. He kicked fairly upright and could generate a huge amount of power with his kicks because he would kick it just off centre, but his accuracy came from the very small error rate in his drop.
Matthew Richardson’s ball drop was too high and it would cause a lot of problems for him. In the end, all he had to do was concentrate on dropping it below his hip height and have a slight bit of roll. He was quite a good field kick because he would kick like this, but when he had a shot at goal he changed what worked, which made no sense.”
When asked, Aker was happy to share some of his technical knowledge on kicking for the benefit of our coaches and players.
1. The Grip
According to Aker, the underlying secret to becoming an elite kick starts at the hand.
“Believe it or not, the technique of kicking is all about the hand and not the foot. Your leg action is normally pretty consistent, even though it might get a little tired and fall a split out in timing. But really it’s the hand that all the problems come from, in particular the delivery from the hand to the foot.”
This all starts with the grip; a good grip gives you better control of the ball as you guide it down to the foot. The opposite is true with a poor grip.
But which grip? You only have to watch a game to notice there are several different types of grip in use in the AFL. Aker experimented with many of them growing up and found using a slightly high grip on the ball works best for the drop punt.
As he explained, “Concentrate on putting the thumb about three quarters up the main seam (the main seam is where the laces run across). Don’t put it on the main seam, but next to the seam. That’s the ideal position to get proper contact (grip). It lets the ball sit comfortably in your hand and lets the ball fall out smoothly with a little bit of gravity when you drop it.”
Aker also told us that the middle finger should run down the side of the ball and be positioned slightly in front of the middle seam.
Aker poured cold water on the other grips as according to him, they are often the root cause of when kicks go bad.
Blokes who hold it around the fat part of the ball have a lot of problems because they have to grip it too hard to hold it. It’s like golfers; they don’t want to hold the club so tight. It’s the same with the kick; you don’t want to hold the ball too tight because it affects the release when you drop it.
“On the other hand, if you hold the ball too far down the bottom, it often causes the kick to swing. Wayne Carey would hold the ball quite low and he would swing the ball from left to right because it would end up hitting the inside of his foot. Fev also holds the ball low and usually gets a lot of swing on it. He kicks it a long way but he’s got a lot of error rate in the drop. If it wasn’t for his leg action, which is quite pure and very straight, he’d kick them all over the joint.”
2. The Ball Drop
According to Aker, the crucial part of the kick occurs when the ball drops from the hand to the foot.
Any deviation in the position or angle of the ball during the drop consequently affects the foot’s contact with the ball, the direction and swing of the resulting kick.
“In golf, all the really good golfers putt and swing a golf club within a very small sweet spot. It’s the same with kicking. All the good kickers who have ever played have had their hand drop, their hand position (grip) and contact (with the foot) all within a very small area of variance. If someone sat down and researched it on tape, they’d see it for themselves.”
Aker explained the correct way to guide the ball down by first highlighting some of the more common mistakes he sees players making.
The first mistake is dropping the ball dead centre in front of you when you kick. The ball should instead be dropped in front of the kicking leg, between the leg and the target.
“A lot of the time, players drop it over their nuts. Why they drop it over the inside of their foot, I’ve got no idea. That’s where you get your shank kicks or hook kicks that go left to right or just stay left. You should be dropping it right over the kicking leg; or slightly inside the line if you have a natural hooking arc.”
Dropping the ball too high is the second mistake. According to Aker, higher drops mean more opportunity for something to go wrong between the hand and the foot.
“Drop it as low as you can. The less time it is in the air; the less room for error. Unlike someone like Richo (Matthew Richardson) who would drop it from almost a foot high in distance. When I was kicking on the run I would raise the ball to around hip height. Then if you look at the tape, I would guide it down with the right hand to around 6-7 inches before it hits the foot, dropping it just above knee height.”
“When you kick long, you tend to drop slightly higher but the bottom line is, the lower you drop it, the less time in the air, the better the kick tends to be.”
Aker further recommends using a slight roll of the wrist when guiding the ball to the foot, rather than just dropping it out of the hand.
“The good kickers don’t just drop the ball; they guide the ball down as well. I actually point the (bottom of the) ball slightly forward, and then tilt it back slightly towards me with a slight roll of the wrist as I guide it down. As opposed to all the bad kickers who tend to want to drop it straight down. Don’t get me wrong, you can still drop it straight, but if you are on the run, they’re the kind of small things that can affect your kick.”
3. Straight Line Run Up
Should players use a straight line run up like Jason Dunstall, or a curved run up like Buddy Franklin? That’s one of the big debates in AFL circles right now.
Proponents of the curved run up (made up mostly of sports scientists) argue this approach allows you to kick the ball further. For example, a study in American football has shown a curved run up increases both foot speed before impact and ball speed after because of the increased leverage at the hips. They further argue that the curved approach does not affect accuracy if practiced correctly; citing the accuracy of place kicks in rugby as an example.
On the other hand, proponents of the straight line run up (made up mostly of forwards) argue a straight line approach is more accurate. Jason Dunstall for example used to imagine walking down a corridor when he took a set shot for goal so he would walk and kick straighter. Many other elite goal kickers took the same approach.
Like all dead-eye dick forwards, Aker recommends the straight line approach because your leg tends to travel in a straighter line when kicking, giving you greater room for error to play with. On the flip side, curved run up kickers tend to swing their foot across the line of the ball more leaving less room for error.
As he explained, “You look at a bloke like (Travis) Cloke; the reason he sometimes kicks inconsistently is because he has quite a high ball drop. His leg action is also not very straight and he swings his foot across the ball. So if he doesn’t absolutely connect with it perfectly, he has a lot of problems. Sometimes it will float right to left, often it will just screw off the side.
“Buddy (Franklin)’s the same. Because he always kicks off the leg line, he always swings it right to left. That’s why he often struggles with short kicking because he’s got too much roll and too much height with his ball drop. If you put him off balance or take away his arc, he tends to struggle.”
There is a catch however; Aker also told us he purposefully adopted a slightly curved run up for longer kicks to open up his hips and get the extra distance.
Certainly within 35 to 40 meters, it is always run straight, kick straight and get the ball drop right. As you go out further, you naturally can’t kick that far so you have to open up your hips. You learn by practice that ok, you’re going to kick outside the line and kick across it a little bit more. It’s going to swing left then come back right. But that’s what we have to do. We have to kick it a long way, say 60 meters, so it is very rare that they’re not going to swing a little bit.
While this technique is slightly less accurate than the straight line run up (at least in theory), Aker improved his chances of success with this kick by purposefully practicing it at training.
“That’s where your practice comes in. And that’s the secret of becoming a good kick.”
Coaching Advice On Kicking Training
So if “practice” is the secret to becoming an elite kick, how should players practice? Aker gave us this advice.
1. How Much Practice?
How much kicking practice should players do?
For senior players, the answer isn’t as straight forward as it sounds due to recovery requirements of players.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a day figure. You need recovery, those muscles get sore and you need to freshen up sometimes. On the off-days, we generally want them to recover and do some leg weights and get their bodies right for the next session because our sessions are quite long.”
With this in mind, Aker recommends players should arrive early to training and practice their short kicking.
“You should do your 10 to 15 minutes of kicking before training, after a bit of warm up, do the shorter kicks.”
Because players are not fully warmed up yet, long kicking is not recommended at this stage. Short kicking also allows players to purposefully practice their grip, ball drop and kicking technique in a more controlled environment.
Once training commences, Aker recommends coaches dedicate roughly 45-50 minutes worth of the training session to skill drills with the majority of these drills involving an element of kicking. That means having training for your game plan with kicking to position and ball movement with speed and pressure to improve efficiency.
Aker doesn’t expect his players (where he is coaching in the Ovens and Murray League in the heartland of southern New South Wales and Northern Victoria) to do much more than this to allow recovery.
Having said that, his players train three times a week and play weekends.
For junior players, Aker recommends kicking the ball as much as you can.
I would recommend younger players kick the ball every day when you get home. If you can’t do that, then at least four out of seven days would be a good start. When you are a kid, your body can handle a lot more than you think so there aren’t the same issues with recovery.
“The best thing to do is get someone to kick with or buy some balls and head down to a place with some goals. In Queensland, I was always kicking on a rugby field. Remember the guys who kick the goals get paid the best.”
But Aker also stresses that kicking for the sake of kicking will not improve your efficiency. Any practice you do must be quality practice to get any benefit.
“It is no good practice for years if you are doing it wrong. Muscle memory is the hard part to change.”
2. Basic Kicking vs Pressure Kicking
What about the types of kicks to practice?
Aker is big proponent of practicing kicks under game-simulated pressure at training – in particular, kicking a ball accurately at full pace. This after all is what players need to be able to execute in a game.
But players need to build up to this during the pre-season.
Aker recommends clubs start with basic kicking at the start of the pre-season so players can re-assimilate themselves with the technical elements of the kick again and prepare their leg muscles physiologically for longer kicking later (the last thing coaches need is an under-prepared player to strain a muscle while roosting the ball). This is as basic as kick to kick and slowly lengthening out the distance over time.
Then as the pre-season progresses, coaches should build the tempo, speed and length of the kicks.
“At this stage of the season (early March), our kicks have progressed all the way from basics at the start of the preseason to pressure with say, a handball receive and a quick kick or delivering to a leading player while in space.”
“Then we’ll build right up to where the kicks are under a lot more pressure so players are able to execute the same on game-day because they have got that muscle memory. And that’s what it’s all about; building muscle memory for game-day.”
3. Practice Kicking On Both Sides
Aker also recommends coaches encourage their players to kick on both sides of their body at training.
This is something he learned as a seven year old; thanks to some timely advice from his first ever coach in juniors.
“My first ever coach told me I had to learn to kick with both feet. That was the first training session I ever went to. So I did, because at that age you believed everything your coach said. So my priority was kicking with both feet from the moment I began playing in a club system.”
This proved to be a watershed moment in Aker’s footballing career because from that point on – at the tender age of just 7 – Aker practiced kicking as much with his non-preferred left foot as he did on his right.
Years later, such was the pin-point accuracy on both feet; few could tell which his natural kicking foot was.
This shining example exemplifies why all young players should start practicing on their opposite foot as early as possible.
An accurate kick starts with the hand. Without proper ball control and an efficient ball drop, the kicking foot will always struggle to make consistent and accurate contact with the ball and ipso facto, you will always struggle to get consistency and accuracy with your kicks.
To improve your kicking, Aker recommends kicking a ball at least four days a week for seniors and up to seven days for juniors. A simple kick to kick with a friend or by yourself at some goals is a good place to start, along with some early kicking practice before training.
As your kicking improves, you should then increase the tempo, speed and length of your kicks. Oh, and don’t forget to practice as much on your opposite side as you do on your preferred side.
Aker was one of the best kicks on both sides of his body our game has seen. However, his talent was not a gift bestowed on him by God. It was something he built up himself after years of hard work and quality practice.
If you put in the hours and make those hours count with quality practice, you too can become a great kick. Who knows, you may even win a Brownlow one day. If a kid practicing his kicking on a rugby field in Brisbane can do it, so can you.
Sidenote: You can get a signed copy of Aker’s book Open Season or sign up to his newsletter by visiting his website – http://www.jasonakermanis.com.au. If you’d like to hire Jason Akermanis to speak at your next footy function, visit www.ultimatepromotions.net.au
Title photo by Raider of Gin via: freeforcommercialuse.org.