SUMMARY: Preseason camps are an excellent way to bring your players together and prepare your team for an upcoming season. The question is, what objectives should you be trying to achieve at your camps and how can you go about it? We asked Ryan Doughty from the renowned “Summit” camp in Victoria about what they do when VFL and amateur clubs visit their facilities. Here’s what he told us!

Background

Ryan Doughty from "The Summit"

Ryan Doughty from “The Summit”

Every year, AFL clubs go on pre-season training camps in an attempt to gain an advantage over their rivals. Clubs such as Collingwood and North Melbourne have gone to the US to undergo high altitude training. Hawthorn have ventured onto the Kokoda track. Richmond and the Western Bulldogs have traveled to New Zealand. And this is just the iceberg’s tip.
With shining examples like these, its no wonder that community clubs around Australia follow the AFL’s lead and try to put together their own training camps.
The question is, what should you try to achieve at a training camp and how can you go about it? This is a question that recently came up while talking to one of our coaching contacts in the VFL.
According to them, the big mistake they see community clubs making with preseason camps is simply going on a camp for the sake of it. In other words, they see clubs going on camps with no real objectives other than to run their players into the ground with long running sessions followed by a team building drink with the boys at night, thinking it will somehow improve their teams.

But as the great Gary Ayres has often told us, every aspect of your training has to be driven by an objective otherwise it is often futile.

Intrigued, we thought this subject would make a great article, and when we started asking some of our VFL contacts who to speak with, Ryan Doughty’s name from “The Summit” came up.

About “The Summit”

Monster Course during "The Summit"

A team completing the Monster Course during a training camp at “The Summit”.

“The Summit” is a unique camp facility built in pristine forest parkland and located in East Trafalgar, Victoria, about 90 minutes drive east from Melbourne along the Princess Freeway. It has been specially built according to thoroughly researched best practices in ‘experiential education’ and based on some of the other world leading camps in the US.
With over 100 unique team building activities to choose from and accommodation facilities to suit most budgets, “The Summit” has quickly become a popular camp destination for both VFL clubs and amateur Victorian clubs alike.
“The Summit” was founded by Ryan Doughty in 2008. Ryan was inspired to create “The Summit” after recovering from a life threatening neck injury and meeting with Mark Dobson, an American expert in ‘experiential education’.
The Summit has worked with numerous amateur and VFL clubs during their pre-season camps. Here’s what they told us.

Training Objectives

According to The Summit, when a football club comes to them for a preseason camp, they ask them what they want to achieve from their camp.

In most instances, amateur clubs rarely know the answer. In fact, the only clubs that have gone to them with clear camp objectives have been the experienced VFL clubs.

In either case, “We sit down with the clubs to discuss their camp objectives” and plan their activities over the weekend.

Here are some of the most common coaching objectives The Summit sees from these clubs.

Objective # 1 – Team Building

According to The Summit, the most obvious objective for a training camp to achieve is for the playing group to develop a strong internal bond that will continue during the season. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that there is no greater way in building team spirit and camaraderie than a well designed camp (other than the journey of a season of course).

As their staff explained, “Often there are new players, or even a new coaching group who haven’t had a chance to really gel with their team-mates. In this case, a camp allows your team to bond much quicker than could be achieved through standard training and practice drills.”

As mentioned, “The Summit” has over 100 unique team building activities for coaches to choose from. And they are incredible activities — ranging from outdoor laser skirmish and underground tunnels to high rise tower challenges and trapeze jumps!

But it wasn’t the activities that we were interested during our conversation, but rather the way the activities have been designed to build teams. Here’s what The Summit does to develop a team culture.

  • Firstly, all the activities are designed around pulling the team together to achieve a specific outcome. The activities are not about one or two players working by themselves, instead they have been designed in such a way that the whole team must work together in order to achieve the end goal.
  • For many of the activities, the playing group is actually broken into 3 or 4 smaller teams (although some activities require only 2 teams). According to Ryan, the ideal group size is between 10-15 for most activities. When there is more than 15 in a group, players start to hang back and can slip between the cracks.
  • To encourage everyone to perform at their best, teams are usually pitted against each other in a competition. Most of the activities are time based so the teams actually race against the clock, rather than compete directly against one another.
  • Each activity is unique and very different to what they would experience during a normal football training session. For example, at the “The Summit”, players can crawl through tunnels, leap off platforms, walk a bed of nails, battle on our skirmish fields or even drive an army tank. It’s like reliving an episode of the old “It’s a Knockout” TV show.
  • At the end of each activity, The Summit staff will then sit down and chat with the players about their performance. They do so by facilitating the direction of conversation and then let the players drive the discussion themselves. The group may be asked for example what worked well, who really stepped up, and what needed improvement, giving players the opportunity to respond. The whole purpose of this exercise is to show players how their individual actions can impact on the group in either a negative or positive way. This model of facilitation can easily be transferred back to the footy field. As an added benefit, coaches are also able to see a new side of their players, giving them a better understanding of the group dynamic.

Interestingly, while speaking to Ryan about this subject, we couldn’t help but remember the movie “Remember The Titans” and how Denzel Washington’s character (Coach Boon) first managed to bring his black and white players together for the first time at their preseason camp.

Objective # 2 – Develop Player Mindset

Another common objective The Summit looks to achieve is building a players ‘mindset’. The obvious reason is for players to draw on this information when they are challenged in a game.

  • They start the day by giving their teams a briefing about mindset to prepare them for the activities ahead. During this briefing, players are prompted to think about their on field mindset and are asked questions such as “When you are on fire, how are you feeling? How are you breathing? How are you standing? What are you thinking about?” etc.
  • Often the more experienced players are able to describe what they are feeling and the strategies they use to get into the right mindset. Of course, there are also players who have no idea of what they are thinking about, nor have any strategy to get them into the zone, and the group will sit down and discuss this.
  • A nail board is then bought out and players are made to walk across it one-by-one. According to Ryan, this strategy is all about their “mindset” as the activity actually looks harder than what it really is. It gives players the opportunity to think about what is going on in their head before they walk across the nails.
  • Players then move out into the main area of the park and start undertaking the day’s activities. Later in the day, if players are starting to struggle they are then able to come back to the strategies that were discussed earlier to help them move forward.

Objective # 3 – Find Leaders

Another common coaching objective is to find the leaders within your group. In fact, it’s something that all clubs have set out to achieve, from the high flying VFL clubs to the local amateur teams. Here’s what they do with their teams.

  • The unique group-based activities allows coaches to get a different perspective on their team leaders. So the Summit staff will often sit back with the coaching group during the activities to observe who the natural leaders are within a group and the style is which they lead. Often, different players will step up with their leadership skills or ability to support the playing group and surprise the coaches.
  • The coaching group will then give feedback to the leaders throughout the day. As Ryan explained, “Sometimes the people who are leading on the field may be leading in a way that is not conducive in getting the best results. Their style is dominating, sometimes they don’t take time out to listen to the group and this will generally come out during the activities. So we facilitate in a way that allows constructive discussion on what worked well, what didn’t and why. We have enjoyed great results with this model.”
  • The Summit also uses an a 4WD activity to specifically look at how players communicate with each other and how well they receive instruction. The 4WD is a manual vehicle with the clutch in the back seat, the brake in the passenger seat and the accelerator in the driver’s seat. The player in the 4th seat is the only person who is allowed to talk during the activity as the 4 players attempt to drive a 4WD course with many challenging obstacles. Not only is this activity great fun, it also identifies how teams relate during pressure situations. This always leads to a solid discussion about how information should be given and received in a team environment.

Objective # 4 – Fitness

We asked The Summit what most coaches did about fitness during their camps and according to them, “Some teams do want some fitness work during camp, however often it is simply incorporated into the team building activities.

This same point has also been reiterated by our VFL and WAFL contacts. As one such contact put it, “Even Collingwood do a hiking session at their fitness camp in Arizona. Their players always say how tough and confronting it is because they have to do it as a team and carry items during the hike. Hawthorn also doing the Kokoda Trail last year, said it was all about team building and team spirit.”

For this reason, The Summit usually incorporates 2-3 team based exercises during their day’s activities which include a strong physical component for fitness. These activities are usually done at the end of the first day giving the players a chance to relax at the end.

One such activity is their “Monster Course”. This course is made up of 12 physically demanding initiatives performed one after the other. According to Ryan, you ideally don’t want any more than 15 in a group for this activity as it becomes easy for some players to drop off and let others do the hard work.

The first initiative involves players swimming to an island located in the middle of a lake. Once there, the team has to pick up a tyre and work together to swim it back to shore. Every team member has to swim to the island and back to complete the initiative. Once back on shore, the team then ties the tyre onto some rope and immediately move on to the next initiative. There are 12 initiatives to complete in total and the team has to tie another tyre onto their rope after completing each initiative. By the end of the course, each team is carrying 12 tyres, which as you can imagine is both physically demanding and requires a great deal of team work to complete.

To make it more competitive, teams are also timed. Team 1 starts the course, followed by another team starting every 3 minutes thereafter. This way, each team is chasing the team ahead of them sparking a competitive battle. Typically speaking, it takes around 30 minutes for each team to complete the course.

Here’s the kicker. There will always be 1 team more athletic than the rest which takes out the fastest time. So once all the teams have completed the course, Staff inform players that each team has to repeat the entire course a second time, and the team that improves on their first time by the greatest margin, wins the challenge! This levels the playing field and allows any team, regardless of athletic talent, to win the activity. Keep in mind that none of the player are told about the second part of the activity until all teams have completed the first leg.

The players get a great workout from this activity, but more importantly, players still get to bond with each other and have a ton of fun regardless of where they finish.

# 4 – Select The Leadership Group / Set Team Goals

Some teams also run an extra session in the evening, after the days activities, to select a leadership group or to set team goals. The Summit tells us that they are able to bring in a leadership professional who has worked with a number of AFL players to facilitate the process. Some clubs take advantage of this service while others don’t.

Objective # 5 – Player Education

Player education may also be another objective you can aim for at your camp.

While speaking to one of our VFL contacts, we were informed of a camp with one such focus. In this case, the team slept at the footy club and rather than doing team based activities on the first day, they simply delivered a number of lectures in the clubrooms on structures, team rules etc, then went on to the footy field to practice what they were taught.

In this case, the team was made of mostly young players and the coaching staff were new, so it made sense for player education to be the focus of this particular camp. However, it is also interesting to note that this same team went on to attend “The Summit” the following year where they focussed on different camp objectives the second time around.

Camp Format

So how does a typical camp run? Well according to The Summit, teams will typically arrive on a Friday evening to kick the camp off. The team then generally sets up and relaxes on the first night in preparation for the weekend ahead.

On the Saturday, the team will then generally go about achieving their camp objectives. In the case of teams visiting The Summit, this will involve going onto the park and undertaking the team-building, leadership and fitness activities for the day.

In the evening, some teams will then sit down and let their players unwind at their own discretion. Other teams however will use this time to hold a team session with the coaches. During this session, a leadership group is sometimes voted in and team goals are also set. It’s also common for more professional teams to get in a leadership professional to facilitate this session.

Most teams then typically get together on the Sunday morning and hold a short intra-club match. In this case, they’ll often play for just a half, rather than a full match. We’ve also heard of other clubs playing a scratch match against the local side during their camp. Interestingly, one of the last VFL clubs who attended The Summit actually did some laser skirmish on the Sunday instead of the usual intra-club. After the game, teams then usually pack up and head home just after lunch.

Alcohol Consumption

So should you let your players drink during the camp? Well at The Summit , most amateur clubs have a quite drink during the evenings while they are on-site. Some coaches will limit players to a certain number of beers each (typically 3). Other teams don’t have any drink limit at all. It depends on the club.

Something that some of our VFL and WAFL contacts have told us however is that the playing group should really make the decision about whether they drink or not, and how far they go if they do. As one contact put it, “Hopefully you will have the right culture in the club already established, you know, what the team should stand for etc, so that hopefully, they’ll make the right decision… If they go too far, you have to really question the culture they are bringing to the club.” Either way, our contacts strongly recommend putting the responsibility of the decision back on to your players.

Choosing The Camp Location

As far as choosing a location for your camp goes, The Summit’s only piece of advice is that you should try and choose somewhere with established facilities, who have experience with sporting teams and who are best suited to delivering your team objectives. This could range from an amazing facility such as “The Summit” to something simple such as the club rooms at your home oval.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a way to bring your players together before the start of the season, to help your players bond, to develop your leaders in unique and different ways or to refresh your players during a tough pre-season, there may be no better way to do so than a preseason camp.

Just make sure you are going with specific objectives in mind and not just doing it because the AFL clubs are doing it. Because without an identified objective, you may be wasting your time and may not achieve anything meaningful other than to “have a drink with the boys”.

While many of the coaches reading this article may not be able to take their teams to “The Summit” for their camp, you should hopefully be able to give your team a “Summit” like experience with a properly designed program, thanks to their helpful advice in this column.

On another note, if your team is based in Victoria, you can check out what The Summit and their team has to offer at www.thesummit.net.au. The camps are extremely affordable for clubs and you can be certain that the experience will unique, challenging and memorable.

Otherwise, we hope you take advantage of this wonderful coaching tool before the start of the footy season. All the best!
Title photo by Jack McClane via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

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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