An Introduction to Work Without the Football

Friday, February 21, 2014

Author - Mark Fisher
Head Coach - Vic Metro U16
Assistant Coach - Eastern Ranges

Being involved in the TAC Cup since 2007 I have been lucky enough to have worked with some of the most talented U16 and U18 players in the Eastern region. For the last two years as the Head coach of the Vic Metro U16s it has become increasingly obvious that the good players at this level have relied on what they have been able to get away with throughout their junior football career rather than what they have been taught. By this I mean they have generally been the best player in their side and have been given a license to do as they please so they can help their side win a game of junior football. Having coached at local level for years with both my sons in our local competition I also fell into that trap with the so called better players, get the ball to Johnny, let’s see if we can kick it to Johnny inside forward 50, he is bigger than the opposition and he will kick the goals, block for Johnny when he has the ball he is quicker than the opposition, give it to Johnny to kick in he is our longest kick. It’s easy to do but does this help Johnny? Or does it inhibit his ability to learn the craft of “working without the football” because we are always looking to give it to him?

The first thing I ask my squad of 50 when they come into the Vic Metro Academy is, what does “work without the football” mean to you? The general response at first is one of confusion and lack of confidence to answer a question in front of 49 other players of equal or sometimes better ability.  A situation that is not common to most of them as Johnny has always been the one! They quickly learn that they are now in an environment where you cannot always be the one!  After that initial discussion with some guided questioning and trial and error the group will come up with the answers I need them to find, blocking, shepherding, communication, plus ones, corralling, creating space,  leading, tackling, running patterns and defensive pressure just to start with.  I then show them the following;

Almost Nine Days

If you have had 20 possessions in an 80 minute game you have probably had the ball for a maximum of 90 seconds. If you have played 20 games a year for the last 8 years (160 games) at most you have had the ball in your hands for 240 minutes (4 hours). That means for 209 hours (Almost 9 days) you haven’t had the ball. If I instructed you to go and stand on an oval for 9 days and do nothing, I presume you would think I was mad.

Approximately 98% of game you love, is spent not having the thing that everybody so desperately wants, the attraction is addictive.

My question

Is “work without the ball” important?

Some statistical data to help reinforce the teaching is where they really start to realise exactly what it is that I can help them with.

How Far For How Many

During the 2012 Under 16 National Championships we have all players wear GPS units and have Champion Data collect statistical data. We play three games in total over seven days, against Vic Country, Western Australia and South Australia.

The average total metres each individual player ran over the three games was 8,325. The average possessions total per player over the same three games was 10.3. So if you do the maths it means that on average the players ran 808.25 metres for each possession. The interest begins to grow.

The same stats taken form 148 individual players over 16 games during the 2012 TAC Cup season resulted in the following;

The average metres per possession was slightly less at 806. The winning team’s average was 704 metres per possession and the losing teams was 841 metres per possession. Each player on the losing side on average was therefore running 137 metres each more than their winning opponents, a total of 3,014 metres more per side.

The best individual effort from the 148 players was 31 possessions and a total of 10,576 metres for the game for an average of 341 metres per possession. Now these are raw stats that don’t take into account where the possessions were gained, effective verses ineffective possessions and the many other variables in our game but an eye opener for 15 year old boys who have not been introduced to any of this before. 

The interest now is even greater.

The players are now looking for some ways that get these averages down. They start to talk about dumb running and just chasing the football. These terms for me fall under the banner of running patterns which was one of the answers given to my first question about “work without the football”.  Taking some measurements from a small oval in my local area I came up with the following.

If we use the centre square as a starting point Fig 1, when you track or follow the dotted line, imagining that it is the football, as a lot of junior footballers do you will cover 92 metres. If you run the angle across the square you will only run 66 metres. The difference - 26 metres.

Figure 1

In Fig.2  we switch the ball from one back pocket to the other and the transfer the ball down the wing and deliver inside 50 and we would have travelled 126 metres but if we run the angle or straight line, we only cover 99 metres a saving of 27 metres.

Figure 2

Fig.3 shows ball movement from defensive 50 via the wing into the forward 50 for a total of 103 metres, again running the straight line will result in a total of 77 metres a saving of 26 metres.

Figure 3

If you calculate the difference from the straight line to what the players called “dumb running” (dotted line) you would have travelled an extra 52 metres or 21.5% more.

So if we can go back to the Under 16 National Championships and save ourselves on average 21.5% off our total average metres per possession per game we will run individually 634.47metres as opposed to 808.25 metres a total saving of 173.78 metres per possession. Multiply that by our average of 10.3 possessions and for the game individually we run 1,789.93 metres less. I understand that it is only 3 examples and not everyone runs those patterns for every possession, also remembering that in today’s game we cover a lot of extra ground moving sideways, back and forward to cover off space in defensive zones and presses. This is productive running “without the ball”, but it does make you think that if they are not so fatigued from all the “dumb running” that they do in a game when they don’t have the ball, that when they do have the ball and are not so fatigued they will make better decisions. Therefore they will automatically be a much more effective player, and in today’s game that can only help.

Again this is an introduction to 15 year old players at an elite level and is only the tip of the iceberg to what is an ever increasingly monitored part of the game. Hopefully this generates a different thought process and you may start to implement some sessions that focus on what you can be doing when you do not have the ball and open up the minds of all your players not just the best. You never know what it could do for a player that just needs a different angle or perspective, he could be sitting in a room with 49 other boys of equal or better ability in the future and it might just give him the confidence to answer that question from that coach.  So once again I will ask that question.

Is work without the football important?   

These are three drills I use to help teach “Work without the ball.”


Full ground drill. 

Split group in to two groups. One group in bibs.

1 ball

Start groups across goal lines coming out in 5`s or 6`s or whatever number you like depending on how much work you want them to do. The aim of the drill is for one group to work the ball up the ground in offensive mode and once they get to about the forward 50 arc, or your designated delivery zone, they kick the ball to the opposition and immediately turn from attack into defence and try and stop the opposition group moving the ball back down the ground. If a team intercepts/turnover they just roll the ball back along the ground to the opposition and the drill continues. It just keeps going up and back for as long as you like. It is then up to you to coach it as you see it, stop and reset or coach players to run straight lines and angles to cut off the ball. It is really up to you as to what you concentrate on, offensive ball movement, defensive ball movement, transition or whatever you like. If you are doing it with younger groups do it over an area that takes about three to four full distance kicks to cover the ground, just scale it back to suit. With the tackers you may just use the centre square.

In this, and the following drills, as much as possible facilitate the players learning by continuing to ask questions of them, encouraging them to come up with the best solutions, rather than just telling them what to do.

3v3; 7v7; 7v8

3v3 in a 20x20 grid 7v7 7v8 in a 50m arc

Two teams. One in bibs

1 ball

3v3 is keepings off handball in the 20x20 grid. 7v7 7v8 is the same but only kicking inside the 50m arc. All 3 small-sided games are possession based, the handball one is simply that; but if the opposition create a turnover or force the team in possession out of the grid then they get the ball. Coaches should be looking for the team with the ball always giving the ball carrier two options by working into the ball carrier’s vision to receive the ball. The opposition need to be pressing up on the ball carrier and forcing them to go where they do not want to go, with the other two defenders reading the cues and working together defensively. 7v7; 7v8 is purely kick & mark’ no play on, and no handball. If the opposition create a turnover, spoil, force ball to ground, they gain possession of the ball. As coach you are looking for work rate, multiple leads, blocks, communication, working away to create space, or stopping to create space. It is up to you as to what you look for. 7v8 create a plus or minus one which ever you choose.

Pressure Turover Drill

6v8 50x25 grid

Split group in half. One side in bibs

1 ball

Set grid up with a halfway point. Start the drill by having the team receiving the ball which is the team with 8 players spreading themselves around their half of the grid. The rest of their team stay outside the grid. The opposition team being made up of 6 players set themselves up around the outside of their half of the grid with 2 of them on each of the 3 outside lines and the rest of their team outside the grid. The coach kicks the ball to the team of 8 players and then they can move anywhere in the 50x25m grid using handball only, it is up to the other team to turn the ball over by getting a hand in, tackle or forcing them outside the grid. They key is the coach counts down the time limit, we use 15 seconds but you can use what suits you as you can change the size of the grid to suit your age group. The main points are that the team trying to turn the ball over have a minus two so we want to see them working hard to press up on the ball carrier and turn it over as close to what would be the opposition goals as possible and covering off the next most dangerous player. Leave the two players furthest from the ball on their own, as it will generally be a loopy handball for it to get to them and you will still have a chance to cut it off. Again coach it as you see it the time limit is critical as you want the players to be able turn it over but it has to be realistic. You then just change the competing players like grid iron 8 off 8 on and 6 off and 6 on. Then change the team’s roles.

Mark Fisher is an AFL Accredited High Performance Coach. He is Vic Metro Under 16`s Head Coach and Eastern Ranges’ TAC Cup Midfield Coach. This article was written by as part of the requirements for the AFL High Performance (Level 3) Coaching Course and was presented at the AFL 2014 National Coaching Conference.



Steve, 25-02-14 10:07:
Good article Mark. The drills are basic but effective game sense drills.
As a coach in a couple of elite programs in Qld where our boys generally start from further back than Vic, these will be good.

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