Fundamentals of Goalkicking

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Art of Coaching draws on David Wheadon’s extensive career as an assistant coach at a number of AFL clubs. As one of football’s most innovative thinkers, Wheadon demonstrates his deep knowledge of coaching and details the principles that underline the game of Australian Football, and how to get the best out of diverse groups of talented young men.

The following is an extract from The Art of Coaching.

Fundamentals of Goalkicking

For all the statistics that have become part of football’s language—most of them compliments of Ted Hopkins in his Champion Data days—the only statistic that really matters is the score.

Throughout any season it is not usually how accurate a team is in order to win a game but how many shots it has (although often one game per AFL round is lost by a team that had more or an equal number of shots but was less accurate). On average there are 25 shots per team per game. In 2013, for example, winning teams had an average of 30 shots per game whereas losing teams had 21 shots. From my experience, if a team has 30 shots it will probably win; 35 shots means you are highly unlikely to lose simply because the ball must have been down your end a great deal!

No matter how many shots a team may have, you can be sure that one question is constantly asked, at any game, at any ground: “How is it that professional, highly skilled AFL players keep missing simple shots at goal? They hardly ever miss when kicking to a teammate in play.” Maybe it is not as easy as it looks. Team accuracy, including rushed behinds, has not moved very far from 52-53% since quality statistics have been compiled. Without rushed behinds added, that figure usually runs to 58-59%. 

Individually, the most accurate of the significant “career goalkickers” in the game’s history—Tony Lockett, Peter Hudson and Matthew Lloyd—had an accuracy rating hovering around 70%, or 70 goals for every 100 scoring shots. Jason Dunstall, who finished his career third on the all-time list (behind Lockett and Gordon Coventry), with an accuracy rating of 66%, once explained how difficult goalkicking can be: “It’s not as easy as it looks, and if you’re not convinced about this take a football to the local park and have 50 to 60 shots from all different angles and keep score. If you hit better than 35 from 50 you’re doing very well. Practice doesn’t make perfect—but it can certainly help.”

Many things cause players to miss. Before considering the solution, it’s best to consider the symptoms, and the history. There are also certain constants in all games of football: the same number of players are on the field in every game, the space between the posts has always been the same, the length of games is very similar, the average number of shots per game varies little, and each field is relatively the same shape. 

Each year adds results (there were 198 AFL home and away matches in 2013) to an ever-increasing sample accumulated from all the years football has been played. Analysis of this information indicates that team scores and accuracy are largely predictable, as they have remained relatively constant over time; what has been changing, in recent years, is a more concerted approach to improving accuracy at the highest level. For all that, goalkicking accuracy—and inaccuracy—starts in the formative years. And, like all sporting skills, improvement comes from technique, coaching and practice.

Causes of Inaccuracy

Before considering the processes that can improve goalkicking, I have put together a list—a long list—of the symptoms that can cause inaccuracy.

1. Lack of goalkicking practice as a youngster

Typically, when given a football as a junior you participate in open skills of kick-to-kick where you enjoy winning possessions by taking contested marks or by swooping on ground balls. Kick-to-kick at school recess and lunchtime are excellent learning environments for improving open (not closed) skills.

It is intrinsically more interesting for a youngster to play in more open-skill situations with others than to have goalkicking practice by himself where he has to retrieve his own ball after every attempt. Other sports either have an inbuilt rebound situation—such as basketball, where numerous shots can be taken in a short time, or golf, where a bucket of balls means we may not have to retrieve until after 50 shots and many repetitions can be made. The few players who did spend their childhood practising goalkicking are often the ones who became specialists in the AFL. Players such as Steven Johnson, Stephen Milne and Jack Gunston are clear examples.

2. Lack of proper coaching in formative years

Young players may receive poor or no coaching. The danger in our game is that some well-meaning coaches may teach methods, not principles, and they use as a reference point the way they themselves kicked for goal and then expect the players under their direction to do the same. There is no one way to kick, but the principles of accurate kicking are constant. Unlike other sports, such as golf and basketball, there are few specialist goalkicking coaches around for youngsters.

3. Lack of specialist AFL coaches

AFL teams are largely coached by former players who were midfielders or backmen and were rarely significant goalscorers themselves. John Longmire, the Sydney Swans coach, is one current coach who did score a large number of goals (511) in his playing career, mainly as a forward for North Melbourne. The majority of senior coaches probably did not spend a great deal of time practising their own goalkicking and it can be a mystery to them just as much as everybody else. (Successful exceptions have been John Coleman, Leigh Matthews and Malcolm Blight.) However, there has been a real attempt lately to improve the teaching of goalkicking and to educate the players about the skill.

4. Goalkicking given diminished value at training

Often goalkicking practice is tagged on to the end of team training and is something that players are given time to rehearse when “real” training is finished. The importance of conversion should be present in every training situation, and special sessions should be available for practice.

5. The ball has to come to the boot

In Australian Football the kicker has to bring the ball to the boot, whereas in other football codes—such as American football and rugby—they bring the boot to a stationary ball. Similarly, a basketball free throw is a skill where the ball stays relatively still in the hands, giving players a greater chance to recreate a pattern of predictability and accuracy. It is not easy to consistently have the ball make contact with the boot correctly. Many errors can occur between the time the ball is moved around by the kicker’s arms, leaves the hands and makes contact with the foot.

6. Set-shot goalkicking is a closed skill

Set-shot goalkicking is a closed skill with guaranteed time and space. Players are more used to open skills where time and space are constantly changing, as in general field play or shots on the run and snaps.

During a set shot everybody on the field and in the crowd concentrates on only one player. The pressure comes from within—how the kicker views the situation. In open shots the pressure is provided by the opposition affecting time and space. These are pressures that are more commonly applied, and players become very used to them. The change in the game from fast to slow often causes psychological challenges, and an increased focus on the individual attempting to score a goal can be very threatening. Crowd noise and opposition comments have the potential to become distractions and upset concentration.

Goalkicking can be very emotional, and emotion can interfere with closed skills. Taking a set shot in front of 100,000 people at the MCG can be a very lonely place! From my experience most forwards are extroverts; introverts appear to be better at performing closed skills as they can narrow their concentration to what is important in the skill.

7. Goalkicking is a complex skill that requires precision

Kicking is a large body movement that demands a precise finish. It is not easy to for a player to arrange his body to consistently bring the ball to the optimal release point in order to control the free air time of the ball. There is a real skill in developing a pattern of organising body parts to control the ball. One of the reasons why not many players can kick 65% and over is that they do not have the motor skill to habitually have their arm and hand (and other parts) in the correct position to release the ball for an accurate kick.

One common characteristic of Lockett, Hudson and Lloyd (and others) is that they mastered the skill of having their body consistently return the ball to the best position prior to contact. The same principle applies to golf: professional golfers are superior to the average golfer in that the professionals can reproduce a swing with body movement that enables them to bring the club head to the desired position for ideal contact with the ball time after time.

8. Physical and mental pressure

Many critics do not realise how much fatigue and pressure players experience when taking a set shot. A player’s heartbeat may be at around 180 per minute (BPM) when he takes a mark and then it can increase by up to 50 BPM to well over 200 BPM through anxiety. Physical pressure can then lead to mental pressure.

Tests conducted by Troy Flanagan at Melbourne’s RMIT on Russell Mark, Olympic gold medallist and world champion clay target shooter, showed that when his heart rate was rising he had a 60% chance of hitting the target, compared to a 95% chance when his heart rate was falling. Russell’s ideal heart rate was 120 BPM, at which he shot at 95% accuracy. Flanagan explains the effect of an elevated heart rate: “If your heart rate is increasing, muscles begin to constrict and less blood is getting to your muscles. Therefore the smoothness of muscle contraction is reduced.”

In an interview I did with Matthew Lloyd he told me why he took so long to take a shot at goal. Over the years he increased the time before taking a shot to about 50 seconds, and because of the time he took, the AFL changed the rule to enforce a 30-second limit to shoot. He explained that he was waiting for his heart rate to decrease to a level where he knew it would give him the best chance to kick accurately. Teaching players to relax and lower their heart rate may be a key to improving accuracy in set shots as it is very difficult to execute a closed skill when experiencing both fatigue and mental pressure. It is under pressure that cracks in any system or machine appear.

9. Spread of goalscorers

Coaching staffs encourage many non-specialists to take shots as a spread of goalscorers is a sign of a well-balanced attack and is harder for the opposition to match up with compared to a team with only one or two key forwards, regardless of how good their accuracy rate is. Fewer numbers make easier defensive reference points. Ideally, a team wants six or seven players who can score a goal per week. In other sports, such as American football and rugby, specialist kickers are produced for goal attempts. Even in basketball it is a common strategy to move the ball to the most accurate shooter when attacking, especially in pressure situations when the scores are close towards the end of a game.

10. Not all forwards are accurate kicks for goal

Some forwards are excellent at winning possession but not necessarily at converting. Many players spend their career in the forward line becoming experts at the open skills of creating and finding spaces, winning marking contests, reading the ball off packs and capitalising on opponents’ mistakes—this is what has made up the majority of their practice and match experience. If they do not win possessions, they do not stay in the team. Relatively much less time is spent on mastering the more closed skill of goal shooting, as they know they are not going to be judged for poor accuracy as much as they will be for gaining only a few possessions.

The Art of Coaching, By David Wheadon, is available at the special price of $20.00 from www.slatterymedia.com/store/viewItem/the-art-of-coaching

Please enter the Coupon Code 'coach2014' at the checkout to save $9.95 off the RRP.

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