Developing Young Players

By Mark Williams, Port Adelaide FC

SOMEONE broached the issue of young players to me over the weekend and asked, in particular, whether they always improve or whether we always expect them to improve.

I think itís really important to know that like all aspects of life, there is not linear or constant improvement with young players.

There are always ups and downs and there are some real challenges along the way.

Each year, a player comes into the AFL system, mostly with little recognition, and all of a sudden they can become publicly acclaimed and heavily scrutinised.

We have to remember that these are 18, 19 and 20-year-old kids.

There are extra demands put on a player in their second and third years and they probably donít get quite the same attention from the clubís coaches, welfare managers and the media, but people are expecting more from them.

Maybe the individual player made a huge impression in one year and actually needs a settling in period the next year, but at the same time, opposition coaches are paying more attention to him and putting more effort into negating his influence.

There are more physical demands on a young player in their second year and onwards. In the first year, you probably ask a draftee to do 70 per cent of training with the main group and that gradually increases over time.

We try to get the balance right and we constantly ask are we putting too much demand on them in terms of their football education? Or are we over taxing them physically or mentally?

In the first year you give them football 101; the very basics and the challenge the next year is to see how quickly we can develop them into an experienced mind.

Like in any walk of life, some individuals can cope with extra information while others need to be drip-fed and there are a lot of different things that go in to educating young players.

The clubs look at a playersí educational background and investigate how the particular individual learns best. We even test things like their eyesight, recognition of colours and peripheral vision.

A lot of these kids are straight out of school and, maybe, just being around the club six days a week is a big adjustment. Some have to deal with the emotions of moving away from home and others are still studying.

Steven Salopek completed year 12 during his first year at Port Adelaide and, in some cases including his, the demand on these young players is so great that they develop glandular fever or become overtired.

Quite often, draftees have never even driven a car before arriving in Adelaide because the legal age in Victoria is 18, compared to 16 here.

You also have to cater for the different personalities within the group. You might have a young player, who like Chad Cornes or Brett Ebert grew up in a football environment, but then you have others who are overawed by the spotlight.

The issue, then, is appreciating what happens when you put six or seven of these young players, each with individual needs, into the existing playing group.

Each player is at a different level and you get some on the up and some on the down.

By the end of the year, you hope that their finishing point is an improvement on where they started the season, but you can look at any snapshot in between and be disappointed.

The players are as disappointed with themselves as much as anyone else and dealing with the psychology of not reaching their lofty expectations immediately is a task in itself.

This is where we depend a lot on the development coaches, player welfare managers, psychologists and the support networks created around these players.

Itís also important to have great leaders and mentor programs at the club and also people that have been through similar ups and downs, who can give them confidence with their own experience and stories.

Iíve been in the system and coached for almost 20 years now and I can remember watching Matthew Lloyd and Scott Lucas at age 16 and 17 struggle to get a kick for several weeks in a row.

You really do get a lot of confidence when you see how far quality people and players that are prepared to work hard can go.

It was a great excitement for me to think back 250 games ago when I rang Scotty Lucas on a Friday night to say he was going to get his first game with the Bombers.

To see him play his 250th game on the weekend; it was nice to think that I had something to do with his development.

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