Contested Marking Fundamentals

Friday, March 13, 2015

By Anthony Rocca
Collingwood FC - Assistant Coach

Years:

AFL Avg:

Premiers:

Finals:

2010

11.5

Collingwood

13.4

2011

12.8

Geelong

14.4

2012

11.6

Sydney

12.3

2013

10.7

Hawthorn

10.3

2014

9.6

Hawthorn

11.9

(Contested marking statistics over the past five years)

The conclusion to be drawn from the above figures is that the number of contested marks per match is declining, with sharp decline witnessed from 2012.

The likely reason for this is that teams are increasingly holding on to the ball as much as possible, retaining it in their control and using precision by foot and run, rather than long kicking that may put the ball back into dispute.

It is also clear from the figures that contested marking numbers rise above the AFL average in finals. In four of the five recorded seasons the average number of contested marks taken in finals is significantly above the AFL home and away average.

This suggests that finals, with their greater intensity and pressure, become ‘hot ball’ games where territory gained, especially early in finals, is preferred over possession. As such, greater opportunities for contested marks arise. 

Although there is an obvious decline in contested marking numbers, it appears to be the case that the importance of contested marking players increases in finals and high pressure matches.

The decline in contested marking numbers is likely to be a product of tactical trends in the game but does not recognize the importance of a contested marking player who can provide relief to mid-field team-mates under pressure who may have to dispose of the football hurriedly.

Nor does it recognize the importance of the contest itself simply by contesting and bringing the ball to ground, a power or contested marking forward may bring teammates into play. Others will also take their cues, in terms of positioning, from their key forwards.

Despite the noted decline, the value of a contested mark remains high. The reward for effort it offers to team-mates who have worked hard further afield to create the opportunity is significant. A contested mark will also allow for a pause in play that can create momentum and, equally, shift momentum away from the opposition.

Most of all, the guaranteed opportunity to score from a contested mark, if taken inside or just outside of the 50 metre arc, is critical.

In my opinion, a modern day contested marking forward must possess three main qualities.

  1. Reading the flight of the ball
  2. Body positioning/strength
  3. Clean hands
Reading the flight of the ball:

Reading the flight of the ball is possibly the hardest skill to coach and acquire. 

Why? The relationship that a forward needs to have with team-mates is a complex and yet critical one.  Marking forwards need to know the type of kicks each one of their team-mates can execute. One may spear the kick in short, one kick the ball long and another kick the ball across the body to the advantage side. Team-mates also need to know the strengths of their marking forwards; are they a good hit up lead, a player who leads laterally or a player who likes to trade weight and engage his opponents physically?

Establishing the flight of the ball quickly gives the marking forward an advantage on an opponent, who is not typically making the play but reacting to it. This advantage allows the marking player to get into a superior marking position earlier.

Without this skill, it is unlikely that a marking forward, no matter how strong or nimble, will regularly out-position their opponent.

Body positioning/Strength:

It might appear to be an oxymoron but the best-contested marking players more often than not mark the ball un-contested. The best do their work in the lead up to the contest so they can gain a metre or two on their opponent or trap them under the ball to mark with little pressure.

Constant movement is critical. This does not allow a defender to get set or believe that he has mastery over the jostle for best position. 

(Movement also enables a forward to become a bigger or more available target for team-mates. Movement ought to equal multiple leads and adjustments that provide options for team-mates and draw defenders and defences out of position.)

So where does the strength come from?

Gaining the best body position in a contest doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use a lot of strength. It’s about shifting the defender enough to get both hands to the ball unrestricted. Unexpected contact with the opposition is always the best contact, for it puts them off balance and doesn’t give them time to set their feet and weight, to activate their strength.

The feet, legs and arms play an important part in contested marking.

The feet need to be quick to set up, plant and spread for balance. The foot closest to the defender needs to be grounded as early as possible or at least before the opponent has the chance to get set. Once these foundations are set in place, with the back leg akin to an anchor, the leg closest to the opponent will drive into the legs and allow you to push up into the opponent to force the opponent away from the drop of the ball.

The arms can assist in this role by being strong and stiff; the ideal spot for the arm is under the opponent’s armpit. From here the arm and closest leg can be used as one to create the maximum amount of power. 

A mistake marking players often make is to allow their front arm to collapse or drop to an area where it is either trapped or cannot source functional strength. Arm positioning is a point neglected by many and an area of significant potential improvement.

Clean Hands:

So you have done all the hard work. 

You understand how your teammates will dispose of the ball, you have used the strength in your feet, legs and arms to shift your opponent out of position and away from the drop zone and all you need to do now is mark the ball. 

One clean grab is all it needs. 

You want to release both hands from the contest. This will give you the greatest chance of marking the ball. Freeing your hands is obviously important for a clean take is very difficult without both hands being available. 

Clean and strong purchase on the ball as it arrives is equally important. Thumb positioning, with both thumbs spread to halt the flight of the ball, like a safety net, and fingers spread to wrap around a majority of the football are needed.

Improving hand positioning to elite standard demands, possibly, hundreds of hours of practice, with thousands of footballs kicked into your hands developing technique and muscle memory.

This is also practice for the eyes. Just as cricketers developing will follow a delivery on to their bat, elite marking players must watch the football all the way into their hands. 

This article was written as part of the assessment for the Level 3 High Performance Coaching Course.

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