AFL

AFL: Generation next travelling well

It's a Friday morning in Bradenton, Florida, and today is Will Brodie's day. That's what the teenager's teammates tell him as they reach the end of their warm-up and grab a quick drink ahead of their training session. It isn't Brodie's birthday, or any other special occasion. But while the AFL Academy's trip to the IMG Academy is mostly about becoming better footballers, they want to improve in other ways too. "The boys aren't all that chirpy," explained Sam Powell-Pepper. "A few of them don't talk at all. We've been picking someone out every day, telling them it's their day today so that we get them out of their shell. All the boys try to get around them and make sure we're talking more."

This year's draft is still more than 10 months away, but for the 34 players in America it felt like the clock was very much ticking. Hugh McCluggage, held up by a back injury and unable to do much, was frustrated at having to spend the week watching everyone else train but at the same time felt glad that if he had to be held up at all, it was happening now. Ben Ainsworth broke a small bone in his wrist after falling during training on the second day of the trip and hated at having to watch on, too, but held on to his ambition and by the end of the week was able to shadow the other players in their last main session. "We only get to be here and do this once," he said. "To be on the sidelines is pretty frustrating."

AFL Academy players training at the IMG Academy, University of Southern California.
AFL Academy players training at the IMG Academy, University of Southern California. Photo: Emma Quayle

There were other things to get used to. Many of the boys had never travelled so far, let alone trained as hard as they did. An accidental sleep-in on day one meant every player was called to the pool at 6am and told to keep their chin above water for 12 minutes. Two of the three Irish players invited to take part, picked out after the last Dublin combine, had been able to prepare only by kicking a football around at home on their own, relying on their new squad mates as well as the coaches to get them through. Myles Poholke made the Dandenong Stingrays squad for the first time last year and realised how much he still had to learn about how the game is played.

"All the tactics and the set-ups, it's pretty new to me and pretty scary as well, just because I haven't seen it before," he said. "Before this year it was get the ball, run and kick it. It's been a big step up. I've got a lot to get used to, but the intensity has been good. We haven't had an easy day."

Their coach feels the same way. Brenton Sanderson was appointed head coach of the AFL's national academy programs this time last year, while the 2015 group was in the middle of its trip to IMG. One of the first things that hit him was how much the boys have going on in their draft years, how varied their levels of physical and emotional maturity are and how they come from such different backgrounds.

This group was no different. Brodie knew no one when he moved into the Scotch College boarding house but went there with a broken foot, meaning he had to rely on other people from the get go. Jy Simpkin is there with him now, having moved from Mooroopna to take part in the school's Indigenous program last year. Jake Waterman watched his older brother Alex get drafted to West Coast two drafts ago, only to get ground down by glandular fever and adrenal fatigue. "It's been the best insight for me," he said, "to see how it's not all going to be easy."

Both Jonty Scharenberg's brothers ruptured anterior cruciate ligaments in their knees last year, Matthew for the second time during pre-season training with Collingwood and Jake while playing local footy. Like the other players in the squad, Jonty will do an ACL prevention program – based largely around jumping and landing – this year. But the last thing he wants to do is worry the same thing will happen to him. "I've definitely thought about it, but I've tried not to stress about it," he said. "Like people say, it's bad luck most of the time. Matt's pretty shattered and I just feel sorry for him, but he's gone through a lot already. I think he'll be able to bounce back again."

Plenty of the players have made sacrifices, long before sensing they might be good enough to make it to the AFL one day. Jack Bowes has moved from Cairns to the Gold Coast, where he is part of the Suns Academy, to live with his grandparents and be closer to training. Kobe Mutch, part of the Giants Academy, moved in with a host family in Bendigo last year so that he could train and play with the Pioneers in the TAC Cup. Harrison Macreadie, another the Giants have first call on, will start year 12 at a new school in Sydney when he gets home. Tony Olango was born in Sudan, grew up playing soccer in Darwin and tried out for the Glasgow Rangers in Scotland before switching sports, while Brandan Parfitt will play for the Northern Territory in the under-18 championships this year despite moving to Adelaide from Darwin with his family last year. "I've grown up with the kids up there," he said. "I want to finish with them."

Sam Petrevski-Seton has travelled even further. He is from Halls Creek in the Kimberleys; it takes him the best part of a day to get home from Perth, once he has caught a plane to Broome and driven for more than six hours from there. He grew up riding in rodeos, as well as playing footy, tried boarding school in Sydney, and after that didn't work out, settled much more comfortably into Clontarf College in Perth. "For my footy, I knew I had to go somewhere else. I was getting a bit older and I wanted to head out and test myself and get better at footy," he said. "For people my age there's not much at home. It's a tough life, but it's still home. It was there from day one, you know, and when I go back home I'm loving it because it's where I was born and the place that I grew up."

Jarrod Berry has made some sacrifices, too. He was ready to move from Horsham to school in Ballarat a few years ago, but after he lost his mother to cancer knew how important it was that his father and two brothers stick together a little longer. He is at Ballarat Clarendon College now; his dad is up and down the highway all the time for his job and his brother works in Ballarat so Jarrod stays with him on the weekends. "It was a pretty tough time in our life, to see Mum go through so much pain," he said. "We decided as a family that we wanted to stay and get through it with each other. As hard as it was, the one thing that came through is we just love each other so much."

The other thing Sanderson realised, after starting the job last year, was how little time he actually gets with each player, once they get home and go back to their local, state and school sides. Some will play for four or five different teams and coaches this year. The other obviously invested parties are the AFL clubs: recruiters from Adelaide, Brisbane Lions, Carlton, Collingwood, Fremantle, Geelong, Gold Coast, Hawthorn, Melbourne, North Melbourne and St Kilda followed the team to Florida, to watch the boys train, see them interact and get to know them better. But they also sat for a couple of hours with Sanderson, who talked through the comprehensive individual development plans he has put together for each player and talked through with them. Once home, he'll work with the players' other coaches to try and make sure they are all on the same page. But the next time he coaches the boys will be at Easter, when they come together for their final camp and play two games against two VFL sides. On this trip, like the other camps, he wanted to make the most of every minute.

"Once this camp's over I'll only really have them for 10 more days," he said. "We've really got to nail each camp. The camps are where I have to make the biggest impression because from here it's about talking to their coaches, helping to manage them and encouraging them where I can. You can't do everything but the way I see it, our goal should be to ensure the best 25 kids at the age of 16 continue to grow, develop and mature, physically and emotionally so that they get drafted and so that when they do, they're ready for the next step. It's a very big step they have to take."

He worked them hard in Florida. Day one was a "four-quarter" running and conditioning session: a time trial, interval running, hill sprints and a body weight strength circuit. They had three main training sessions, with the recruiters watching only a few metres away. They learnt in a vision training session that it is a skill that can be worked on and improved. In a leadership drill, 20 players had to stand on a piece of tarp and work out how to flip it over without stepping off. "It was about co-operating with each other," said Ainsworth, "and working out how to get things done."

The boys had their VO2 max levels measured and did sweat testing, designed to give them a much more accurate idea of their hydration needs before, during and after training. They had craft sessions between the main ones, and swam almost every day. They stayed for a few days in Santa Monica before flying home, training at the University of Southern California. They spent time with Loren Seagrave, one of many specialist coaches at the IMG Academy, which covers more than 240 hectares, caters for eight sports, is home to 1000 full-time students and brings another 12,000 in each year for camps or other programs. Many NFL hopefuls train there in the lead-up to their draft combine and the academy has its own high school football team. Seagrave, director of speed and movement at the academy, worked with the boys on their sprint technique and acceleration, with some help from gold medal-winning long jumper Dwight Phillips and British runner Joice Maduaka. "That was really good," said Josh Battle. "He made us think about what we were doing."

By the end of the trip, Sanderson had seen changes in the group. Some boys were more organised. Some seemed a little more independent. Many were more talkative. He wanted them to go home with a clearer idea of what it was like to live and train like an AFL player every day of the week and a willingness to make sure they keep working at the same intensity back at their local clubs. "It's not easy to do that. That's the challenging bit, to go home and drive it yourself and make sure your intensity levels don't drop off," said Jeremy Goddard, headed back now to Claremont. "I feel like we've all improved this week. Maybe not massively, but in little ways, and this year's the year when all the little percentages count. We've worked really hard and seen these facilities and it's a pretty good head start for us. It's up to us to keep it going now."