Words by TYF ambassador and Fremantle AFLW captain Kara Antonio
It’s hard to imagine how much has changed since the 2020 AFLW season concluded prematurely, and we began our 2021 campaign.
Although we’re incredibly lucky living in Australia, in particular those of us who were in WA and didn’t experience the challenges some of the eastern states did, it was hard to prepare for a football season that was still filled with uncertainty.
Our training processes were different to ensure integrity across the competition when teams couldn’t train together, we were over sanitising our hands, cleaning equipment what felt like 10 times a day and were playing with a floating fixture.
I’m a structured person at the best of times and I liked to know what lies ahead of me whether that be who we’re playing in the upcoming round or four rounds’ time but COVID removed all of that sense of planning.
For me, as captain, demonstrating strong leadership through supporting my teammates became even more critical as we faced a period of uncertainty.
It’s not always easy to set goals for your team when you are faced with a period of the unknown.
With that being said, it’s important that everyone is of the same mindset and focussing on the present. It’s often easier said than done but that became a big focus of ours at Fremantle.
It’s hard to set long-term goals with the ever-evolving world we’re living in and so we made the decision to set “mini goals”, focusing on what lay ahead in the days and the week that we were leading into.
Open communication also became important in setting these goals so that everyone in the team knew what our direction was and what was expected of them and their role.
If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that the only thing we can control is our mindset. It’s the age-old cliché of ‘control the controllable’ but that is so critical and helps establish a positive mindset.
One of the greatest challenges football clubs and coaches can face is reassessing goals and lifting team morale when you’re not hitting targets like you might have expected during the pre-season.
I’ve felt this first-hand with our AFLW side.
We came off the back of an undefeated season last year and started our 2021 campaign off strongly but then lost a couple of games and couldn’t pick our way back from there.
You get scrutiny no matter who you are, what team, whether you’re winning or losing, in the local paper or receiving national coverage. But, what’s really important is that within the four walls of the club you know what the plan is and how you’re going to accomplish something.
When you’re flying and you’re winning, everyone is happy and you tend to forget the little things like checking in on your teammates.
Those things tend to get pushed aside but I think it becomes more important in that scenario because you want to ensure you’ve got what it takes when things might not be going so well.
Maintaining momentum when you’ve had a flying start to the season is sometimes as difficult as trying to lift morale.
I hate cliches but taking it one week at a time is popular for a reason.
It’s about focussing on the opponent that lies ahead of you in that week and not looking too far ahead or thinking about how many rounds you need to sustain your success for.
When you’re on a winning streak everyone knows what is expected of them and the standards that they need to meet. That winning mentality you have is quite contagious within the group but it can also come crashing down quite quickly.
Those are the moments when you might need a bit of a wake-up call and time to finetune what you’re doing. Unfortunately, at Fremantle, we didn’t bounce back from those moments this year but as a group it’s really important to respond.
It’s also important to acknowledge that failure is a normal part of life at times and remind yourself that you learn a lot more from your losses than your wins. They can be a blessing in disguise.
If I reflect on the season just gone and think about the times where I felt things weren’t going as I expected, readjusting my goals became an important focus.
I’m normally on the wing/ midfield but this year, due to various circumstances, I spent more time forward.
That was a big, albeit exciting, challenge for me and one that probably could have gone two ways. I wanted to grab it with both hands and grasped that opportunity to learn and develop new aspects of my game.
With that positional change, I had to reset my own goals for the season because I was learning a new role. It was important that I didn’t isolate my focus to being the best forward but rather thinking about how I could play my role for the team, focusing on my strengths and what I could bring to the table to make it a better line.
When we were losing games, I challenged the group and individuals on how we could be better, what were our strengths and how we could capitalize on them. It was about going back to basics.
Thinking about things like, ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Why was I drafted?’
When you think about the key elements of purpose and why you play, it decreases the anxiety and concerns around losing because you know that you’re doing what’s expected of you and playing your role.
We all know how to play footy and we’re all here for a reason, but when we focus on individual strengths and how that can make the team better, I think the team flourishes with that.
I’ve been fortunate in my football journey to experience life as both as a player and coach.
Coaching is a different ball game because there is only so much you can control from inside the box. I actually find it harder than when I’m in my role as captain because I’m not physically out there to rally my teammates.
One thing that has become clear in terms of importance from a coaching point of view is the way you communicate with your players and the level of care you have for them.
As I wrote earlier, the losses are hard to swallow at times but there’s also an opportunity to take some key learnings from that and use it to develop yourself and the group around you.
I always ask myself, ‘What can I take from a loss that will make me better?’
As a coach it’s also really important to get feedback as well from your players or other staff members around you on how you’re travelling, what you could have done differently in a particular moment or game etc.
We know self-reflection is important from a players’ point of view, but I think it’s just as crucial for a coach.
That vulnerability also help builds connection and a strong culture amongst the group.