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AFLW Player development: how the Demons are getting it right

In the ‘part time’ world of the AFLW, player development looks different. But exactly how are the Melbourne Demons ensuring their playing list is elite?

The Melbourne Demons had their most successful AFLW season in 2021, reaching a preliminary final. Image: Megan Brewer
The Melbourne Demons had their most successful AFLW season in 2021, reaching a preliminary final. Image: Megan Brewer

In the world of women’s footy, player development is a very different story to that of their male counterparts. Coming out of broken, or recently established talent pathways, AFLW players are contracted for short preseasons and seasons, and limited hours in those weeks in order to fit football around day jobs. So how do players go from strength to strength, improving each season to perfect their craft?

Despite fielding the fewest Victorian top-ten draftees in the 2021 season, the Melbourne Demons had their most successful AFLW season yet, making a preliminary final. Collingwood and North Melbourne were the only other Victorian sides to make the finals series. Melbourne, however, crafted and developed their 2021 playing list differently to their Victorian counterparts.

Access to top level talent is certainly beneficial, but identifying talent in other areas is crucial. So too is the development of that talent once it is in the club. At the Demons, a number of strategies have been put in place to ensure each AFLW player can grow, not just on the field, but off it. And it is paying dividends.

Building an AFLW list

It all starts with building a balanced playing list; finding the right players to complement the team dynamic. List Manager Todd Patterson is acutely aware of how small AFLW list sizes—just 30 signed players per club each year—exacerbates any imbalance.

“You’ve just got to be really certain that if you’re going to invest in someone that a) they’re the right type of character for your club to stick with them and b) they actually have something legitimately special to invest in.”

Given the nature of a state-based draft, Patterson largely benchmarks his list development against other Victorian clubs—the other clubs competing for the same talent pool.

“My goal as a recruiter is to make sure we’re the number one Victorian team,” explains Patterson. “And hopefully that’s good enough to be the number one team in the competition, given the difficulty of trading players interstate, drafting interstate.”

A quick breakdown of each Victorian club’s 2021 playing list

2021 listed players originally drafted (total)24221820181722
2021 listed players originally drafted in VIC top 1097456512
2021 listed players originally signed as cross-coders/rookies3482226

*Geelong excluded due to separate draft region until 2020

While most Victorian clubs built their 2021 lists through the draft, Melbourne has looked to cross-code rookies more than any other Victorian club. A strategy somewhat making up for their limited access to high-end draft picks. Of the four inaugural Victorian clubs, the Demons have had access to just eight top ten Victorian players since 2017, compared to 11 at Collingwood, 12 at Carlton and 17 at the Western Bulldogs.

Melbourne’s 2021 AFLW playing list

PlayerOriginGames in 2021
Alyssa BannanDRAFTED: NO.5 (AUS) / NO.3 (VIC) 202011
Maggie CarisDRAFTED: NO.17 (AUS) / NO.11 (VIC) 20200
Gabby ColvinDRAFTED: NO.77 (AUS) / NO.38 (VIC) 201911
Tegan CunninghamDRAFTED: NO.22 (AUS) / NO.13 (VIC) 201711
Meg DownieFREE AGENT 20163
Chantel EmonsonCROSS-CODE ROOKIE 20188
Megan FitzsimonDRAFTED: NO.35 (AUS) / NO.24 (VIC) 20202
Sinead GoldrickCROSS-CODE ROOKIE 20196
Tyla HanksDRAFTED: NO.6 (AUS) / NO.3 (VIC) 201811
Shelley HeathDRAFTED: NO.44 (AUS) / NO.24 (VIC) 201811
Mietta KendallDRAFTED: NO.41 (AUS) / NO.28 (VIC) 20200
Sarah LampardDRAFTED: NO.134 (AUS) / NO.68 (VIC) 20169
Lauren MageeCROSS-CODE ROOKIE 20207
Eliza McNamaraDRAFTED: NO.15 (AUS) / NO.9 (VIC) 202011
Lily MithenDRAFTED: NO.73 (AUS) / NO.37 (VIC) 201611
Jackie ParryDRAFTED: NO.54 (AUS) / NO.26 (VIC) 201911
Karen PaxmanPRIORITY SIGNING 201611
Daisy PearceMARQUEE SIGNING 20169
Lauren PearceDRAFTED: NO.25 (AUS) / NO.13 (VIC) 201611
Krstel PetrevskiDRAFTED: NO.78 (AUS) / NO.39 (VIC) 20192
Shelley ScottDRAFTED: NO.41 (AUS) / NO.21 (VIC) 201611
Isabella SimmonsDRAFTED: NO.48 (AUS) / NO.31 (VIC) 20200
Shae SloaneCROSS-CODE ROOKIE 20180
Brenna TarrantDRAFTED: NO.72 (AUS) / NO.35 (VIC) 20199
Eden ZankerDRAFTED: NO.6 (AUS) / NO.4 (VIC) 201711

Top end talent

Drafted at number six in 2018, Tyla Hanks won the competition’s 2021 Rising Star award after a permanent move into Melbourne’s midfield. When asked about what was different this year, Hanks is keen to highlight the value of persistent work over a number of years in the AFLW system.

“My fitness and work rate, over the last few years [is the difference]. I always thought it just happened quickly, but I think it’s actually sustained work rate over a long period of time to get your body right,” Hanks explains.

“So that’s one thing, but then I think, just experience in the league. So it being my third year, I knew what to expect. Being in the midfield, I had more time to focus on one role and just having that experience. It just instils a bit of belief in your own game. And once you have one game of higher possessions, you prove to yourself that you’re capable, and it’s something that you can keep doing for your team.”

Tyla Hanks won the AFLW's 2021 Rising Star award. Image: Megan Brewer
Tyla Hanks won the AFLW’s 2021 Rising Star award. Image: Megan Brewer

Hanks’ improved fitness and ability coincided perfectly with some midfield space being opened up by Elise O’Dea’s trade to Carlton after the 2020 season. This saw her not just statistically improve in almost all metrics, but also impact games in far more significant ways than ever before.

Hanks is frank about the daunting prospect of breaking into the Demons’ star-studded midfield when she arrived at the club in 2019.

“It was a pretty tough task, because that was such a strong group of girls, and it didn’t really look like there was going to be any change there. I just tried to work really hard and work my way into that group. And that meant probably spending half my time down forward as well, just because I wasn’t at that standard to earn the minutes in the middle yet. 

“But with training and stuff, like alongside [Elise] O’Dea, she’s no longer there anymore but she was great to learn from and even Katherine Smith, and then Paxy [Karen Paxman], you’ve got all the midfield that’s still there now. So it was actually probably a good thing that I did have to wait my turn a little bit and learn from them first.”

Tyla Hanks 2019 – 2021

Average Disposals8.310.418.6
Average Tackles2.14.74.7
Average Clearances0.32.03.5
Average Inside 50s1.61.42.5
Average Score Involvements2.01.73.0

From Patterson’s perspective, Hanks’ willingness to invest in herself has played the biggest part.

“She’s probably one that is benefiting from the investment she’s made herself as well. She realised physically the shape she was in was not getting that done and wasn’t going to get it done and [she] worked really hard to change it, and then we’ve been able to give her more opportunity and she’s really grown in confidence. She’s quite a different person than she was when she first walked through the door—she was still a great person when she walked through—and now the amount of growth is brilliant.”

This self-investment includes working closely with line coaches, and reaching out to articulate specific areas of improvement.This is helped by Hanks’ great relationship with the side’s midfield coach, Peter Mercoulia. 

“Often he sees these things during the game or the training session that he wants to change. And then often I can go to Mick [Stinear] and say ‘I want to work on this’.” 

Players aren’t the only ones putting in extra time outside of contracted hours year round. Head coach Mick Stinear and his coaching panel run extra skills sessions twice a week, and willingly conduct one-on-one sessions with players whenever requested.

“Mick does extra skills before training for about an hour with a lot of players on a Tuesday and Thursday, so he’s always out there with the other coaches as well, so you can pretty much go out there and tell them what you want to work on. They’re there to do it.” Hanks explains. “But then I think it needs to be on yourself as well. Like, you’ve got to review your own game and analyse where you’re at and what you want to work on.”

A mental game

It’s important to note that Hanks attributes as much of this development to physical training sessions and improved fitness as she does to the work she completes off field with the club’s psychologist, Dr. Alyce Wilcox. 

“You have to get the mental right before you can even get to the physical stage,” says Hanks.

“I think lockdown, as tough as it was for everyone, it actually gave me a lot of time to slow down and work out where my weaknesses were. And I think a lot of it was on the mental side of things, and instilling belief in myself and that confidence. So I did a lot of work with our psychologist Alyce, and she was amazing. And because we had so much time, I was just working out what worked for me mentally and physically. So I think that’s been a big reason as to why I’ve been able to do this.”

Also quick to share the importance of the mental side of footy is Hanks’ fellow 2018 draftee Shelley Heath, who arrived via pick 44.

“I’ve been talking to our psych for the entire season, the mental state is really a big deal,” Heath says. 

Experiencing a rockier start to her AFLW career, Heath had to get her appendix out during the 2020 season—unfortunate timing given the limited season already afforded to the AFLW.

“I didn’t enjoy that just because the season is so short. I really made sure I did the recovery really well and pushed myself to get back out there for finals when that came around, which I ended up doing.”

While this can be brushed off as simply bad timing, and that there’s always next season, the unstable nature of the AFLW, and the aforementioned small list sizes means missing any games—through injury or otherwise—creates extra pressure.

“Having an injury or anything in a short season really can affect your mental state, including not having a contract, because we’re not contracted as long as the boys. So if you’re missing games, it’s really hard on your mental state to think ‘oh, well, am I going to be here next year? Because I haven’t played as many games as everyone else’,” says Heath.

Shelley Heath played every possible game in 2021 as a lock down small defender. Image: Megan Brewer
Shelley Heath played every possible game in 2021 as a lockdown small defender. Image: Megan Brewer

Drafted initially as a dashing half back, Heath’s unique combination of speed and one-on-one lockdown ability has seen the Demons throw her into a number of different positions in her three years at the club, with each role helping her to develop various skills. In Melbourne’s 2021 campaign, Heath excelled as a lockdown defender, often tasked with the opponent’s trickiest small forward each week.

“The coaches spoke to me and they really like my aggression, and my ability to be really hard to play against. So therefore they swung me down back where I can still use my speed across the halfback. But the first thing they wanted me to focus on is defending my player and making sure that I take the really important and really valuable players on the other teams. And so it gives us more of a chance to shut them down and to create more opportunities in our forward line.”

Again, this required Heath to somewhat mature mentally in order to accept this role, and understand what a good game meant when disposals weren’t necessarily forthcoming.

“You play junior football, and you’re getting all the touches and you’re doing that. And I had to get it ingrained into myself that, you know, being a defender, if you’re getting a lot of touches it means you’re not going very well. So the less touches you get, the more likely you are to be winning. And that’s just what I’ve had to continue to tell myself and the coaches are really good with giving me feedback about all that and the disposals, it doesn’t matter. It’s just, it’s not about that, because it’s not about me. It’s about the team win and so that’s what I’ve really been focusing on. And that’s how I’ve developed myself, and therefore will probably develop better as a player.”

Senior player Lauren Pearce notes this about Heath, too.

“You know, Shelley, she’s not necessarily a standout sometimes, but you know, she plays a bloody good tag role if we need her to. She’s happy if she can stop her opponent. She just comes off happy if she doesn’t even get a touch. But she stopped a player from getting the ball.”

The confidence that approval from both senior players and coaches provides emerging talent cannot be understated, with both Hanks and Heath attributing much of their development in the past year to improved self-belief.

Different background, same goal

Pearce’s journey through the AFLW has certainly been longer than that of Hanks and Heath, but follows similar principles: a want to be better.

“I think it was leading into contract talks. I was saying ‘I want to develop. We haven’t really done too much ruck stuff’. And I think Mick suggested, what if we see if Greg [Stafford] will do some work with you. You know, we’ll try and tee it up, and he was happy to help me out as well. I was very thankful that they brought that up as a way for me to develop,” Pearce says when asked about the turning point in her form ahead of her All Australian 2019 season.

While Justin Crow was employed to work with the ruck during training hours and on match day, Greg Stafford is part of the men’s program at the club. Pearce would head down to the men’s training sessions outside of her contracted hours to work with Stafford.

“Prior to that, obviously, I was working during the days and stuff and it was not until that 2018 [VFLW] season that I was able to drop off work quite a bit, which therefore gave me more time to invest in my game outside of normal training hours.” 

Lauren Pearce was back to her best in 2021 after an injury-impacted 2020. Image: Megan Brewer
Lauren Pearce was back to her best in 2021 after an injury-impacted 2020. Image: Megan Brewer

Pearce is an advocate for more paid training hours in the AFLW, as she herself is evidence of what kind of growth it can provide.

“I think to see how much I can improve doing those extra things, you think, far out, if other girls had that chance to be able to invest more time in their game outside of those training times. Like, imagine what the team could be like? Imagine what the league could be like, you know, and you see it a little bit now. Girls are coming into training early. There’s opportunities to do extra skill sessions prior to training. But from a load point of view, sometimes that’s a bit harder on some of the girls’ bodies if they’ve worked all day.”

The fact that the club and Pearce were able to negotiate this extra position-specific training time meant the ruck was able to develop her ground-level game during team training sessions.

“I put a lot of work into that outside of hours. So therefore, during training I could do things that the midfielders were doing. So we’d be doing ground balls with pressure, and you don’t have to get pulled to do ruck stuff. So I think that’s really helped and that’s an asset in my game that I can bring to the team.”

This impact is backed up by statistics, with Pearce winning 50 more disposals than any other player registering 100+ hitouts in 2021.

Lauren Pearce 2017 – 2021

Average Disposals8.09.312.712.514.4
Average Hit Outs14.112.219.712.514.6
Average Clearances1.
Average Intercepts1.
Average Marks1.

At 28, and about to enter her sixth season of AFLW, Pearce now has the added responsibility of not just working on her own game, but mentoring younger players joining the team.

“Those younger ones come through, so you have to step up a little and not demand in a way that it’s rude or anything, but demand the best from them. There’s some times they’re not talking so when I’m tapping I’m like, where the hell are you? So I just have to remind them every now and then, just remind them ‘make sure you keep your voice up’. Because they’ve got so many things to think about.

“This year it’s been amazing, but probably in the preseason, they’ve got so many things to think about, it just doesn’t come naturally for them. Whereas the older ones it did, they understood it. So I think just the reminders to keep that up. And, you know, obviously giving them positive feedback as well, because they’re doing a bloody good job. 

“I found it amazing to work with these girls, because they are just so full of energy. They never give up. They just keep going and going and going. And I think it helps me as well, like, you see them go and it’s like ‘if I don’t go, I’m letting them down’.”

Having senior players who effectively act as on-field coaches is also a key to Melbourne’s player development system. The quartet of Pearce, Shelley Scott, Karen Paxman and captain Daisy Pearce essentially adds to the coaching panel, and are viewed as approachable resources for young players.

Brenna Tarrant is another young player who has come a long way in her two seasons at the Demons, and she partly credits the experience of senior players for her growth.

“Everyone’s a coach, essentially.”

Senior players like Shelley Scott and Tegan Cunningham are as important to the development of young players as the coaching staff. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Senior players like Shelley Scott and Tegan Cunningham are as important to the development of young players as the coaching staff. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

The interstate factor

Brenna Tarrant had the added pressure of moving away from her family in Sydney as an 18-year-old in order to join the Demons when she was drafted at pick 72 in 2019. Maturing as a person has been key to Tarrant’s ability to play nine of a possible 11 games in 2021.

“Brenna, most of her development is coming down to the fact that she’s starting to mature as a person,” list manager Todd Patterson says. “It’s quite easy to forget that she was just 18, and she’s just 19 now and she’s starting to really listen and absorb a lot more information. She’s earned the trust of a lot more of the coaching staff as a result… She’s actually started to invest in her game, she’s starting to be really organised in life and understand what life looks like in Melbourne. Probably a few have forgotten that she’s left her family in New South Wales. She’s trying to support herself and things like that, but now she’s starting to get the balance right.”

Tarrant is the first to agree with Pattersons’s assessment.

“I am very immature myself. I think my mental self, or my mental age is probably about 12. It’s a long way from 19,” she laughs.

But it’s through footy and her teammates that Tarrant is finding a way to grow as a person.

“I guess being from Sydney, I’ve moved down here and I don’t really know anyone. I don’t know anyone outside of where I work and where I train. Obviously, doing all my training and working really hard around the footy field is basically me hanging around with my friends. I am growing as a person through my training as well. I do think… playing such a versatile role has helped me mature.”

Related—It comes down to confidence: Fremantle’s Hayley Miller & Trent Cooper

Like Hanks and Heath, a sense of self-belief and trust from teammates has been important to Tarrant’s substantial growth between season 2020 and 2021.

“I think last year, I was very apprehensive about things and I might have had a quick glance and then just go on for a long kick down the line because I didn’t have a whole heap of trust in my kicking. But this year it’s something I have really worked toward. I do have a lot more trust in my kick now, but it’s still a long way from being perfect.”

Brenna Tarrant kicked her first AFLW goal in Melbourne's qualifying final win over Fremantle this year. Image: Megan Brewer
Brenna Tarrant kicked her first AFLW goal in Melbourne’s qualifying final win over Fremantle this year. Image: Megan Brewer

Interaction with the Demons’ coaching staff when heading back to state-league sides during the winter has also proved to be an important aspect of each of these players’ development since joining the AFLW. Testing out new positions is one thing. Skill development is another. But above all, learning to trust themselves without the safety net of senior players is fast tracking many young players’ growth.

“Through our alignment with Casey Demons’ coaching, we’re able to really experiment, put some things in place to see how things will go that really promotes their development,” says Patterson. “Not having all their teammates, given the limited numbers you can play, gives us an opportunity to give players additional responsibility, which then makes them more comfortable and they don’t have to rely on everyone else.”

Setting player challenges and specific focus areas during the winter—wherever they might be playing their footy—is an important part of the coaches’ exit interviews each year. The coaches are also readily available to players during the AFLW’s off season to check in, look at footage and provide one-on-one advice.

Team first footy

Versatility is key to Melbourne’s list strategy. It comes through getting the basics right, so as long as they’re recruiting players with strong fundamental skills, countless options remain available to the coaching panel.

“We don’t come in so much with a set plan of ‘you’re going to be a half-forward flank’,” says Patterson. “It’ll be, these are skills they’ve got, we think they’ll end up being a half-forward, they might be able to play this position as well, let’s start training them in this area and see where they progress to from there.”

Elaborating on this, Patterson explains the value of being able to swing Tarrant between the forward and back lines in Melbourne’s surge toward finals.

“She comes in as a key forward, plays that starring role in the VFL[W] then you decide to throw her into defence, which can be a thankless role… the way you mark the ball in the forward line or the back line, it’s not that different, strong kicking stands up both ends.” 

He points to a number of players who were moved into various positions throughout the season, but also mentions Daisy Pearce, and her willingness to set an example with her move initially to defence, and then forward.

“It certainly helps having players like Daisy being willing to do that.”

Daisy Pearce captained the Demons again in 2021. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Daisy Pearce captained the Demons again in 2021. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

And this is what is most important, the overarching team-first mentality that permeates the club as a whole.

“Really, I think most of our girls are pretty good at understanding team-first mentality and that’s what they need to do and a lot of them just want to play as well,” says Patterson. “So if that’s what they have to do to play, then that’s what they’ll do.”

Club culture is vital given that planning for the future is particularly difficult in AFLW. The longest contract clubs can sign a player on is two years. Another round of expansion is on the horizon. The ‘part-time’ nature of the competition often sees players unavailable for full seasons due to work commitments. Player payments are set in a rigid tier structure. All of these factors throw up challenges for list managers and recruiters.

“The nature of the list sizes is the main thing, it’s a little bit difficult and makes it difficult to plan as well, where your list is headed, but we just keep planning as if our program’s going to be strong and that people won’t want to leave,” Patterson says.

During the 2020/2021 off season, Melbourne chose to prepare for upcoming expansion—which will include the addition of two more Victorian sides—by trading out six established players and taking a strong hand to the draft. 

Two of the six 2020 draftees—Alyssa Bannan and Eliza McNamara—played every possible game this year in key roles, while the remaining four spent the year learning from the coaching staff and senior players.

The plan? To be able to cover roles right across the ground for the long-term.

“Picking young players to fill spots and then churn them out and also having a bit of a bit of foresight into what positions in the side might open up in the coming years, and how they can potentially move into those roles… you bring in Isabella Simmons or Megan Fitzsimon and you know that we’ve got reasonable coverage in the areas of the ground they’re going to play.” 

But again, this preparation for the future comes back to ensuring all 30 players have a strong fundamental skill base, making them versatile both within seasons and within games.

And this is what it comes down to. The key pillars of the list build, backed up by a club culture in which players can thrive, whether they’re a highly touted 18 year old straight out of the NAB League, or an athlete crossing over from another sport they’ve excelled in. While the challenges of the AFLW structure aren’t likely to go away any time soon, it appears the Demons have set themselves up reasonably well for a sustained period of success.

One thought on “AFLW Player development: how the Demons are getting it right

  1. Great work – well researched and an enlightening view of how lists can be structured. Balance is difficult when the strengths of opposing needs can obscure the desired vision – not to mention the need to accurately asses the talent pool to meet the ultimate outcome on field. Well done Gemma.

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