What makes a Bulldog

Words by Gemma Bastiani

Photographs by Megan Brewer

The Western Bulldogs is a club that boasts a long history in women’s footy. One of two clubs featured in the women’s football exhibition matches as a precursor to the AFLW competition, the Dogs were one of the first sides to show an investment in the growth of the women’s game.

It hasn’t always been easy for the club, though. After winning the 2018 premiership they were ransacked by expansion clubs for two consecutive years losing their captain in Katie Brennan, best and fairest winner Monique Conti, star player Emma Kearney, experienced ruck Aasta O’Connor and emerging talents Jenna Bruton and Daria Bannister.

Alongside player movement, premiership coach Paul Groves left the club ahead of the 2020 season. This saw AFL Men’s Hall of Famer Nathan Burke step up to the plate after years coaching girls at junior levels and developing a passion for women’s footy.

With so much change, Burke looked toward sustained success. He wanted to build a team together, focused on the whole rather than the sum of its parts. Three years on, that much was evident.

Their list for AFLW season six was a fascinating one. Packed with youth and raw talent, this was a playing group that was crafted for the long term.

31 percent of the active playing list was drafted within the top 15 selections nationally.

One of those was coveted 2017 number one pick and 2020 Rising Star Isabel Huntington. A player widely known for her willingness to advocate for AFLW players—and women in sport more broadly—while proving herself to be one of the best forwards in the game.

Huntington was coming off a strong year in which she broke the AFLW record for most contested marks in a season and led the Bulldogs’ goal kicking tally. All while working to complete her post graduate studies and managing a rare sleep disorder.

 

Isabel Huntington chats with coach Nathan Burke. Image: Megan Brewer

 

There was Jess Fitzgerald who was taken at number two in the 2020 draft. Immediately becoming an important cog in the Bulldogs’ midfield, she was a Goal of the Year finalist for an impressive running goal against Geelong in just her first season last year.

 

 

“I don’t particularly remember the moment; I just remember afterwards I was cooked. The week before I had a blow to my knee, which was pretty sore and then in the first quarter I got the biggest corkie I’ve ever got in my quad and they were opposite legs, so I was just like waddling,” Fitzgerald laughed as she recalled the moment.

“At the end of that big run. I was like, ‘Oh my god, get me off. I’ve had enough’.”

 

Unassuming defender Eleanor (Elsa) Brown went at number ten in 2018 and gradually worked away at her craft before breaking out in 2021, playing every game of the season for the first time in her career.

And Katie Lynch was taken immediately after Brown that same year, albeit as a forward for Collingwood. Lynch landed at the Bulldogs via trade ahead of the 2021 season, reuniting with good friend Brown and not only playing at the same club, but teaming up together in the backline for the first time.

“Elsa and I have been playing against each other from when we were about 14 or 15. It was such a funny, tense sort of relationship to begin with because we were on opposing teams, and we were sort of the better players on the teams as well. So it was hard to like each other,” explained Lynch.

 

Katie Lynch (front left) and Eleanor Brown (front centre) in their Vic Metro days together. Image: supplied

 

“Once we started getting to rep teams and state teams and stuff, we were able to work with each other rather than against each other. I think it was a case of like, I know I could be really good friends with you but we’re just not in the same environment. But now that we are finally in the same environment, we can be really good friends.”

 

And on top of that 36 percent of high end talent, a further 21 percent of the Bulldogs’ active players were taken within the first 25 picks on draft night, including fresh face Amanda Ling who joined the club via pick 22. 

“Last year when I didn’t get picked it was a setback. I didn’t quite know where to go from there,” Ling said of the 2020 draft.

“But I felt like I wasn’t developed as a player, so I went back to [NAB League] and then yeah, getting my name called out that night was a dream come true. It was so surreal when I think back to it now and I’m like ‘Oh my god, I’m actually here, I used to watch these girls on TV’. It’s so crazy.”

 

If you were looking for genuine talent, the Bulldogs were richer than most.

Youth and Leadership

Going hand in hand with this was the youth of the side. With 14 players born in the year 2000 or later, the Bulldogs were the third youngest side in the competition for season number six.

“They’re a pretty resilient bunch for the age, which is good,” Burke said of his charges.

In an effort to support this exciting batch of young players, the club recruited some experience during the offseason. GWS winger Elle Bennetts returned to her home state to join the Dogs, while delisted Cat Richelle (Rocky) Cranston got another shot at AFLW level for her third club. 

Their addition to the side was for more than simply their on-field abilities. Bennetts and Cranston’s off-field contributions were just as—if not more—important to Burke.

“I’ve spoken to them openly about what I require of them with this young group coming through.”

“Strangely enough, Elle taught my daughters at school… so I kept an eye on her progress just from that, and you always keep an eye on the people that you know, no matter how vicariously, but you keep an eye on them. And her progression was just every year just getting football understanding and great performances,” Burke explained when asked about the club targeting Bennetts.

With 30 games under her belt from four seasons at the Giants, her experience and work ethic was a highly desirable addition to help lead the Bulldogs.

“We lost a couple of senior players at the end of last year. She’s a person who holds very high standards, she’s a person who is extremely fit, and takes her football seriously.”

For Cranston, her leadership was seen to be most valuable when it came to setting standards in the gym.

“We’ve got a lot of 18, 19, 20 year olds that don’t necessarily understand the importance of the professional work ethic off the track, so once you get in the gym, it’s like, ‘Hey, we’ll do the program and away we go’. There’s actually gains and everything to be made from it. So basically, Rocky walked in day one, and her warmups were our club personal bests for a lot of the actual gym exercises that they were doing,” explained Burke.

“To be able to say, look, here’s what’s capable. You girls are here, Rocky’s here. This is who you’re playing against, this is the standard, and just opened their eyes to ‘Wow, how much more have we got?’”

Cranston’s strength wasn’t lost on Amanda Ling, either.

“Oh, you should see her trap bar. They’re like chunks of weight on each side and I’m here just like with my two little weights on either side. I do my trap bar and she’s just full on like going red and everything. She’s scary in the gym… but lovely!” gushed Ling when asked about Cranston.

 

“She’s always enticing us to go heavier.”

 

“If we hit our PB she’s getting around us even though it’s much less weight than what she lifts,” Jess Fitzgerald said of Cranston’s encouragement in the gym.

That strength translated to the field, where Cranston brought her 34 games worth of power and hard-hitting playing style.

“I wanted Rocky to come in and play that sort of a role, but also don’t underestimate the fact that she can play football very well,” insisted Burke.

“Bringing in two experienced players that we didn’t have last year in Elle Bennetts and Rocky Cranston. That’s a bonus on our list.”

Along with previous experience comes knowledge of how other clubs operate. In her fourth year of AFLW footy, former Collingwood forward turned Western Bulldogs defender Katie Lynch spoke to the value of this kind of experience.

“It’s been really good, ’cause we’re a very young group. I think having a couple of heads who know the system and can provide their thoughts and opinions based on experiences of another club is really important and something I can empathise with, ’cause obviously I’ve spent a couple years at Collingwood,” explained Lynch.

 

Katie Lynch began her AFLW career playing for Collingwood. Image: Megan Brewer

 

“I think it’s really interesting to hear from those girls, about whether it’s like, ‘this is really good girls but something that we did a bit better over here was A, B, C’ and that insight is important, because I think it drives girls to understand that, like, ‘hang on, we’re actually not doing everything right here.’”

The Makings of a Leader

The level headedness found in Bulldogs players is no surprise as Burke looks for a range of attributes when making draft selections. The importance of balancing experience between the players is aided through seeking maturity—no matter what age.

In the three years that Burke has been at the helm, the likes of Gabby Newton, Jess Fitzgerald and Issy Grant have joined the side not just because of their talent on the field but because of the people they are off it. 

“Probably one thing that helps is that we were very, very mindful of not just getting young talent. We got young mature women who, even though their age might say, 18, 19 [years old], you won’t get a more mature young woman than Gabby [Newton] and Jess Fitzgerald, she’ll captain the club one day.” 

 

Jess Fitzgerald confers with midfield coach Natalie Wood before the Dogs’ round 10 match against Brisbane in Ballarat, April 2022. Image: Megan Brewer

 

Take Newton, sitting out the 2022 season due to injuries to both shoulders, her value at the club was not lost as she joined then-midfield coach Natalie Wood in preparing the players for games each week and was tasked with opposition analysis on a regular basis.

 

“Sarah Hartwig and those [others] that we brought in—they’re very mature. Their age might say one thing, but the way that they carry themselves, the way that they take their football, it’s at a mature level,” elaborates Burke.

His sixth sense for future proofing the club’s leadership hasn’t been missguided either. Jess Fitzgerald is taking on extra responsibility to put her in line for the coveted captain position.

“I definitely want to be a future leader, working with Brooke Lochland as well—that’s been huge for me. Obviously, she’s Vice Captain and she’s a terrific role model.” 

Fitzgerald has been gaining confidence since her 2021 Dogs debut and feels more comfortable coming out of the background this season.

“I’m working on my leadership as well. I feel like last year I came in and I couldn’t boss everyone around, you know, I was a fresh pup. I just wanted to stay in the background, but obviously, now we’ve got some newer girls so I’m helping out and I just feel like I have more of an understanding. So I can have a little bit more of a say, which is nice”.

Katie Lynch is another at the club who has leadership aspirations.

“I stuck my hand up this year. The process was a self nomination/nominating others and I did nominate myself knowing that I was into leadership growth. I didn’t want to be in the main leadership group but I was interested in just developing and I think, at this stage, I actually really quite enjoy using the leadership qualities I have in an informal sense.”

This was evident during preseason training as Lynch found her voice on the track. At the end of season five Burke put the challenge to her: you know your stuff so step up your voice. More leadership was going to be needed in that backline if it were to continue to develop.

“That was certainly a conversation at the end of last year,” admitted Lynch. Burke told her, “You were obviously getting comfortable in a position and getting to know your teammates in your first year. We saw glimpses of this sort of leadership coming through, but we want you to really step up.” 

Ellie Blackburn has been involved in club leadership ever since her debut in 2017. She became premiership captain in 2018 and has been a captain of the side ever since. Blackburn, reprising her role this season, was met with celebration from her surrounding peers and players upon announcement that she had retained the captaincy.

“I’ve always looked up to her as a player. I’ve always watched her play… but Ellie is a great person, every training, even when she wasn’t out there, I’ll come off the track and she’ll pull me aside and be like, ‘Hey Lingy, you’ve come such a long way from your first training to now, you can just see the improvement’,” said Amanda Ling.

The importance of this ongoing encouragement is not lost on Ling either as she explains that the support from top players like Blackburn is often just as important as technical skill guidance.  

“Sometimes that’s all you need after training because sometimes I feel really down after training like ‘Oh I stuffed up my kicking’, and all you can think is that running through your head… Every time when I come off the track and she’s always there for questions or, you know, just support and stuff. So I think it’s good to be playing for a team that she’s leading.”

Blackburn’s partner in the midfield since the very beginning is Kirsty Lamb. Although an All-Australian in 2022, Lamb has often been underestimated by the footy world after being the eighth-last selection at the inaugural AFLW draft back in 2016.

“She had a really interrupted preseason, barely out on the track. I think she was really worried how she was going to go fitness-wise and all that, but she’s that type of player that even though she hasn’t really had a big preseason under her belt, she will just give her all at every opportunity.

“She wears the jumper with a lot of pride and she gives 100 percent to the team. She’s the ultimate, ultimate team player,” Blackburn told the W show.

“I could not have more respect for two footballers than I do for those two.”

And it’s not just official leaders taking charge of the young Dogs. Deanna Berry, on the way back from an ACL injury sustained last year had a profound impact on Fitzgerald simply by sending an Instagram direct message after noticing the second year player being particularly hard on herself.

“I overthink what I do in games and what I should be doing compared to what I actually achieved in the game and whatnot. And Dee Berry actually sent me this thing on Instagram… Basically, the messaging of it was, lower your expectations so that you have half a chance,” Fitzgerald recounted.

“I watched that video and took some notes, and then I went into each game just giving myself simple expectations.”

“I think it helped me a lot in terms of overthinking what I do in the game. So yeah, [I] have Dee Berry to thank for that.”

But it wasn’t only Berry who noticed the pressure Fitzgerald was piling on herself, either, and hearing others make note of it was a reality check.

“Burkey types up a little review for all the players [post game] and emails them to us, and he said, like, ‘You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself’, or something. And I was like, ‘Oh, my god’. I got really upset. I was like, no, how can people say that I’m putting too much pressure on myself and then I was like, that sucks that he’s noticing that.

“He said, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re having fun’. And I was like, ‘I love it!’. Then Dee just happened to send me that thing. So it wasn’t like I said anything to her, she just sent it. And it came at the right time, I think.”

These small moments of awareness and care for one another bleeds into the club’s culture that Burke wanted to cultivate. They also help create a welcoming environment for newcomers—especially for draftees faced with the daunting prospect of joining a group of established, elite athletes.

Returning for her second year, Fitzgerald reflected on her 2021 beginnings with the Dogs and concluded that her feeling of being the odd one out was short lived, if there at all. This cosy introduction to the club inspired her to ensure no other draftee ever felt out of place.

“I thought for the whole year I’d be like, not knowing what I was doing… But straightaway, I was just embraced and it was so cool. I was reflecting on my year when it came to a full year a few weeks ago, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve only known these girls for a year today’. And that’s just ridiculous. I know them better than some of the people I’ve known for 19 years.”

“I think that’s probably what shocked me the most, just how welcoming it was. I just felt like I belonged instantly.”

“The group that I came into did such a good job of making me feel like I’d been there for years. And that’s my goal—to make the other girls feel like that as well”. 

And these efforts certainly proved worthwhile, with Amanda Ling feeling immediately welcome when walking into the club. Latching onto Bonnie Toogood, Isabel Huntington and Issy Grant, Ling jokes that she’s trying to pick up some goal kicking tips from the trio.

“I’ve got to work on that.”

But on a serious note, Ling does credit their willingness to assist at training which has really allowed her to settle in. Explaining a confusing drill here, adjusting technique there, that level of comfort has been a lifesaver.

“All the girls embrace us being there, all get around the new kids, like it’s so good. Love it.”

That welcoming culture doesn’t just extend to fresh draftees, either. When Katie Lynch joined the club after two years at the Pies, it was the culture at the Western Bulldogs that made the transition an easy one.

“I think it was easier than I thought it was gonna be,” Lynch admitted. “When I came over to the Bulldogs it was really welcoming from all fronts in terms of staff members, players and even people above that with board members and leaders of the club.”

It was a culture that, for Lynch, completely changed her enthusiasm even for the toughest of training sessions. Her motivation was up, and combined with a move into defence, she went from strength to strength, playing every game of the season for the first time in her career upon joining the Dogs.

“I started enjoying the lead up to training. I started wanting to be there a little bit more than I usually had, which was really interesting. I think it transitioned into a lot of my behaviours at the club so you know, wanting to be there and feeling comfortable there was definitely noticeable.”

Finding the right people to fill roles is key to maintaining said culture, and the addition of Melissa Hickey to the coaching panel was the ideal example of this.

“All my footy stories are bloody 20 years old now, minimum, and Natalie Wood, who was there last year, has been retired for a fair bit of time now. So you’ve got me as the real old timer and Woody’s in the middle,” said Burke of his coaching panel’s makeup. 

“We wanted somebody who could relate their stories of what she went through more to the current day players. Once we knew Mel retired we sort of targeted Mel.”

“We needed that completely different person to Woody and myself that the players could relate to, younger stories, younger perspective on things. A current day player’s perspective on things.”

And while Hickey provided Burke with all the attributes to fill the gap he saw in his staff, the support he has given Hickey in the process has allowed her to grow into her own confidence in coaching.

“I just couldn’t feel more supported and empowered. It’s just instilled confidence in me as well,” Hickey said.

Those pieces coming together allowed Hickey to coach in her own way, and this wasn’t lost on the playing group.

“Mel is just really good,” stated Eleanor Brown. 

“She’s pretty honest. I think sometimes in the past, you know I’ve loved all my coaches, but perhaps sometimes they’re worried to hurt our feelings and stuff or be honest, but she’s definitely really honest… Mel is good at delivering that feedback. So then we can work on it now and not wait until the end of the season or something to address it.”

The club’s culture is born from countless small acts. Leaders looking out for younger players. Coaches feeling confident enough to be honest and address problems head on. On and off field recruitment based not only on ability but the personality behind it. 

But this isn’t as simple as saying you’ll do these things, it must come from very deliberate decisions all the way through a footy season. From the first day of the ‘free season’ (pre-preseason) until exit interviews with players post-season.

A Day at the Zoo

If you happened to be strolling around the Melbourne Zoo sometime in November, you might have seen a litter of Bulldogs running amidst the animals. The club chose to stage their preseason training camp Amazing Race style rather than relying on the more traditional gruelling military bootcamp.

The choice to swap hill sprints for a family style scavenger hunt aptly reflects the Dogs’ views on club culture—to train as a team, you first must work out that you are a team.

Isabel Huntington noted that these more emotionally charged camps have been a staple at the club, and for good reason.

“We’ve done preseason camps like that for a few years, where it’s been off field and we haven’t really done any physical stuff. I know a lot of teams come through with these really military style bootcamps… I think this is just so much more beneficial for us.”

The day involved a treasure hunt that saw players follow clues and resulted in each team building a bike together, with the bikes then donated to kids associated with the club’s community foundation.

Jess Fitzgerald’s Zoo Day race team might have consisted of an all-star lineup—Kirsty Lamb, Bailey Hunt and Katie Lynch, plus an array of trainers and other Bulldogs support staff—but they were more focused on taking in the day and its sights than they were the time clock.

“Everyone was complaining that they didn’t see the animals and we were like what do you mean? We took it all in!” Fitzgerald laughed.

“It was more about connection, people sharing stories and whatnot. I think it was really beneficial. We all connected so much and I loved it, even though I was sobbing the whole day.”

Katie Lynch was into her second Bulldogs preseason and had learned to embrace the unexpected, going into things with an open mind and trust that the club had their collective best interests in mind. Although the zoo day wasn’t what she initially expected, the team building activities really resonated.

“It was quite moving, some of the activities we did were quite emotionally and mentally challenging. I just felt like we learnt so much about each other. You saw and felt the vulnerability in the room, it was extremely moving and extremely powerful.” 

Lynch was impressed by the openness of the incoming draftees during their sharing sessions, noting the bravery of one particular draftee for going first in the tough session.

“One of the draftees had quite a hurt tone in one of the vulnerability sessions and she sort of went first…It was extremely brave of her to do that. It was quite amazing that she was able to do that, and from what I’ve observed, feels comfortable enough to do that.” 

From there, other draftees felt comfortable to share their own stories willingly, with an air of maturity and comfort within the circle of their new teammates. It proved to be an important turning point for Lynch. Yet to appear on the training track as she managed a knee injury, she observed that the aftermath of this team bonding was improved communication. 

“Off the field the chats have just been really quite meaningful. I just feel like I know everyone better, which is a really good feeling.”

Melissa Hickey reflected on the day with a different perspective—that of a former player, current coach. In her playing days she claims her competitive side may have broken through more dramatically, but in a new role she was able to experience the day and what it had to offer in a different way. Although it might be tough to turn off the player mindset with the switch to coaching, Hickey views her playing days as an asset she brings to the coaching panel. 

“I feel I can relate to [the players]. I think my personality is a little bit of fun and a little bit of banter, but then I’m able to switch into a more serious mode and have that relationship with the players which means you can have conversations, and build connections and build trust and respect.”

That vulnerability helped Hickey get to know the players. Being new to the club, this step was a way to connect with the list and, in turn, better serve the club in her new role. 

“I felt really privileged that people were willing to share as much as they did. It reminds you that you just never know what people have got going on. You can’t assume [by] how someone presents what’s going on in their mind or in their lives.” 

Zoo day was a tipping point for the Bulldogs’ preseason. The day that separated general preseason training from a countdown to round one. A shift in tension. The incoming season was all of a sudden real, close on the horizon and a tangible challenge to be faced. And they were champing at the bit.

Imposter Syndrome

A common term that circulates around countless women in sport conversations is ‘imposter syndrome’. Essentially feeling less competent than you actually are, or others view you to be. An imposter.

This peppers conversations with the group—whether consciously or not—and no amount of reason, compliments or evidence could win individuals over when discussing themselves. Sure, there is an element of modesty there, no one wants to go on the record promoting themselves, but the overarching feeling is that they might not actually be that good.

For Ling, walking into the Bulldogs brought back feelings of first joining the Oakleigh Chargers. A consuming terror that her selection was somehow an error and she was just one training session away from being found out and asked to leave.

“When I walked into Chargers, and there was, you know Katie Lynch was there and Em Harley, [Nicola] Xenos, Gemma Lagioia, Alana Porter, Jo Lin, Mim Hill. I felt like I was just like this nobody walking in here making the team. I had these feelings of, ‘How am I going to impact because they’re so impactful?’ My level of impact is not going to be as much as theirs.”

“We’re not on the same level here.”

Fast forward a few years and Ling helped lead the Chargers to the 2021 NAB League premiership, and won the best on ground medal that day. She was never an imposter, but that nagging feeling in the back of her mind wouldn’t ever completely go away.

 

Melissa Hickey addresses her team when captaining Geelong in 2019. Image: Megan Brewer

 

Defensive coach Melissa Hickey played four seasons across two AFLW clubs—captaining one—and has more than a decade of footy experience both playing and coaching. This was enough to see expansion club Port Adelaide get in touch about their inaugural head coaching job, but not enough of a shield for Hickey’s confidence when making the move to the Bulldogs.

 

Melissa Hickey coaching Vic Country in 2021. Image: supplied

 

“I had some sort of doubts going in. I’m like, am I actually really ready for this? Do I have enough knowledge? Am I going to know enough and have had enough experience blah, blah, blah—you know, the imposter syndrome, self-doubt stuff comes in,” Hickey said of her feelings when joining the club.

From the outside, however, Hickey and development coach Kirby Bentley’s experience and knowledge was leaving players like Jess Fitzgerald in awe.

“The coaches that we’ve just recently got in, I mean, the knowledge that they’ve brought already, it’s incredible,” said Fitzgerald. 

“I just sometimes sit there going, ’Oh my god, that is so right, why has no-one said that before?’”

These nerves go hand in hand with the feeling of needing to earn your stripes. Taking time to settle, find your voice and deserve the right to stand your ground.

“I was talking to Britt [Gutknecht] and Fitzy [Jess Fitzgerald], we had a conversation about mindset going into a contest and like what mindset are you in to hunt the ball? What do you do when you’re in that contest? And we found out that a lot of the younger girls, we walk into a contest thinking very defensively. We see Ellie Blackburn and then we see Naughty [Elle Bennetts] and Lamby and it’s like, oh, they’ll win the ball, I’ll just be here not letting my opponent win it,” Ling said. 

“That was a common answer with all the younger girls and I think it is a superiority thing. I remember my first game, like I walked in the middle and I had [Bennetts] and then Fitzy in there. And I was like, ‘Well, they’re going to win it’. I’m just going to hang out here and you know, block, be the two, be the three, just not be that one that gets the ball. Not be the go to.”

And on debut this was at the front of Ling’s mind, with the typically prolific ball winner ending the game with just two disposals and spending the following week beating herself up.

“These girls have been playing for six years. Who am I to walk in there and be like, ‘You know what, I’m going to win this ball and I’m going to get this clearance?’” 

“I think the mindset that I go into it like, ‘If I don’t win this ball, they’re not going to be happy with me’. Whereas it’s not like that at all. If they don’t win it I’m not upset about that. But you get all these thoughts in your head. If I put my hand up to go win this ball, and I didn’t win it, if they did it, they probably would have won it.”

For the club, it’s a want to get better, to become the best player or coach they can possibly be is certainly a factor. Never feeling satisfied with a performance in order to find areas to improve. But at times this can project as a real lack of self confidence, and this is no more evident than when talking to Eleanor Brown.

“I think she does believe. I just think she finds it hard to maybe just confront positives for some reason,” friend Katie Lynch said of Brown.

The joke from the team is that in the gym, Brown is the weakest in the side, but on the field she is relentlessly competitive and will do anything to beat an opponent.

“I love training with Elsa. She’s just got like no confidence in herself. She’s so funny, she thinks she’s the worst player in the team. Everyday she’s like ‘might get delisted’ or like ‘I don’t think I can get this’, and then I play on her and she’s one of the best defenders I play on,” Huntington said of Brown.

“I mean she’s not strong, that’s an objective fact, she’s a little noodle. But everyone who goes and plays on her is like ‘Oh my god’, her functional strength is so much bigger than you would imagine.” 

That functional strength requires a shrewd mind, clever body use and outsmarting an opponent. When posed with that, however, Brown’s response was quick.

“I don’t know if I’m a very smart player either.”

And just as clubs spend a lot of time working to improve players’ physical skills, an equally significant part of player development is proving to players that they have earned the right to be there and bolster self confidence. If done correctly, they will reap those rewards both on and off the field.

Key defender Ellyse Gamble was drafted with pick 69 in the inaugural 2016 AFLW draft, and for four seasons existed on the periphery of the Bulldogs’ best 21, but it was a mindset shift coming into season five that impressed Burke.

“So the big change was Ellyse Gamble was left out of the team in round one and she got shitty about that. And you might think ‘Oh that’s not very good’. But it’s actually great because prior to that if you left Ellyse out of the team it’d be ‘Well that’s just the role I play, I’ll come in for a couple and then I’ll you know make a mistake or two and I’ll go out again, I’ll come back again’ and that’s where she saw herself. 

“But we sort of managed to change her thinking to ‘Hey why is [Lauren] Spark in and not me? I’ve been working hard and training hard. I want to play in the ones’ and that was a real change of mindset for Ellyse and in the end she kept Spark out,” explained Burke.

In a similar vein, Ling is now focused on building her confidence again just like she did throughout her five years at the Oakleigh Chargers—five years of development that saw her reach the elite level.

“I definitely draw a lot of things back to my first year of Chargers, and since I’ve gone through that whole five years at Chargers I kind of know what to do and try to get myself out of that, even though it’s hard. It’s easier said than done but you know, I roughly know how to get myself out of it and try to get to that spot that I was in the last NAB league season.”

Growth Mindset

The coaching panel identified this lack of confidence in their younger players, and actively sought to help the list learn to believe. 

Spending time focused on the concept of having a growth mindset—acknowledging that each individual’s existing ability can be improved with hard work, strategic choices and a want to be better—opened the eyes of a number of players, including the perennially doubtful Eleanor Brown.

“I find that really interesting, the whole science behind it, and Mel [Hickey]’s really knowledgeable on it. She gave us all a talk about it, just about how mindset changes can have such a big impact on your development as a player, and outside footy as well,” said Brown.

“I think in general probably something I’m learning is how to frame things in a more positive way, and how you can probably use lockdown and those setbacks as advantages. Myself personally, in the early days of COVID lockdowns and those sort of setbacks, I took it really hard. Now after the growth mindset stuff, and just learning about those sort of things, you can frame it to still get something positive out of it even though it’s a bad situation.”

And that growth mindset, that belief, was going to prove to be more important than ever given the challenges they were to face throughout the season.