In this week’s Friday Feature, AFLPlayers.com.au speaks to four club captains about leadership, ahead of their Round 1 matches.
Taylor Walker, Tom Rockliff and Shannon Hurn have played more than 300 games between them, but when they take the field for the first round of the 2015 AFL season this weekend, it’ll feel a little different.
For the first time, they will lead their respective clubs as captains – for the Adelaide Crows, Brisbane Lions and West Coast Eagles, respectively.
“It’ll be a big honour and a privilege,” Hurn told AFLPlayers.com.au in the lead up to Round 1, adding, “but it won’t change how I go about footy. I’ll just try to lead by example.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s an approach all three new captains will take into 2015.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’ll change anything,” Walker said.
“I’ll toss the coin and then all I’ve got to do is play my role.”
— Adelaide Crows (@Adelaide_FC) January 13, 2015
The reasoning is pretty simple, as Rockliff explained.
“If you change too much, you lose focus on your own game and lose perspective of what you’ve got to do. I won’t look to change too much.”
This isn’t to say the three won’t be actively leading their teammates – rather, it shows that all three were leaders long before they were announced captains.
This weekend certainly won’t be the first time they find themselves worried about how their teammates are positioned on the field and what they could be doing better.
“I’ve always sort of done that when I’ve played,” Rockliff admitted with a smile.
“I’ve tried to set the other boys up and help out as much as I can.”
But attempting to organise an entire footy team can hinder, rather than help – which is why all three will be looking to keep things relatively simple.
“On match-day, the main thing is to perform and be consistent in what you’re doing, and then help and direct a little bit out there,” Hurn said.
“A bit of advice that Adam Simpson gave was just to be myself. Over the past few years, that’s what I’ve been doing. You get appointed for being yourself and hopefully you’re setting some good examples anyway, before [you get picked as captain].
“You don’t always have the answers. Sometimes you need advice and a bit of help” – Andrew Swallow
“Now [the focus] is just to continue doing those things. I don’t think you need to change or rant and rave any more – just be yourself, give encouragement and provide a bit of direction.”
Andrew Swallow’s experiences, since becoming North Melbourne captain in 2012, tell a similar story.
“Match day is vitally important, but for most players it comes pretty naturally. You just go out there and do what you’ve always done,” Swallow said.
“You don’t have to change much in terms of match day. It’s more the off-field stuff that you really have to work on – being able to build relationships with the playing group and identify problems with guys and help them out, and just show some genuine care for your teammates. If you’re able to do that, you fit into the role pretty well.”
Though captains are in some respect elevated from the rest of the playing group, the 27-year-old says it’s important to recognise that leaders are as capable of making mistakes as anyone.
“You don’t always have the answers,” Swallow said.
“Sometimes you need that advice and a bit of help.”
In 2014, former Geelong premiership captain Cameron Ling worked closely with Swallow as a “leadership mentor”.
“What I really enjoyed about Lingy was he gave us some really good tools for on-field leadership, in terms of being able to seize the moment,” Swallow explained.
“Being able to really stand up and try to change the state of the game – I learnt a lot about that. He was obviously very successful at Geelong and, for what we needed as a group last year, Lingy was perfect. He was a great help.”
While mentors will always play a key role – Swallow says former Brisbane and North Melbourne player Ben Robbins has taken over from where Ling left off – the role of the leadership group as a collective has never been more important.
“It means you’ve always got four or five other guys that you can turn to and get their ideas and input,” Swallow said.
— North Melbourne (@NMFCOfficial) February 16, 2015
It’s one of the key reasons why Walker feels particularly comfortable in his new role.
“The beauty now is that you don’t have to make all the decisions as captain. We’ve got a leadership group that are pretty strong, and we’ve been able to make decisions as a group,” the 24-year-old from Broken Hill said.
“We just rely on each other to play consistent footy on a Saturday and do what we have to off-field… There’ll be some challenges along the way but hopefully some really enjoyable times too.”
Hurn, Walker, Rockliff and Swallow would all love to be remembered as premiership captains, but when asked how they’d like to be thought of otherwise, each gives a slightly different answer.
“Everyone learns differently and that’s why it’s important to learn how each individual best works” – Shannon Hurn
For Hurn, the role is largely about passing on information and guidance to the Eagles’ younger players.
“I suppose I just [want to] use a bit of common sense and try to get the best out of people,” he said.
“Everyone learns differently and that’s why it’s important to learn how each individual best works and best learns. It’d be nice to be remembered for something like that.”
For Swallow, it’s less about mentoring than it is about trust and building relationships.
“You want [teammates] to know that you’re there to support them and help them. If you can build that sort of trust, when you get out on the footy field and demand something of them, they don’t have any hesitation in following.”
Rockliff hasn’t given it much thought just yet, but hopes “to be remembered as someone who’s just really passionate about the footy club.”
Walker has thought about it even less – his approach to captaincy is more mindful than idealistic.
“I probably won’t reflect [on being captain] until I retire. It probably won’t sink in until I get to sit back and relax, and watch everyone else play,” he said.
“But I’ll enjoy it while I can. I think it’s important to enjoy the game of footy while you’re playing.”