When Garry ‘Buddha’ Hocking joined Collingwood at the end of 2017, Collingwood defender James Aish called his former Norwood premiership teammate Darren Pfeiffer for some intel ahead of their first meeting.
Pfeiffer knew Hocking well from their time together at Port Adelaide, where Hocking was an assistant coach.
The former Carlton and Port Adelaide player described ‘Buddha’ Hocking as a “different cat” but that he was the kind of coach who would dedicate himself to helping Aish play at the level he knew he was able to achieve.
Over coffee, Hocking told Aish that he would have his unconditional support to help him get back to playing his best football.
They spent pre-season together and formed a relationship that Aish believes helped him to regain confidence in his football ability again after a challenging start to his career with Collingwood.
“I think he has the perfect balance with the football side of things but also supporting you as well,” Aish told AFLPlayers.com.au ahead of the AFL Grand Final.
When referring to his influence on Aish, Hocking joked that he didn’t think it was huge but rather part of his job as an assistant coach.
“We went about trying to build some confidence coming off a review,” Hocking told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“We wanted to push a more positive spin and coach to their strengths.”
After crossing over from the Brisbane Lions at the end of 2015, Aish played 15 games in his first season before a combination of poor form and injuries halted his 2017 season.
“I wasn’t ever able to get a large chunk of games together,” he explained.
“It was frustrating at times but this year I was going back to just back myself in.”
Collingwood were facing harsh criticism from supporters after missing the finals for the fourth year in a row but the former Brisbane Lion said it was the frustration within himself, rather than the external pressures the club was facing, that drove him to succeed.
“I have pride in myself and how I want to play and I wasn’t able to play the way I knew I could,” he said.
Steering clear of media and negative commentary during this time, he remained focused on the aspects of his life that he could control.
After going back to the drawing board during the pre-season, he was committed to giving himself the best opportunity to present well to the coaches and playing group. Aish was determined to cement his place in Collingwood’s team as he entered the final year of his contract.
“I had the best off-season I could and it stemmed from there.”
“I think that has been the biggest thing, I just took it upon myself a bit more this year.”
Aish started 2018 with flying colours, playing the first five games on the wing and averaging 19 disposals.
His resurgence came as no surprise to Hocking, who believes the Pies were now reaping the rewards of seeds sown during pre-season.
In Round 6 a posterior crucial ligament strain appeared to derail his season, sidelining him for 15 weeks. Despite the injury, Aish’s hard work over the summer and his determination to repay the Collingwood faithful was enough to earn him a contract extension for a further two years.
Hocking told Aish that his comeback from injury would be better than the setback to his season, reinforcing the club’s confidence in the lightly-built defender as a valuable member of the Pies structure.
After returning to the side is Round 21 and slotting seamlessly into his new defensive role, Aish said he was grateful to be in a position to contend for a premiership but was never in any doubt about the Pies direction under Nathan Buckley.
“Each year I have thought we are a good team and should push for it,” he said.
“This year we were lucky it clicked a bit earlier. We got some good early wins which helped us build momentum and it’s been a great club to be part of.”
Although it is largely business as usual this week for Collingwood, Aish is ready to embrace what he has been told will be the best week of his life, and hopes to add to his premiership collection.