Brisbane Lions AFLW premiership captain Emma Zielke has stepped into the club’s coaching ranks after an illustrious playing career at AFLW and QAFL level. Assisting head coach Craig Starcevich, Zielke will instruct Brisbane’s backline in 2022. The 33-year-old caught up with aflplayers.com.au to speak about the transition from playing, developing her own coaching style and how the reigning premiers plan to stay ahead of the pack.
Owen Leonard: Emma, congratulations on the coaching role. Previously, you were the Lions’ inaugural captain and a premiership skipper. Have you always enjoyed leading and instructing?
Emma Zielke: I never felt like I was the person giving instructions; I like to make sure the group is motivated to achieve that common goal. I found myself in those shoes at every club that I’ve been at, so I’ve always been a big driver of the culture of any club that I’m at. I suppose it comes naturally in that sense.
OL: That idea of driving culture, is that what attracted you to the coaching role?
EZ: I think, naturally, when I talk in front of the group, I’ve just got such a passion for the game and for everyone achieving that common goal. Transitioning from playing, I’ve still got that desire and that passion to win, it was just that I physically couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain in terms of playing. Going into coaching, I could still have that burning desire to keep competing, but on that other side of the fence.
OL: You were very much a decorated player up in Queensland and your football career was extensive, but did you have much coaching experience prior to taking on the role?
EZ: Not a whole lot. Early in my footy career I coached at Coorparoo — the club that I was playing at — with the under 15s for a couple of seasons and then I followed on into the under-18 Queensland girls’ team and assisted with Craig [Starcevich] for a couple of seasons, so we sort of had that connection prior to him being my coach. That was about as much as I’d done, because once AFLW started, I really didn’t have enough time to be coaching as well as playing and working.
OL: The transition itself, was it quite smooth after being the captain?
EZ: I spoke in front of the group a fair bit [as captain], so in that sense it was natural. But when I was playing, I’d just say what I thought, whereas now, I’ve got to really make sure what I’m saying has clear messages and clear focuses. That’s what I’ve needed to adjust to, to make sure that what I’m telling the girls is the same as the coaches — which I did when I was playing — but making sure it’s really clear on what our goals and focuses are for the session, instead of just chatting as I see it. It’s making sure that everyone’s on the same page.
OL: You obviously had the respect of the playing group, but your former teammates now have to view you as a coach and not a teammate. How have you worked through that?
EZ: I think we’re still working through that, because a lot of them are my really good friends. There’s always a time where you can have a bit of banter and what-not, but there is also that line where everyone knows that I’ve got to do my job and they’ve got to do theirs. It was always going be an interesting transition because of my relationship with the girls, but it’s been really good so far. They’re really respectful of what I’m trying to do.
OL: Take me inside your role. How do you go about supporting Craig Starcevich?
EZ: I’ve been appointed the backline for this season, so I’ve got a group of 10 players that I really need to look after and put my focus on. Basically, that’s supporting Craig in making sure he’s giving us clear guidelines on what the messaging is for the season. The thing with Craig is, because I’ve already had such a great relationship with him, we know how each other think and how we work. He’s always so open to my opinion, and vice versa. We might not always agree on things, but that’s the beauty of our relationship. I can always challenge him, and he can do the same, and I think that’s why we work so well together. He’s been a great mentor for me, and I suppose now that I’m a coach, I look at the other coaches to see how they go about things more than I was when I was a player. I’m still learning, I’m only eight weeks in, but I’m really enjoying it to start with.
OL: You’re not too far into the role as you’ve just touched on, but do you feel like you’re developing your own coaching style and philosophy?
EZ: I suppose I’ve always been big on the culture and the standards of the team. Drawing from my own playing experiences, I know that certain times of the year you can get more stressed, or anxious with selection coming up. I just make sure I’m aware of that with the playing group and help them out accordingly. Where my relationships come to my advantage, I know how the girls kick and how they think. I make sure I’m that positive vibe around them, instilling that confidence in them if they think they’ve had a bad session and what-not. That’s where I think I can come into it a bit more and help them out, because I know from my experience what I would want from a coach. My philosophy is always team-first, that’s how we’ve gone about it the last five years. I’m always going to be a big advocator for that and that’s why our team is so good.
“That’s what I’ve needed to adjust to, to make sure that what I’m telling the girls is the same as the coaches — which I did when I was playing — but making sure it’s really clear on what our goals and focuses are for the session.” – Emma zielke
OL: As the reigning premiers, you’re now tasked with defending the title. What have you implemented to ensure you stay ahead of the pack?
EZ: We’re always trying to get better, every single season, no matter where we’ve finished on the ladder. We’re always trying to find those one per cent increases across the group, and the girls have come back in great nick again. That’s what they do so well as a group, they keep each other accountable. It’s gone to another level again this year, they’re hungrier than ever. These girls are so focused, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they go.
OL: It’s a bit of a cliché, but you’ll now be viewed as ‘the hunted’. Is that something that has been discussed with the group?
EZ: We’re still calling ourselves the hunters, because that’s our mentality. It’s a new season now, we’re all equal, we’re all on the bottom of the ladder. That’s where we’ve got to start. We’ve got a practice match in two weeks, that’s our focus to start with, and then we’ve got West Coast in round one. All the energy goes into those couple of games to start with. We’re trying to improve over these next couple of weeks with each other, as a playing group and as a coaching group, and trying to find our best group to take on the 2022 season.
OL: Thanks for your time, Emma, and all the best for the upcoming season.
EZ: Thanks Owen.