Do you refine your weaknesses, or do you amplify your strengths?
It’s an age-old debate, so it’s only right that the Demons found their answer through an age-old football mentor.
Melbourne’s David Neitz Academy, or the ‘DNA’ as it has been coined, is led by Demons Head of Development Mark ‘Choco’ Williams, whose illustrious coaching career at Port Adelaide was preceded by a decorated 15-year playing path of his own.
For flame-haired, first-year Demon Jake Bowey, the lesson on enhancing strengths rather than mulling over shortfalls was drilled in from the moment he stepped foot in Williams’ office.
“I remember we sat down in the first couple of weeks and he asked me if I was a good endurance runner,” Bowey told aflplayers.com.au.
“I said, ‘I’m probably OK’, and he said, ‘Nup, you’re horrible’. That hit the nail on the head of the idea that you should just focus on what you’re good at.”
Clearly, there is plenty Bowey is good at.
The Sandringham Dragons graduate broke into Melbourne’s ladder-leading side in round 20 and has since owned the half-back flank role with his elite kicking skills.
The 19-year-old’s tidiness with the ball — he disposes of the Sherrin at 81.4 per cent efficiency on average — represents his ‘one-wood’, a golf analogy used by Williams to help Melbourne’s first-to-third-year players master their prime strengths.
“Learning with Choco in the DNA, you go through your strengths and that’s your one-wood,” Bowey explained. “If you have a bad day or you’re struggling to find the footy, you just go back to your one-wood and try and do that the best you can.”
“Early days, I was seeing him twice a week, going through vision and what I thought I did well. He watched the same vision and noted down my strengths, realised what they actually were, how I use them in a game and then how I can get to use them.
“I feel that I’m a pretty good kick, so if I can get the ball in my hand and use it well, that’s a huge factor for the team. My endurance has come along pretty nicely as well, so I don’t think I’m as horrible as I was at the start.”
It might seem as though Bowey has developed seamlessly across half-back. He did, after all, amass 21 disposals in only his second match and earned a Rising Star nomination a week later, before compiling 19 touches and three rebound 50s in the Demons’ crushing preliminary final win.
But behind the scenes, he had to learn how to defend, how to take on bigger opponents — to borrow from boxing parlance, the 176cm, 68kg Bowey only just eclipses welterweight status — and how to accept the frustration associated with missing team selection.
“At the start of the year, I wasn’t getting named as an emergency, which I thought was a pretty big deal; I got a bit down when I wasn’t named,” he said.
“But watching the team and how we went was pretty awesome, and I was happy just to watch. Then it got a bit serious — I started getting named as an emergency — and it all sort of happened at once.
“I guess the finding of the ball, kicking, and using the ball has come naturally, but I used to play as a forward-outside mid, so I didn’t really play on anyone. The one-on-one craft and beating your opponent has probably been the main focus of what has gotten me into the team.”
Bowey has been blessed to line up alongside All-Australian defenders Steven May and Jake Lever, and said the pair, as well as Adam Tomlinson, have helped, “That one-on-one body positioning and being able to, not necessarily outmuscle, but put yourself in a good position to impact.”
He also credited the man stationed on the other end of the defensive 50, Christian Salem, for offering a perfect example of how to execute the half-back duty.
“The backline coach, Troy Chaplin, has also been pretty crucial in just showing me what the role is, and slowly progressing me into playing that role perfectly,” Bowey added.
Long before his AFL dream became a reality, however, Bowey was mentored by another former player: his father, Brett, who played 85 games for St Kilda.
“Early days, he was huge,” Bowey said. “He was my role model and drove me to wanting to play AFL.
“Nowadays, he’s taken that step back because he knows I’m in good hands, but he was probably the inspiration early. We always have this thing, he says, ‘We’ve played 85 games between us’, so now that I’m adding onto that is pretty special.”
“If you have a bad day or you’re struggling to find the footy, you just go back to your one-wood and try and do that the best you can.” – Jake bowey
Bowey’s father can still hardly believe it.
“It’s still a bit surreal to see him on the TV, playing so well and being so composed, it’s unbelievable,” said the former Saint.
“At one stage, we didn’t think he was going to get an opportunity. He’s come out, played his role and looked cool with the footy. He doesn’t turn it over too often [and] hits targets, so I think that’s what they like about him.”
Bowey is undoubtedly cool, calm and collected, but his competitiveness is another key factor in his success.
“He hates losing,” Dad Brett added. “Whether it’s table tennis — or during lockdown [last year] we set up a tennis court and he hated losing there — he’ll fight to the death. It’s that competitive spirit.”
That same dogged spirit has propelled Bowey to heights both great and intimidating since his junior playing days.
As an under-11, he won two premierships on the same day — he played up in the under 12s immediately after the initial triumph — and when he was 12, he filled in for Highett’s under 17s team to assist with the club’s shortage of numbers.
“I remember a couple of instances where I was freaking out trying not to get crushed or landed on. I didn’t get much of the ball, but it was cool to be out there,” Bowey said of the five-year early under 17s debut.
“Being a smaller local club at Highett, we were short for numbers in some teams. I was lucky enough to be able to play sometimes three games on a weekend. I’d play in my age group, the age above and then two ages above.”
He’ll only have one premiership to play for this weekend, and there won’t be any filling-in required. But while Bowey knows the pressure will be on, he is ready to embrace it.
“It just doesn’t feel real at the moment … it’s a bit surreal and I’m a bit shocked.
“It’s obviously been 57 years since we’ve won one. There is, I feel, a lot of pressure into performing and to bring home the chocolates, but I think we’ve done the fans so proud this year in what we’ve achieved.
“Coming from 17th on the ladder two years ago to finish on top this year is pretty special.”