AFL 2023: The players who need to improve this off
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AFL 2023: The players who need to improve this off

Nov 29, 2023

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After exit interviews this week, more than half the AFL player base will be on holiday – out of sight, out of mind. And the true test of a person’s character is what they do when no one is watching, as legendary college basketball coach John Wooden noted.

This theme should be at the forefront of every player picking up their bags for holidays rather than training for finals.

Hawthorn players head off the MCG and into a 14-week off-season break.Credit: Getty Images

Hawthorn’s players have just begun their 14-week end-of-season break. Their club’s final game this season – on August 26 – ended in a 37-point loss to Fremantle. Players with five or more years’ experience are due for pre-season training on November 20.

Most of the 18 AFL teams will give their players a similar leave period.

If used correctly, this break is the single biggest advantage players have. While their rivals from other teams party and travel the world, keeping us all updated with glamorous Instagram shots, astute players recognise the off-season is an opportunity to gain a decisive competitive edge.

Veteran players such as former Port Adelaide captain Travis Boak and Melbourne captain Max Gawn have gained enormous benefits and respect by adopting arduous, innovative overseas training programs during their holidays. Seeing some of their younger teammates follow this lead is impressive.

Impressive regimen: Travis Boak.Credit: Getty Images

Other players, however, switch off completely. They let themselves go and only pick up a football on returning for the official start of pre-season training. They then spend the summer playing catch-up.

After disappointing seasons, these players must use the generous time away from the club to work on deficiencies, to become fitter, faster, and stronger and, for some players, try to salvage nearly ruined careers.

It was a disappointing season for the 24-year-old Western Bulldogs forward, who was never in the mix for All-Australian honours, a feat he should comfortably achieve with the amount of talent he possesses. Despite playing one more game, he kicked seven fewer goals (44) than last season and took fewer contested marks (41). His goalkicking accuracy was 57 per cent, and his off-season priority should revolve around formulating a reliable set-shot routine and technique. He needs to cut his hair and ditch the ridiculous 1980s-style tennis headband that so often distracts him in the middle of games. Carlton’s Charlie Curnow won the Coleman Medal with 78 goals, and there is no reason Naughton shouldn’t be eying off a similar return next season.

Level up: Aaron Naughton needs to lift his output in 2024.Credit: Getty Images

Former Giant Hopper owes a lot to his new club after a bitterly disappointing first season at the Tigers, who gave up draft picks six (2023) and 31 (2022) to recruit him from the Giants. A career-low 38 per cent of Hopper’s possessions were contested, his ball use by foot was poor and he finished outside the top 250 players as rated by Champion Data. Hopper needs to get aerobically fitter in the off-season and work strictly on his speed. He turns 27 in February, and with six years remaining on his lucrative contract, alarm bells would be ringing at Richmond.

The highly talented North Melbourne midfielder has one chance left to make something meaningful of his career, which troubling off-field allegations have derailed. Thomas showcased his ability to finish the season strongly and was rated the sixth-best player by Champion Data in the final six weeks. The off-season break wields temptations for players like Thomas; one more scandal and his papers will be stamped. The condition Thomas returns to pre-season training, either at the Kangaroos or a fresh club, will speak volumes of his willingness to change and utilise his uncanny talent.

Tarryn Thomas needs to improve next season.Credit: Getty Images

You would not blame Essendon if they run out of patience with Stringer and move him on this off-season despite having a year left to run on his contract. Last pre-season, he embarrassingly returned to training overweight, resulting in him breaking down with an injury during the pre-season and in the home and away season. Stringer hasn’t played 20 games or more in a season for five years, and the 29-year-old should be planning the most rigorous off-season training program to ensure last year’s mistakes aren’t repeated and he isn’t out of the league within 12 months.

McGovern encapsulates all that has gone wrong at the Eagles in the last three seasons. He has played just 19 games out of a possible 45 over the past two seasons. McGovern is too easy to play against, as highlighted by his disastrous round 24 performance against Adelaide’s Taylor Walker, who kicked nine goals. Surprisingly, he signed a two-year contract extension this season, and he must repay the faith his club has in him by dropping weight to ease the stress on his ailing body and returning to training in career-best condition to set a positive example for the younger players at the club.

Stringer’s teammate Cox burst into the league in his first season in 2021. The 200-centimetre wingman looked like a generational talent and proved a nightmare match-up for the opposition. Cox has played only 11 games in the last two seasons, and suddenly, his body appears fragile. This off-season, he must live in the gym to add weight and muscle to his slight frame while working on various dynamic and explosive movements. Adding weight will give him the confidence to use his height and attack the ball in the air, which he was reluctant and tentative to do in his six appearances this season. Cox took only one contested mark this year – his goal next season should be to take one per game.

The No.2 pick in the 2020 draft kicked five goals on debut and looked like he would become Adelaide’s next marquee player. Thilthopre has just completed his third season, finishing the year playing in the SANFL after being dropped in round 24. His off-season training regime should include some martial arts training or boxing to try and add more competitiveness and toughness to his game. Adelaide rely on the young key forward to take over from 33-year-old veteran Taylor Walker in the next few seasons. Still, after his disappointing season, where he averaged 10 disposals and under a goal per game, even they must doubt whether his capabilities match his draft ranking.

The true test for these players is what they do when no one is watching – because we will all be watching how they front up for day one of pre-season training and what they deliver next season.

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