Tuesday / 21 / August

Having fun and growing the AFLW with Kate McCarthy


You have achieved a high level in a number of sports, how has your sporting journey played out? Did you play one sport at a time or were you juggling a number of sports?

I first started playing cricket when I was young, my Dad grew up watching cricket, so I was always outside playing with Dad. Once I got to primary school I started playing Cricket and represented QLD in the U12’s side at that time I also started playing Touch, I was still playing cricket and I started running for school as well. Once I started running, I realised I was actually pretty quick and started to do a bit of athletics training, mainly so I could get quicker for Touch.

When I was in High School I was representing QLD in Touch, Cricket and Athletics all in the same year and it really taught me so much about being organised. If I wasn’t on top of things there is no way school work would’ve got done and maintain a high level in all three sports. The thing that really complemented that was Mum and Dad, they never really pushed me in a certain sport and never said No to me playing a new sport, so I do owe a lot to them as we. A lot of time and money went into sport and for them to give up so much and allow me to play so many sports, I am very grateful.

You were the very first person to play contact sport with a pacemaker. Tell us a little bit about how this came about?

I had a few episodes when I was younger, I always had an irregular heart beat, it would usually restart itself, but when I was 12 it didn’t restart. I passed out about 7 times in a day and then my doctor decided that they would put in a pacemaker. Being so young was actually a blessing in disguise, I didn’t realise that gravity of the situation. I was more concerned about being able to play sport. I had state titles for touch 6 weeks after the surgery and the first thing I asked the surgeon was “Am I able to play Touch?” and when he said “we will just see how you go” My first thought was, well it’s not a no.

Because it did happen so young, I don’t see it as something that has stopped me from doing anything. I have had it my whole life and I think the only time it did really impact me was two years ago was when I had to get the battery changed, which was a minor surgery. They didn’t have to change the leads, it was just the battery.

When I started playing AFL, I wasn’t actually allowed to play contact sport. When I first got the pace maker I was playing Touch and Cricket, so that was fine. At the time I had no interest in playing a contact sport, but towards the end of my Touch career I went down to an AFL session with a friend and the team happened to be short of players. I knew that I probably wasn’t meant to play. I didn’t tell my mum because I knew she would freak out, it was about three games before I told her and she made me go to my cardiologist and get it checked and mum said if he approved it then I could play. My cardiologist was fine with it and the only time he had seen a pacemaker damaged was from a high speed car accident. He gave me the clearance and when I was drafted he also wrote a letter to the AFL to approve me to be able to play with a pacemaker. Our medical officer actually said that if I didn’t have the letter from the cardiologist I probably wouldn’t be allowed to play in the AFLW. I didn’t realise it was such a big deal. I am very grateful for the advancements in technology, which help me to live a normal life.

What made you choose AFL?

I think the team aspect, it is so team-orientated and everyone in the team needs to contribute to be a successful AFL team, so that is what attracted me to it. I started playing AFL, two years before the draft so it wasn’t even to play for the Lions. It was just because I loved it. A year after my first season, I got invited to join the Queensland Academy after my first year playing and at that stage the AFLW was still meant to start in 2020. In my training I really had to work had on my kicking and I perfected that and then was drafted. For me it was something that all happened at the right time.

Playing the inaugural AFLW is a special experience, what was it like being involved in that?

I think at the time it didn’t seem as big. It was obviously really exciting and pulling on the Lions Jumper and being one of the first females to have been able to do it, it doesn’t matter what else we do in our career, no one can take that moment away from us. I think the most rewarding thing from it has been seeing the increase in junior female participation and girls who have started playing again who had stopped because there was no pathway for them and I think that has been the most rewarding thing. I think that is the thing I will hold the closest, hopefully in 20 years time I will be sitting back watching a 23 round competition, where the athletes are professional and full time athletes and seeing how far the game has grown.

Who has been the most influential coach and why? I have two coaches who really stand out. One of my first coaches for touch was Carly Banks, she is just an amazing coach that puts in so much time and effort to whoever wants to train with her. She lives in Newcastle at the moment and also does the Touch program at All Hallows. She just made things easy, she explained things easily and really got me up to a standard where I was good enough to play for Australia.

The other coach is Tim Klar, who was my athletics coach. In athletics it isn’t an environment that is very friendly. It is very individual and there are a lot of egos in it. Being someone who had come from a team sport, athletics was the one that didn’t really fit the rest. Tim didn’t have a big squad, we used to train twice a week at Nudgee and the sessions were always fun they were never a drag and that is something that I have learned.

You need to enjoy what you are doing, no matter how badly you want to achieve your goals, if you aren’t enjoying it at the end of the day you aren’t going to have the drive to go the extra mile and do what you need to do.

No matter if you had a bad game you need to remember why you started, and sometimes you can lose that love for the sport you are playing. That is when I think you need to evaluate what you are doing and work out why you aren’t enjoying your sport anymore and make changes. You play sport to have fun, make friends and ultimately that’s what we do at the Lions. We love what we do and we enjoy each others company.

Are there any other specific things that you have learnt through your journey that you are now taking into your coaching?

I think it’s important to avoid making things super technical. You can run around certain markers but at the end of the day, especially in AFL, you need to play what is in front of you and you need to make quick decisions and that is something Craig Starcevich has given us at the lions. We do so many game sense drills and looking at footage, stopping things and working out why we passed that and made that decision. It is about making it as simple as we can, not making them super technical and choreographed because things happen that you don’t expect in a Football game.

As a P.E teacher, that is one thing that has changed. You look more at playing a game to get a desired outcome. So changing a rule in a game to get the result. It also teaches kids fun, it gets athletes to think for themselves. It is a really valuable coaching lesson.

There has been a lot of talk recently with the AFLW changes, what is the plan and how will the new season look?

At this stage, there is a committee in place, there is talk that they will be shortening the season to 6 weeks and 2 week final series. In total it will be 8 games, which is the same amount of games as 2018, but next year they are adding in two extra teams. So they are decreasing the fixture. When they said they were adding in new teams we thought the season would go to nine rounds, with the possibility of 11 games if you make finals. A lot of the discussion has been around players and fans that are not too happy with that. The perspective is that decreasing the fixtures is not growing the competition. They have said they are big believers in women and AFL, but if they are not going to grow the comp and if they don’t see where the competition is going to go. They need to reassess that before they make decisions like this, because the following year four more teams are going to be in the competition. So I think they need to work out, if they have enough money or desire to back the competition, to get it to where it can be or whether we are sort of just going to be a few games a year and that is it all it is going to be.

I think the big thing they are trying to keep is the window where there is no other sport on, so we aren’t competing with other sports. They have a big issue with us playing at the same time as the men, there must be reasons behind that. I wouldn’t mind when we play, as long as we play everyone once. We have ten teams and seems a bit silly not being able to play everyone once.

From a professional stand point and if they do decide to shorten the season, how will that effect you and your team mates? Our pre-season is eight weeks long, we start in November, have a week off for Christmas and then have another four weeks when we come back. Mentally it will be tough, pre-season is hard. I think the thought of the games gets your through pre-season, but to do 8-10 weeks of training for maybe 6 games, along with juggling everything else. I don’t like to say we sacrifice things, because we do it because we love it but there are definitely areas of our lives that are compromised. We try and work at the same time, we can’t put the hours into recovery/rehab as we are at work. We go from work straight to training, get home late cook dinner and by the time you do all of that it is 11 o’clock. You are doing all of these things at 60-70%, when you just want to be an athlete 100% of the time and just to see what that would do to the skills of the players, and how it would affect the whole competition it would make a huge difference. It is really tough, we love doing it and love the game. It would be nice to just to be an athlete for 6 months. Leah Kasler, who is in our team, is an environmental scientist so she works really long hours and flies to Newcastle some days. She lives on the Gold Coast, so drives the hour and a half to get to training. People don’t realise what the girls do in their lives outside of sport. If there isn’t any growth, the shine is going to wear off pretty quickly. It isn’t going to be sustainable for the girls to keep doing.

The first season, it was amazing. Then the second season, it was like our job and now if we don’t see it going anywhere like Leah and myself trying to juggle so many things it isn’t going to be sustainable.

We caught up with your assistant coach Dan Merrett, and he said how much you girls do give up and your passion and eagerness to learn is amazing.

Dan has been amazing, he loves it as well. Our trainings are probably a little different to the boys. We try to have fun whenever we can. You can tell Dan just loves what he has been doing with us. Dan and Craig’s experience of playing so recently, has been so invaluable. The way Dan teaches his body work, I think our backline is the strongest in the competition and that is a credit to Dan.

We’re in the finals for some sports now and you have played in two grand finals with the Lions. How do you deal with the excitement and the nerves around the finals?

The most experience I have had over the past two years, is how to lose them well so this should probably be a question about coping with a finals loss. There was so much excitement around the first AFLW grand final because it was the first one. I think the toughest thing was preparing, because there was so much talk around it. We did get caught up in it, we didn’t do things differently on the day, but we did get caught up in the occasion. This season, we just took it as another game. I thought it was going to be a different outcome, we were all relaxed and we all knew our role.

If I had advice for anyone playing in a Grand Final, you need to know what you need to do to contribute to the team.

You don’t need to do anything different to what you have done during the season, that is what got you to the final.

Coaches especially, if I had one bit of advice for them it would be to don’t change anything. A lot of coaches at club level, think because it is a Grand Final, they need to change it and think let’s do this because it is different, they won’t be expecting it. That does put a lot of pressure on your players because they are either playing a position or doing a different role from what they have been doing all year and they only have one game to perfect it. From a coaching perspective, you don’t have to do anything different.

Chris Fagan, who coached Hawthorn to four premiership wins, came and spoke to us before our first Grand Final and he said that the key to their success was to just play the way they have played. They were the top team going into the grand final so as the top team so why would they change anything? My advice is to have fun!

It is a great experience playing in a Grand Final, even if it is a loss. You learn a lot and also learn what you could have done better. When you win you don’t reflect as much on the game. You could make more mistakes in a win and not really reflect on it at all, when you do lose you analyse the game sometimes at your own detriment, it is disappointing to lose, but there are things you can take out of it that can improve you as a team and a player.

Do you get nervous before a game?

I used to have an issue with nerves when I first started playing AFL. I would get so nervous I would vomit before every game. I worked on that, from a preparation point of view it’s not great so I worked on that. Going into the Grand Finals I did get nervous. Going into the first AFLW game, I was extremely nervous, but I think the more experience you gain and the more prepared you are the less nervous you get. If I know I have had a really good week at training, I am kicking the ball well, I don’t get nervous. If I had missed a few sessions, didn’t do the running during the week or didn’t kick the footy as much as normal that’s when I feel nervous. You need to trust your preparation, if you are prepared you shouldn’t feel nervous.