Wednesday / 11 / April

How coaching helped me love AFL again

DANIEL MERRETT HAS PLAYED 200 GAMES IN THE AFL. HE IS REGARDED AS ONE OF THE TOUGHEST FULL BACKS TO EVER PLAY. WE CHATTED TO DANIEL ABOUT HOW COACHING HELPED HIS CAREER, AS WELL AS HIS TRANSITION FROM PLAYING TO NOW COACHING THE BRISBANE LIONS AFLW TEAM, WHERE HE HAS FOUND HIS LOVE FOR THE GAME AGAIN.

You were a leaguey and a cricket lover. How did you get into AFL?

I grew up playing Rugby League on the Gold Coast and loved it, Brisbane Broncos were my favourite team. It got to the stage of Grade 9, everyone hit puberty and I didn’t. I used to get smashed every weekend playing Rugby League, and at a school game, I got knocked out, split my chin open and ended up in hospital. After that Mum didn’t let me play anymore. I had to pack the boots away but continued to play cricket.

I loved cricket, I wanted to be Craig McDermott. A big red head, fast bowler charging in. Unfortunately I got a little bit burnt out. I went way too hard and put everything into cricket and then decided to take a step back from sport.

My school, had sport excellence in touch football and also Volleyball, which suited as they were non contact. I played both of those sports all through high school. In Grade Twelve, I wasn’t playing a whole lot of sport, I was just following my mates around. I would go and watch them play Australian Football on the weekend, one day they were short and they asked me to play. My reply was “Mate, I don’t even have jocks on I’ve got boxers on.” So I strapped my boxer shorts up with electrical tape, borrowed socks, boots and put the short shorts on. I went out and played and absolutely loved it. They said I played alright and invited me back the following week. I kept coming back, and then the momentum built from there.

You are a naturally talented sportsman, how was the transition as a 17 year old, into learning a new game. What was the coaching like to get you to the next level?

With my other sports, I never made a representative or state team. I was co-ordinated enough to do well. I made the South Eeast Queensland team for cricket, but never was good enough for a state team. I was a bit of a battler! It was only until I started playing AFL, that everything clicked. Coaching, was a big help for me. I got involved with Mark Browning and I was taught the basic fundamentals. Growing up playing a sport you get mums and dads coaching, so you do pick up bad habits, but for me I came from nothing, so at 17 the only coaching I ever had was the best in Queensland. I had elite coaching which helped my standard of skills. I was very fortunate to be able to have elite coaching from the start.

200 games in the AFL, what do you think contributed to such a long career?

Making the most of it, and leaving it with no regrets. It was making sure I was doing everything possible I could do to play well. I remember I would go into games, when I was playing my best footy. I was not nervous at all, because I knew I was prepared. I had done the extras, watched video of my opposition, I had done recovery, my nutrition was good and I had enough sleep. I knew no matter the result, I gave the best chance to myself to play well, which gave me freedom and confidence. I learnt from some of the guys like Nigel Lappin and Jonathan Brown about how professional they were in preparing themselves and I tried to be better than them. Footy is an instinct game, there are structures, but most of it is instinct and that is what the best players do, they play off their instincts. Get out there and have fun and show everyone what you are made of and most importantly don’t think too much.

When I was playing towards the end it wasn’t fun. We weren’t winning which isn’t fun and you are under so much pressure. You train so hard and you put yourself on the line everyday, it eventually becomes a grind. You have to find something that drives you. It might be to win, to be professional or comradery. A lot of the time it is the comradery with the teammates that keeps you there.

Injuries, are a part of sport. What are your recommendations for bouncing back after injury?

Along the way I have dislocated my ankle and fractured a vertebrae. In professional sport and contact sport you are going to get injuries, but the main thing is how do you bounce back from them. It goes back to your preparation and I drove for perfection in my prep. There was no stone unturned. I kept asking questions and looking for more. There is always more. Second year at the club I got glandular fever. I was super excited the year before, the Lions had won the premiership in 2003. I got a bit carried away in the off season and got really sick, and exhausted. The doctor told me to go home and rest and for me I was thinking there has to be more I can do. So I kept asking the questions, and found a way to get myself better.

As a player, who was your favourite coach?

My early coaches, that set the foundation for me. I was lucky my QLD u18’s state team coach, Marty King helped me immensely. He knew my background and knew he had to look out for me and always went above and beyond what was required to get me up to shape. He might of seen something in me, and really put the time in.

My first reserves coach when I got to the club, Craig Brittain, he was brutal. Some of the best sprays of all time have come out of Craig Brittains’ mouth. He set the foundation for me from a standards point of view and being a professional. He demanded that being a big guy, that I played big and played strong. Naturally, I am a relaxed guy and not very competitive and he set the foundation of me being aggressive when I played. To make it professionally you have to be competitive, you may have all the talent, but being competitive is a big factor. I had to make a conscious choice and said this is the way I need to play. I believe you can foster competitiveness within people.

We used to do boxing, we use to come in and get beat up for two hours, it was a Wednesday morning and I remember it, because I used to wake up fretting from not sleeping the night before and try and think of an excuse of how I could get out of boxing. It was brutal! That was another thing that set the foundations of working through fatigue, thinking when you were tired and being aggressive.

You Coach with the men’s and women’s Brisbane Lions teams, has your perspective changed from when you were a player to now being a coach?

As a player, you use to say to the coaches just say the truth. Like, why didn’t I get picked this week? When you are in the coaches chair it is so hard to just say “you aren’t good enough this week.” I try to be upfront as much as I can. You do realise how hard it is. You are human and treating people with compassion is important. As a coach, I am more technique based. I try and break down the skills needed and that is what I feel like my strength is. I am able to break it down and then teach the skill and then try to keep telling the girls to play with energy and have fun.

What do you think is the driving force behind your coaching style?

It does come down to “Why do I coach?” I have learnt a lot of things along the way, and I think it would be a shame just to keep them to myself. It’s been my ability to pass that on and the quicker I can upskill someone, and help people. From the coaches I’ve had, the best ones have been technique focused. Justin Leppitsch was my area coach and I learnt so much from a technical point of view.

Also, as a coach finding what motivates the players. You get asked why do you play footy, a lot of the boys out there would really struggle to answer and give a cliché answer. With the women, they have so much passion and love for the game. A lot of them work full time and don’t get paid a lot. So they sacrifice so much family time and social life. They come to training after work because they love it.

I’ve read that you feel like you can have a big impact coaching the women’s team because they haven’t had a lot of one-on-one coaching so you can make a significant impact to their performance just through dedicated attention, do you focus purely on skills based sessions with them.

With the girls, because of their background they haven’t had too much one on one training. Just by giving them little tips and working on their technique, like when you handball don’t handball with your thumb, it has to be the knuckle. Whereas, the boys program, they have such a good pathway and great resources, they already know the little things. The girls appreciate it so much, you teach them little skills, and you can see the improvement straight away. I do body work with the guys and they beat me anyway, so it’s just marginal gains but with the girls there are massive gains.

Consulting to the Brisbane Broncos, how did that come about?

I ran into Gordon Tallis at a salad shop, and he asked me what I was doing. He told me to go down to the Broncos and give Wayne Bennett a call. I actually ended up getting his number and called Wayne Bennett. It went through to voicemail, and I got a text back saying someone will call me from the club. I got a call from Kurt Richards their skill guy and a couple of days later I was down there doing kicking and catching with them. I have stepped away from the kicking, I spend most of my time with the catchers, trying to teach them to catch it up in the hands, but the only risk is if they drop it, it is a turnover, so focusing on the chest marks and the other skill is getting up towards the ball. You teach technique, it’s then just about repetition. Eventually, it starts to feel natural.

I also heard that coaching the AFLW has reignited your love for the game. Tell us about that…

After I retired, I was mentally cooked, the body was pretty sore, because we were losing all the time and I did lose the love of the game. Then coaching the women and seeing their passion you draw off it and it has helped me love footy again. I get a bit of reward by helping them improve and grow as players and people. The last two years, we have made the grand final and lost both years. It will be so hard to make another one, but we have a great bunch of girls. We have so much talent, but everyone is getting better so we need to keep improving.

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