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Tom McDonald on game day prep

Tom McDonald is a premiership player with the Melbourne Football Club, also known as the Demons. With over 200 AFL games experience Tom is a passionate player and PlayBook coach, keen to share his insights on enjoying the game and supporting players to increase their football ability. In this conversation we chat about game day preparation, harnessing excitement before competition and understanding what winning football looks like.

Let’s start off at the early days. So you grew up in Eden Hope, Victoria, a country town. Can you talk about your early introduction to sport? Was it AFL or did you start off playing something else?

I played AFL the whole way through. I played other sports as well, but started with the Auskick locally at five years old or whatever it was when you could start. And then we didn’t really have another grade until you got to under 14s with local footy. So I played that and then all the way through up until under 17s at Eden Hope. Then I was off to Ballarat so footy was always dominant. I loved playing basketball as well as a kid and played tennis all the way through, but footy was the one that I played all the way through juniors.

Was there a particular mentor or key figure growing up that fostered your love for the game?

At Eden Hope, we had a really good under-14s, under-17s coach. His name was Trevor McClure. He’s now the principal at the school. He was just a terrific fellow. Everyone loved him, he put in a heap of time and effort, but I think it was just the commitment to local footy because out in the country towns like that, we were sort of 500-700 people out in a little town of Eden Hope and all the teams we played against were similar size or they’re literally ovals in the middle of a cow paddock out in the bush. It wasn’t even towns, it was just areas of land where people would join their local footy team. So everyone would go from the town on the weekend that we were in, that was sort of, footy was the religion of the town. And so the coaches put in so much effort just because the kids put such importance on it, the community put such importance on it and he was just a great junior coach.

I think the one who actually helped me to get to AFL level was Jeff Burdett, he was like the AFL Victoria representative for the Wimmera region. Look, I wasn’t the most outstanding junior sort of through that age group but I was tall and reasonably athletic and I think he sort of took a bit of a liking to me and thought I might have a chance to get there eventually. I probably didn’t deserve to be picked in some of the rep sides at that stage as a junior based on performance but maybe on potential. And he just kept giving me opportunities and as long as I kept showing up and trying and going to the training, I kept getting a chance. And thanks to Jeff, I finally broke through and had a decent year in sort of year 12 and got drafted.

Jeff was probably the reason I made it there in the first place, he just kept giving me a chance and eventually it paid off.

At what stage in your development did you realise you could get drafted?

Look, I don’t think I really thought I’d be a chance until my top age under 18, I had a good season in year 12 at St. Pat’s in Ballarat. I went for just year 12 as a boarder at St. Patrick’s College and that was the best thing I could have possibly done because that environment of school footy was so much fun. It was a bit of a strange year. I had a really good school year but not a great TAC Cup season. And I think because of the TAC Cup season, I was able to play both games. Quite often we’d play a Wednesday for school footy but then play a Saturday TAC Cup game. I could play really well on the Wednesday and still get noticed. But even towards the end of that year, I don’t think I was any guarantee to get drafted. It was only really the combine testing where I probably did well and the beep test and the vertical jump test and stuff like that that gave me an opportunity to get drafted.

So all through your kind of junior development and heading into the draft, you were a key forward or a forward prospect, is that correct? And then transitioned as a key defender after your draft year in 2010, how did you find that transition to a new position or did you have a bit of experience in the lead up?

I’d say year 12 you sort of go between all different positions because recruiters might say “we want to see this guy play midfield, forward, back”, or whatever it may be. So I played a little bit of forward and back in that 18s year and I got drafted I think predominantly as a forward but when I got to Melbourne we had quite a few key forwards. We just drafted Lucas Cook as well from Ballarat in the same year. They had a couple of good senior AFL players playing forward and the VFL actually had recruited Brendan Fevola that year. So there was like five tall forwards available to play for Casey where I was going to be playing in that first season. They just said it’s not going to work with Fev there, we need someone to go back. And I was like the latest draft pick, so the easiest one to just say “he can play a different position”. And that’s how I got that spot was to go back and play defense for a year just because there wasn’t enough positions in the forward line because there was too many tall forwards. So it was sort of taken out of my hands.

As a young person entering the AFL system was there a key individual at the Melbourne Footy Club or maybe at a different football club that took you under their wing and helped you develop?

In the first season Kelly O’Donnell was the development coach, he would spend all the time with those guys playing VFL in their first, second years, going through their tapes, watching their games, doing the small sort of craft sessions we’d have during the week. I’d do all that with him. And he still works at the club in a different role now, he’s more in recruiting and list management. But he was unreal, like amazing in that role. He was firm but sort of gave you a bit of time too, he understood these kids coming out in their first year in the AFL system weren’t ready to dominate AFL games and gave you a chance to experiment, make mistakes but still coach you hard. So he was awesome and I’m still close to him now.

And then as we went along a couple of years later, we had Jade Rawlings come to the footy club. He was a caretaker coach at Richmond, he’d been at Brisbane, he’s gone to a few different clubs over the years and he’s now the head coach at Norwood and the Sandfield. But Jade and I probably had four or five years when I was playing back together where he was the backline coach and that was where the majority of my sort of learning came. Even though I was as a defender, a lot of this sort of body work, marking, positional sort of contest work we would do together and he was probably the biggest influence at an AFL level that I’d had over my career.

Was it strictly the physical aspects of the game and the playing side of it, or was there also a bit of a mix of getting you mentally ready to take on games and play at your best?

A lot of the stuff you work with the coaches is more on the actual physical movements, the patterns, the contest. We don’t do a lot of mentality sort of work with the coaches. There are sports scientists who do that sort of thing. So the majority of it is like going over your video from the weekend. So every time we come in on Monday or whenever the game’s finished on the day after, all your clips are already coded. So every interaction you’ve had in the game, whether it be a mark, shepherd, a chase pressure, is already coded and you’ll get a, depending on how many times you touch the ball, you might have 30 to 50, 60 clips of every time you’ve been involved in the game. Coaches can then go through, and it’s all different angles, five or six different angles, you can watch how you, what you did in those plays. So that’s how you sit down with a coach on a Monday, Tuesday and go through a lot of your clips and see what you did. If you’re looking at it from behind the goals, you might look at the patterns you ran before you got a mark or how did the defender beat you, whatever it may be. So a lot of your coaching with those individual line coaches is done on a Monday like that.

Then moving a bit forward in your career, I think 2015 potentially, Jesse Hogan got injured and you kind of moved towards the forward line and got transitioned into that role. Can you talk us through how you managed that transition and prepared to play in the forward line and really start kicking some big bags of goals in the forward line?

Yeah look I think it was 2016, I think 2015 I played fully back, might have been the end of 16. Yeah Hogan might have been injured. I think 2015 I played fully back, wound up in the end of 16. Yeah, Hogan might have been injured. I had a couple of games that weren’t great down back. I got beaten a couple of times and there was a game we were down and I think the coaches were just throwing magnets around. Had the last quarter up forward and I kicked one goal four in a quarter and all the jokes about defenders who can’t kick were true. But I think at least I could have an impact there. At least I was getting the balls forward and the coach said, “well, let’s give you a bit of a go for the last three or four weeks playing forward” and got to the end of the year and I had a sit-down meeting with Goody I think and he goes, “what position do you see yourself?” And I said, “I’m happy to do either, I don’t really mind”. And he just said “I see you as a forward”. So I trained for that in the offseason and so from the next year onwards just played forward every week and trained for it. I can still go back occasionally like when there’s an injury I’ve been swung back a couple of times this year but yeah majority of the time it’s as a forward.

How was the preparation over that offseason? Obviously new position, you had experience in it in the past but was it working with new coaches and did the preparation change heading into that season?

The physical preparation doesn’t change but I think the the things that you’re not used to as a forward like as a defender you’re quite often playing from behind, you’re taking back position and I’d go to playing forward and I’d always want to be behind because that was where I was comfortable, but you have to get used to being in front, defenders trying to push you under the ball, you have to get used to wanting the ball rather than, almost as a defender you don’t want the ball to come near you because if it’s not coming near you, your team’s going forward with it. So there’s a different mindset of wanting the ball versus just wanting to not get beaten.

There’s also some positives, like there’s not the absolute stress of having a bag of goals kicked on you. If you play poorly as a forward, you probably just haven’t done much, whereas as a defender, I can have 60 from you, it’s embarrassing. So there were some benefits to it, but it was more just a mentality change of how you approach the game and how you approach the ball coming in and some specific marking sort of stuff. But in terms of your physical prep and the training during the week, not much difference.

You have 200 plus games now of experience. You’ve had experience in the game long enough to experience the highs and the lows. Can you talk us through some strategies that you’ve developed over your career to kind of bounce back from the low points and also stay grounded in the high points?

I guess even at the moment going through some ups and downs like I’ve been in and out of the side a couple of times this year and as much as you get frustrated if you’re not playing well, or you’re out of the side or injury they’re probably the main three things that get you down as a player is injury out of form or out of the side. I think you’ve just got to almost take a step back and look at what you can do to either get yourself back into the team or improving your injury. So if you’re injured, as much as it can be lonely and boring and you’re doing rehab exercises or training by yourself, whatever it may be, you just sort of look at, well, day by day, if I get these exercises done today, I get this amount of recovery done, I’ll be a little bit better tomorrow, I’ll be a little bit closer to getting back to playing. With the long-term injuries, that’s tough because it’s a long way when it’s six, nine, 12 months. But the short injuries, you just sort of have to go through the process of getting there.

Form can be a bit harder and people see it in different ways. I think the sooner you sort of get away from blaming other people while you’re not playing well, either the coach or teammates, or they didn’t kick it to me, or they didn’t put me in the right spot, and start just thinking about what you can control, what you could do to get yourself back in form, whether that’s something during the week in your preparation, or just on game day going with the mentality of, well, this is a new opportunity, what can I do to get myself back playing well?

Looking back on your career, have you found that your preparation has changed as you’ve developed into a senior player at the club?

Yeah, I think so. Look, when you’re really young, in your first few years, you’ve got probably more time, unlimited time to do extra work, extra recovery, your body feels great. I used to always go in on our day off. If our day off was Thursday, I’d go in and do a heap of extra weights. And you just, there was no consequence to doing more and more work. The years go on, your body just doesn’t allow you to train as hard and as frequently as I did when I was younger. Like, you never used to be sore. You go into games feeling awesome, whereas towards the end of your career, it starts to get harder and harder to get to the game each weekend. So it becomes a bit more about, well, how can I be smart about my recovery? How can I be smart about my training to get to a game and feel really good?

And I reckon early in my career, I’d probably muck around, be a bit more social during the day when players are there and then I’d go back to the footy club at night time and do extra stuff then. I used to live really close by and whereas now the transition is more, if we’re at the club from 8 o’clock till 4 o’clock, there’s more than enough time to get all the recovery, all the extra touch, talk to the coaches, get everything done in those hours and as soon as I go home, it’s time to shut off from footy and I’ve got two little kids so as soon as you’re home there’s no more footy sort of things to worry about. I’ve had it done during the hours I was meant to be there. So I don’t think either way is right or wrong, it’s just different priorities at different stages of life and as you get older and especially if you’ve had kids the time at home becomes a lot more compressed and you want to be able to focus on your family when you are at home. So that’s probably how it’s changed for me over the years.

I saw a post you made recently after your 200th where you’re walking onto the MCG with your children, which obviously is a dream scenario for most dads I imagine. Can you talk us about how fatherhood has kind of changed the game?

Look, a couple of things. Way less sleep. More coffees in the morning to get ready for training. But I think if you have a bad game or things aren’t going as well, you get home and don’t worry about it very much anymore. Like you used to get home and I’d stress about performance or if you played really well, you’d think about how well you went for a couple of days.

You would sort of ride the highs and lows much more because it was the only focus in your life, whereas now there’s too many other things to worry about with the kids and being organised and making sure I’m up to date with the diary and knowing which kid has to be at which childcare on what day. I just find the little things from footy don’t stress you out as much, or they don’t for as long a period of time. So that’s probably what’s changed for me the most with the kids.

We were talking about the highs and lows before, and you experienced the highest of highs in 2021 winning the AFL Grand Final. Can you talk a bit about that experience and what it meant to you?

Winning it was obviously amazing and the best sort of footy high that you could possibly imagine. It was a very strange circumstance. We were in the Perth hub for six weeks away from everyone, which had some massive benefits and then probably some parts that you wish were a little bit different in hindsight. But having that six weeks together was the best thing for our team for performance because there was just pure focus on footy and friendship and being around. It was like being on school camp for six weeks. But then the downside was not having the friends and family to celebrate with. We also didn’t have all the distractions like everyone talks about when they’re fighting grand finals, how stressful it is, tickets and people wanting to see you and commitments and all that sort of stuff.
We could just worry about the game, which was a nice sort of relief. But yeah, it would have been nice to have the friends and family there.

But in terms of career, going from like the worst team almost in history to being a team that’s won the grand final was such a strange career arc and it made you think about all those years of getting smashed and being bottom of the ladder or wooden spoon and that sort of thing were finally worth it. And Gawney went through a similar process, Jack Viney was there for most of that. Yeah, I think for us guys who’d been in the really bad teams, it was a nice validation to make it through the other side.

Can you talk about how the training standards or team culture changed from being one of the bottom teams to obviously winning the grand final? How did that transition?

It’s sort of strange because when we were really, really, really bad, we actually were probably one of the fittest teams in the comp. So it wasn’t a question about training habits. We had an awesome fitness program. We had guys running amazing time trials compared to what we do now. We probably just didn’t have the experience and the right positions of the club to know what winning football looked like early days.

We got some really key people in the footy club who are still there now and it probably started when Goody arrived, that things started to get in place of what winning football looked like and guys who’d come from premiership teams and people from off-field from really successful areas could set the club up. So it was just the way things were done was slightly different. It wasn’t like we weren’t trying or taking the piss early days and we were no good. I just don’t think we knew what it looked like to be good players and good teams. So in terms of 2021, we won. I think the biggest thing that changed was we had a real buy-in to knowing we could be really good if we bought into it and the selflessness that came with that the attitude people came back with for pre-season that year was just amazing.

And we had the same thing follow up last year, like we had an amazing start of the season last year, it just tailed off towards the end. But I think we’ve just had such a good buy-in the last couple of years with the way the footy club’s been run from the players’ point of view.

I was looking at your PlayBook profile and you mentioned that some of your hobbies outside of footy include cooking and you’re a big barbecue man. Can you talk us through some of your pre-game meals?

Pre-game I’d like to just make, I have rice as a pasta, sorry, as a carb before games instead of pasta. So I normally make like a fried rice with some bacon or sometimes some steak in it but I recently just got back into the you know always have eaten a lot of meat but I want to get right back into really ramping up the meat intake at the moment so I’ve got a few Scotch fillets and eye fillets in the fridge ready to go. I’m going to do some pork ribs soon so yeah I’m going to get back into the cooking again.

And one of your other hobbies which I found really interesting, I’m not sure if our audience know you’re a big football boot collector. Can you talk us a bit about your football boots and that collection and how it all started?

It started because I stuffed my foot up in 2017 / 2018 and had a really sore foot all season and was trying boots, every different brand and every different model, trying to make my foot feel better. And from all the ones I tried and collected over that time, I put a wall up in a spare room in the house and everything I got I just started putting on the wall. Since then I’ve been obsessed with different models different colorways. I’m trying to collect them all and I’m following a few different Instagram pages who collect boots and trying to curate my own little selection. From that process I found Mizuno which is like a Japanese brand of footy boots and I just love them and they actually help my foot and I’ve been wearing them since but I still collect other models I find. I buy them off Facebook, I buy them off Instagram and anywhere I can find. I have about 70 boots I reckon at the moment. A lot of them I haven’t really worn in a game though.

Is it a tough choice, kind of filtering through those boots to find the right pair for the right game if it’s a big game coming up?

No, it’s usually just based on surface, slippery or not. If I wear screw-ins, sometimes I’ll wear a pair that are more the old career savers, I’m not sure if you know what that means, but they’re the old sort of sneaker type boot with studs on the bottom, so if the foot’s a bit sore, I’ll wear them for training. But then there’s usually probably just two or three different types of Mizunos I’d wear for a game and they’re in a couple of different colorways so most games you’ll see me in a version of Mizunos.

What are your three pieces of advice that you want to give to younger developing athletes about handling nerves and entering a game with confidence?

Well, look, I’m open to advice on this, but I think the main thing you can think about going into a game is that if you go into the game and you’ve trained all week or you’ve trained all pre-season, you’ve trained all year, you’ve trained for 10 years, is to take the confidence out of all the stuff you’ve done before.

Know that you’ve done that work, you’ve done the practice, and now today’s the day to go and put it on show and today’s the day to go and shine. It’s not a day to be scared of, it’s a day to look forward to. Like when you’re five years old or ten years old going to Auskick or your first junior footy game, I don’t ever remember being scared to go and play. I was just, I couldn’t sleep the night before. I think sometimes you’ve got to remember that when you’re going to our level, you go to an AFL game, sometimes you’re sort of worried about your result rather than, I should be so excited that I get to go and play AFL this weekend, or I get to go and play on the MCG. That shouldn’t be a moment of being scared. Which you have to remind yourself even now, like you still, I don’t know why we have that mindset. Whereas if you were to tell a 10 year old kid, you get to play on the MCG tomorrow, they wouldn’t sleep out of excitement, not out of nerves.

I think some breathing stuff on the field, like going to the game, we’ve been working a lot on just as we walk out to the game or if you’ve made a mistake or in between goals, just two or three deep breaths in through your nose just to calm down and bring out a bit of the, take the anxiety out of the moment, just come back to what you’re doing right then. Going back to the next centre bounce it might be two big deep breaths, alright I’m gonna win the next contest or I’m gonna kick the next goal or and I reckon that’s helped or if you’ve gotten really angry at an umpire decision. If you’ve made a mistake, two or three deep breaths, don’t worry about it, it’s happened now, I’ll just get the next one.

They’re probably the two things I think at the moment I’ve sort of been focusing on in preparation and in the moment.

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