Who will have a head start come finals time?

By round 22, football becomes almost a war of attrition. This season especially, so many contenders have been hit by mounting injury tolls.

But greater than any physical challenge is the mental strain players face at this time of year. With September fast approaching, every minor anxiety is amplified.

Even the best players carry a mental burden and, in some cases, that burden can be much greater than on those around them because of growing expectations. It means that once the ball is bounced, the pressure on a player is less than during the week. You play instinctively.

But just as every player is unique, the environment from one club to the next can can vary so much. Take Friday night, for instance. Even as Richmond are about to claim the minor premiership, many players have insecurities.

For a player on the fringe, it’s about cementing your place for what looms as another premiership tilt, and that becomes even more apparent for those who missed out last year.

Nathan Jones: leading from the front.

Nathan Jones: leading from the front.

Then there are your 15 or so who are secure. Even for the stars, the final two rounds can be a difficult mix of self-preservation and getting the job done.

While coaches preach that the team comes first, subconsciously every player feels a degree of selfishness. It’s about getting the balance right.

Essendon are in a different boat to the Tigers. For the Bombers, it is a mixture of hope, resignation and even frustration that they’ve got themselves in this position after showing so much promise.

How the coach and leaders bring that together to unify the group for 120 minutes will ultimately decide whether or not they can keep their mathematical hopes alive.

At Melbourne, staying calm, focused and executing the plan is even more complicated because of the club’s recent history. There’s no doubt they would be nagged by the thought “here we go again” after missing the finals last year by the barest of margins. It’s a fear that can creep up on you.

Add to that the season-ending injury to Jesse Hogan and the mental battle is tougher again. With Jack Viney and Jake Lever already on the sidelines, some guys would be thinking: "Well, how can we win now?"

Blocking those thoughts and staying positive must be driven by leadership. But co-captain Nathan Jones is the only Demon to have featured in the club’s last final back in 2006, and even he would have his own elements of self-doubt.

He has to juggle what is essentially new territory for him with guidance of young guys like Angus Brayshaw, Clayton Oliver and Bailey Fritsch. As a leader, you almost have to disregard your own thoughts for the betterment of the team.

You have to ignore any doubts as you carry guys who are even more vulnerable. To do that in a finals-like environment is tough.

It’s why Hawthorn loom as one of Richmond’s greatest threats in September. Yes, this is a very different-looking Hawks team to the one that won three straight flags, but there’s still plenty of experience left.

Jarryd Roughead has been here before. So have others. The knowledge they can pass on to the younger generation is invaluable.  Nothing can really prepare you for September until you live it, but being surrounded by guys like Roughead and Shaun Burgoyne makes it that much easier.

Jarryd Roughead lends a helping hand.

Jarryd Roughead lends a helping hand.

Sometimes, guys who aren’t consumed by football 24/7 get by all right because they’re able to separate themselves from the game. Then you’ve got the over-thinkers. Every minor detail must be in order. Even something as trivial as tickets for family and friends can cause of a lot of stress.

Even if you’re not preparing for September, the final rounds of the home-and-away season can be mentally draining. The atmosphere at a contender compared with those down the bottom is like chalk and cheese.

At a finals-bound team, there’s generally an element of excitement as you close-in on what you’ve been training for. By now, your diet is set. Your routine is sharpened.

But when you haven’t got that same carrot, footy clubs can be incredibly flat, and often players are pulling in all directions as they fight for survival. At Carlton, St Kilda and Gold Coast, many guys are effectively playing for their careers. They know the final two weeks can be an audition for a new contract.

That can have a number of consequences, and not all of them good. It can prompt a level of desperation that might not have existed in the cold slog of June and July, but it can also mean some players going against the normal team-first approach. Likewise, some players just want the anguish of a poor season to be over.

In many respects, these remaining games are just as important for teams in the bottom half as they try to build a springboard for the following season.

It means the mantra at every club is somewhat similar. Regardless of circumstance or injury, the mark of a champion team is one that can control its emotions and doubts and execute under pressure.

These final two rounds might just give us an insight into who is mentally best prepared.

Source: Read Full Article