The Mental Side Of Footy And How Melbourne’s Greatest Rivalry Became A Tale Of Two Lions

“There are no wrong notes. There are only wrong notes to play next.” – Miles Davis


Here we are again. This time last year, we were anticipating the first ‘hot’ Carlton vs Collingwood clash in a long time. It’s only been a year, but now I can barely imagine footy without it.

Before the 2022 season, Johnathon Brown hosted his old teammates Michael Voss and Craig McRae on ‘Face to Face’ for Fox Footy to discuss their leadership of two of the biggest clubs in Australia—Carlton and Collingwood.

Brown tells the story of how McRae used to wear a hat that said, ‘MiniBus’ in the rooms as an assistant coach because he was only ‘half a coach’ – I’m not sure Craig understood how insightful that joke was at the time, but he probably does in hindsight – and McRae recounts that what he valued most about Leigh Mathews as a coach was what he called the ‘snowball effect’.

‘As the momentum snowball got bigger, he got out of the way and allowed it to take its own course.’

Then, Voss talks about how Mathews, well-known to be a cranky, harsh bastard at times, allowed a controversial, news-baiting forward with bleached blond hair be completely himself on the football field – Jason Akermanis – to what he said was everyone’s benefit.

Nobody could see the future to make the parallel with Jack Ginnivan of course. He hadn’t even bleached the hair yet.

When asked how football has changed since they played, they reflect mostly on how much people have changed. Voss says that he’s having conversations with players so vulnerable that they broach topics he could never have imagined being comfortable discussing even with his closest friends as a player.

‘They are perfectly willing to go there as a means to building connection.’

McRae mentions that having connection at all wasn’t especially valued at the time – players had roles and they played those roles and then went home. Not so anymore, we can infer.

Some 12 weeks later, Sunday’s game between the two coaches’ clubs is the biggest radio topic of the week. I remember listening to Gerard Whateley on SEN talk to callers about how ‘real’ the Collingwood Carlton rivalry felt to them. ‘It’s real behind the fence but is it real for you?’ he asks of Darcy Moore on AFL 360.

Darcy says it’s not as real as it is for the fans, but still real, and talks about its history – that Collingwood wasn’t a nice part of town when football was born, and any fan knows that even now Collingwood fans have to get pretty used to classist remarks about teeth, criminal activity, or personal hygiene.

Carlton, on the other hand, is the club of the aspirational class. Battlers to themselves, but to Collingwood people, those who once they’ve climbed up to safety might be tempted to pull the ladder up behind them.

As for the football, everyone’s expecting a belter. Both teams are at a crucial moment in their season, with Carlton, after years of struggle, on the cusp of a top 4 placing, and Collingwood fighting to go 6-5 instead of 5-6.

Better yet, the teams are playing seriously tough footy. On the Couch on the Monday before the game, May 23, the fellas note that Carlton are currently the hardest team to tackle since tackle efficiency stats have been taken, while Collingwood’s tackling has been amongst the best in the competition in 2022.

I was at home for this one, watching alone on the couch, but that didn’t matter. It delivered in every possible way. Collingwood hold on for a cagey win.

In the press conference, McRae is outright beaming.

‘The game’s not won ‘til you win it. We’ll learn some good lessons around that.’

Asked about Mason Cox and the fact he still makes an impact when counted out, he says,

‘I must admit I’ve always been a believer in players … and believing in them as long as you can. I believe in Mason and today he got to show what he’s capable of.’

Asked about Ollie Henry, he doesn’t say ‘He has great overhead ability’ or praise some other aspect of his play, but his ability to ‘deal with the emotions of missing goals, and not impacting, and being subbed, dealing with those ups and downs, and then today just grabbing [his] chances. I’m really proud of the kid.’

‘It’s just another reason you’ve got to believe in people, and show faith in them, maybe even before they can.’

Asked about John Noble’s game, he says ‘I just love his fight.’

‘We’ve always said from day one we want to act like winners.’

You get the idea. Paired with the fact that McRae says that telling people what they’ve done right is one of the most important things in coaching, it’s clear these mental traits are the main skills he wants to build in his players – and yet again they came good to show him they’d learned.

In Michael Voss’ interview, the first question is just ‘tough loss Michael?’

He says it all – ‘Look, it was. We probably didn’t deserve it though.’

He’s even got a bit of a wry smile, at least for that comment. You could tell he was thinking of his old lockermate, Fly – something along the lines of ‘You really are pretty good at this aren’t ya, cheeky bastard’.

But quick as he can, he straightens the face and gets back on message.

‘Looking across the game, Collingwood were deserved winners, but somehow we put ourselves in a position to win.’

‘I’m really proud of that. Of the way we fight our way through games. There’s some resilience emerging, but we need to work even more of that.’

For him too, the focus is mental. For now, Voss sounds just like McRae. He just needs his boys to come along for the ride.



12 weeks later, and we’re back.

We all know what happened, I won’t torture any Blues fans that are reading too much. Carlton kicks an eight-goal third quarter, but in Gerard Whateley’s immortal words, Collingwood close like the grim reaper.

I was there, on the balcony, in the best seat in the house with my brother and Dad.

Pendlebury to Elliott. Ginnivan shepherd. Collingwood are in front.

This goal was the summit of a mountain McRae and his players had climbed together all year, as well as that day and that quarter. The journey? To learn how to execute genuinely improvised play, to advantage, within the boundaries of intelligent football.

Not when! Not if! How. Because McRae seems to understand, or at least come closer to saying, what some other coaches don’t.

To a renaissance coach like McRae, football is a single game, of progressing the ball to the goal, rather than a system of minigames.

It is a game that is characterised by play – using the imagination to improvise within boundaries. This is why McRae’s focus on the mental is so pronounced. This is why he used his famous ‘windshield wipers’ analogy. Not only is staying present in the moment beneficial to improvisation, it is literally the whole task.

Generalisations can help us think about large improvising groups – they do act relatively predictably over time, but Australian football is just improvised enough that they don’t act THAT predictably, so coaches like to break down the sport into minigames – the contest, transition, the kickout, the switch – then teach the players when and how to execute each minigame.

Now to Michael Voss. Last year, Voss paid the mental a lot of attention, talking about fight, DNA, and style, but the Carlton players let distraction throw them off. Traumatised by that failure, he seems to have retreated to the whiteboards, become obsessed with defensive systems, and ultimately fallen into the minigame mindset, talking now about ‘execution’, ‘connection’, and ‘continuing to work on our craft’.

He shouldn’t. If Carlton’s list is as good as we all say, they are good enough at execution. The only remaining explanation for their failure then, is that they are distracted. He needs to go back to getting the players to flow.

Collingwood are showing that thinking about football as a single game is better for their team performance than thinking about football as a system of minigames. I think Carlton is in this category too.

Round 23 should have shown Carlton that they don’t need to ‘execute’, they need to play, but it seems to have taken them the opposite direction.

In football terms, ‘play’ as improvisation within boundaries doesn’t just mean ‘kick to grass more’. It also means making the right defensive decision under immense pressure, as Collingwood players did repeatedly to close out close games in 2022.

In their other close losses that led to the game, and in the vision David King showed endlessly in the aftermath, Carlton, having flowed beautifully (note: after half-time, when they had closest access to a coach who was probably trying to get them flowing) was not playing ‘footy’ in the sense that Collingwood was in that last quarter. They panicked, broke the flow, and played minigames.

A minigame approach to footy emphasises discipline and execution in a situation, but it also creates a harder criterion for an ‘error’—anything that disrupts the minigame. A single-game thinker will focus on intelligence and imagination, for them what might seem an error at first need not be, if it can be made to serve the goal of the game. This is especially important in ball movement, something Collingwood is completely excelling at right now.

Compared to a minigame system, a single-game system provides more situations where there is flexibility in what a player should do. In these systems, a player needs to be good at deciding what to do on the fly.

This is why McRae is relentlessly crafting a team that sees football as this single game system. His players seem obsessed with progressing the football toward the goal by any appropriate means.

It’s why Collingwood players seem to cut through zones like a swarm of rabid dogs who have seen a fat juicy steak behind the opposition goal line. Rather than by identifying places to start or change minigames or identifying issues with the execution of minigames, they just seem to think ‘ball, mates, forward’.

To Collingwood, failures of ‘execution’ are just bumps in the road to victory to be recovered from right now, not errors to be logged and belaboured at during the week to ‘cover weaknesses’. As a Pies fan, I just LOVE how rarely Craig McRae even says the word ‘execution’.

Sure, sometimes starting a minigame – a switch is a good example – is the best way to progress the ball to the goal, but sometimes it isn’t. Teaching players how to make this decision themselves, on the fly, rather than making them memorise the characteristics of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ times to do this is the heart of the renaissance.

The reason Collingwood did choose to kick to grass so much in 2022 is because Craig McRae knows that’s a great way to LEARN how to improvise – it gets that single game idea in their heads. If they do that a lot, then down the line players will just be more experienced at it than players who haven’t been prepared this way. We can see now that his plan has worked an absolute treat.

Other coaches like Chris Scott are doing this too, but McRae has really stood out for publicly and explicitly identifying that mental and emotional skills are what’s needed to win in footy.

Football demands many skills. Kicking running jumping chatting listening handpassing, to name a few. But collaborative improvisation within football demands only one skill – that a game’s members leave the meta, ala consciously thinking ‘I am a man in football boots and another man is running toward me. McRae seems focused utterly on this.

‘I better do x rather than y in this situation’ or the jazz musician’s ‘I am a man at a drum set’ or the theatre actor’s ‘I am a person on a stage in a costume’ are toxic. You need to relax enough enter the task completely free of pre-set thoughts and feelings to engage in play with others. Responding anew at every turn, rather than playing out a script, is the skill McRae values most. He has shown that when this works at a team level, it is an absolute joy to watch.

Just this morning on Whateley, I heard Brenton Sanderson talk about this too. He identified Jordan De Goey as a player you cannot hamper by instructing. He said that modern players need to learn to ‘flow’.

Supporters of free improvisation in music have described it as a haven from ‘discourse’. So basically, it allowed you to stop thinking. Jamie Elliott epitomised this with his goal after the siren, which he says he literally did not even hear because he was so focused on kicking a football. This is what Sanderson meant by ‘flow’.

This matters even more in open play. There are mental narratives in football that limit play. Fear, regret, or aspects of the game state (the umpires, other players opponents, the fans. In some cases, even the score), and focusing on these can kill a player’s ability to improvise in a complex situation.

None of this means that there were none of these don’t bother Collingwood or didn’t that crazy night. But they were able to move on more quickly from them and engage fully in free, improvised play.

Over the last 18 months I have watched Craig McRae deliberately arm his players with strategies for escaping those scripts and that quarter they used them, and they won. In 2022, Michael Voss seemed to be doing the same thing, but at the last hurdle, they failed. They gambled on the siren.

Collingwood players, on the other hand, all of them, were flowing against Carlton that night. They were infectious to the point where it felt there was nobody in the ground who could remember that anything else existed. What was most incredible of all was that this was no accident – they had been prepared to enter it by their renaissance coach. Even better, he was in it with them, and many tens of thousands of us, punters wearing black and white, we were all in it together.

Collingwood during that last quarter was one collective brain with 60,000 nodes, the best of which were physically on the ground, but the rest of which were facing the Real too. The fans’ will to win met the players in the air between us like great big guitar strings being played by their every move, and for 25 glorious minutes it was perfectly in tune and playing only bangers.

Even though, at the time, I thought for sure Michael Voss believed in this method, it was obvious that his players didn’t get on board hard enough for long enough. They’d been there all game, but 25 minutes is too long to go missing.

Again, they gambled. They chose to believe the lead was too big, they thought they could get away with winning without taking things on. They let the fear and regret bite in and trick them into making this choice. Resisting this is a mental skill, and just like physical skills, having them some of the time is great, all the time, every time is mastery.

Both that quarter and the final quarter against Essendon in round 19 were mental victories. In both games, Collingwood’s opposition got hold of the game, and when the Pies came at them, they couldn’t mentally weather that storm –they stopped playing in the truest sense and tried to perform to a script, probably titled something like ‘Let’s get out of here alive and forget this even got close’.

That they failed proved that scripts are a mistake.

Improvisation beat that script, artistic method trumped scientific method. On the day, it honestly felt like a win of good over evil. That game – and Geelong’s premiership, to be fair – also showed how much influence this approach has not just on a football team but the whole community of a football club. Carlton fans’ rage, and the club’s teetering on the edge of becoming a ‘tyre fire’, show how infectious failure to do this can be too. 29 inside 50s for one goal in the first half against the Dogs? Anyone who has played footy knows that can only be mental.

The world’s best home and away victory was the result. When the siren went, and the colossal ‘YES!!!’ Went up, I will never forget the physicality of the celebrations on the balcony. I brought a stranger to me and yelled in his face with joy. He yelled back. Me and Mikey and Dad shook and punched each other. We cried.

About a minute and a half later, halfway through the second play of the team song, I remembered that the win had cost Carlton the finals. It took watching BT say it in the replay the next morning to realise Carlton could’ve made it with a draw.

I mean it, and I was stone-cold sober that night. All that excitement was just for winning the game.

Why? I had been flowing too.

I’ll admit making top four had crossed my mind, but as for Carlton missing out, honestly, I’d forgotten. Without a commentator to remind me every five seconds, I was too busy watching my life’s most incredible game of footy. My mental script had been killed by my renaissance football club. We had willed ourselves to win, and we’d won. That’s all those celebrations were about.

So much was said about that final goal, including that Pendlebury was only open in the middle of the ground because he was gassed, but everyone knows winning often requires a bit of luck. What matters most is that such a thing could never, ever happen to a club without an incredibly strong culture of flow.

That players like Pendlebury, Moore, and Sidebottom also have the intelligence and actual footballing ability to improvise near perfectly while flowing is what makes them truly terrifying at their best.

Maybe I’m flattering us too much, so here is my olive branch to Carlton fans – I want you to get to feel like this, if just for one day and not against us. But you will only get this if you, your coach, and your players learn to play. Get Voss on board. Start the campaign. Put away the whiteboards. It is the only way.

The truth is every footy fan deserves to be able to stand at the bus stop and compulsively mentally replay a moment like Beau McCreery deciding under that much pressure to go straight for goal from the near wing and nailing it. Some nights when I close my eyes to sleep, I can still see that yellow Sherrin wobbling in an unbelievably straight line straight downward, the two distant white sticks either side seeming, absurdly, to welcome it through.



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