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Centimetre-perfect: a quest for flawless goalkicking in the AFL

The AFL set-shot is as much about consistency as it is about the right technique. AAP/Martin Philbey

When the AFL has a weekend of inaccurate goal-kicking, media attention invariably turns to why set-shot goal-kicking hasn’t improved while other areas of footy have.

As a footy fan, I have an interest in this issue. As someone who studies the biomechanics of kicking technique in AFL footballers, I’m fascinated (and yes, I know, I have the coolest job in the world!).

According to elite AFL players, technique is the key component of set-shot kicking – so either players don’t have a good technique or they don’t produce the correct technique for a given kick.

This might be due to the skill not being developed enough – which renders it inconsistent; it could be due to pressure or fatigue changing what is usually a good technique.

What is good technique?

It’s worth nothing that technique is very individual. When kicking for distance, some elite AFL players have been shown to develop power at the knee during the kick while others tend to produce more power at the hip.

Examining the set-shot goal-shooting of an elite 18 year-old group for a study that will be released shortly, we found all players had technical errors in their kicks that led to missing the goal.

But these errors were different for different players and no two players had the same technical error profile.

Common technical elements included:

  • leaning back on the kick.
  • swinging the kick leg across the body rather than towards the target.
  • dropping the ball incorrectly.

Many will say a straight run-up is essential. But in a separate study we did a few years ago, we found something interesting. While some players were better when they ran in straighter, many kickers were more successful when they angled out in their approach.

Matthew Lloyd’s focused technique netted 926 goals and 424 behinds for his career. Julian Smith/AAP

Matthew Lloyd, considered one of the best set-shot kickers of all time, was part of these studies. Comparing his kicking action to that of the elite juniors, we found that he was more upright (i.e. didn’t lean back as much), guided the ball down further and released it closer to the ground.

He also angled out slightly in his approach. But, importantly, he took this three steps before the kick, such that he was running in a straight line as he kicked the ball.

The elite juniors we tested also angled out, but they did this later (in their last step or two) so they were moving on a curved path at the point of the kick (think of Lance “Buddy” Franklin’s kicking action).

We think this leads to greater side-to-side errors in the kick. Some of the other features of Lloyd’s kick were the consistency of his routine (you might remember him throwing grass into the air to ascertain the wind direction, even under the roof at Etihad Stadium) and his vision.

Using special goggles that allowed us to track where he was looking, we found he maintained his vision looking through the goals while approaching his kick. Conversely, the elite Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) AFL players looked towards the ground and at the man on the mark.

So what about the players who have good technique but don’t produce it for a given kick, who are inconsistent with their kicking action?

We’ve found that fatigue in AFL players could certainly be a contributing factor. Pressure also plays a part in influencing a player’s kicking technique.

With a “self-paced” skill such as the set-shot for goal, there can be a tendency for players to try to consciously control what is a well-trained movement. This can lead to technical change that is detrimental to performance.

Learning or training more instinctively has been shown to assist in development skills in novices and might also assist elite players.

While the research to date has been good, more examination is needed into set-shots taken in game situations as well as monitoring development in juniors.

With such work we might see the set-shot goal-kicking of AFL players improve, which is good for the players, and great for fans such as myself.

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