It is Round 23 and life is about to become a whole lot more fun for all AFL players – be they in or out of the finals.
For those not in the finals the reason is obvious. The pressure of playing week in, week out is now gone and it’s holiday time.
I can tell you that when your team is out of the September action and that final Round 23 siren sounds, it is like a 100-kilogram weight has been lifted from your shoulders.
The burden to perform week in, week out instantly evaporates.
The guilt you feel during the year when contemplating a beer or ice-cream disappears and all the vices you have been suppressing for 10 months can now resurface – for a few weeks at least.
It is a feeling of immense relief.
For those players who are still competing in the finals, the ability to eat whatever they want and sleep whenever they want has to wait.
This doesn’t mean things don’t improve – they certainly do.
The difference is the shackles are released by design, not circumstance.
This is because a great coach, one who has got his team into the finals, will juggle the mood of the group to reflect the achievement.
The good coach knows that it is impossible for a playing group to maintain their enthusiasm and focus for the entire season, so they will manipulate the mood and get his players into the right mindset.
At the start of pre-season the coach is noticeably gruffer and they usually expect all their assistants to follow suit. That is the period where standards are set and benchmarks are stretched.
To ensure everyone is focused and starts the year on the right foot the coaches’ tolerance for misbehaviour or slackness is non-existent.
As the pre-season continues through the summer slog and the practice games start to roll around, they tend to lighten up.
They want the players to be chock full of confidence and champing at the bit for Round 1. Something as simple as smile or the odd joke from the coach can help bring a positive mood to the entire football department.
A quarter of the way through the season the mood will turn again. This is the peak time to make strides, to set up the season, and everyone must be intensely focused.
The smart coach will tighten the reins, become a bit snappier and the level of jocularity will decrease.
Then it starts to rain and the coach must adjust again. Training in mid-winter means the sore bits always seem to take longer to heal. The days are shorter and so are the fuses.
To counter this, the smart coach will intentionally lighten the load and the overall mood.
Everyone in the football department will be instructed to loosen up, crack a few jokes and social events will occur more frequently.
As August approaches the season is dragging and staying disciplined for more than eight months can start to take its toll.
Standards can start to slip and the reins will once again need to be tightened.
And so on the eve of the finals, it is time to switch to supreme confidence.
By design the mood will lighten, the number of positive video clips in the team review will increase, and good feedback will dominate all discussions.
The players will enjoy being around the club more, game plans will be simplified in the hope this will translate into increased on-field performance.
This is the sort of release that we’ve seen the ‘interim’ coaches use to good effect this season when given their chance.
Rhyce Shaw, Brett Ratten and David Teague have simply gone into finals preparation mode early – even though they are not in the finals.
Listen to the North, Carlton and Saints players and they will tell you how things have been lightened up around the club.
Everyone is enjoying it more and the coach is building great relationships. What you get is a team willing to take the game on again and play with flair and confidence.
In other words they are playing the game like a good finals team.
For the fans watching the coaches, look for the clubs where the smiles are increasing, where there are positive words, or even a shirtless coach running a lap in the Canberra cold.
Soon, it’s September and the fun really begins.
Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.