Confessions of an AFL Captain


It took me 16 years to realize that I wasn’t a great leader. The irony is that it was my reputation as a leader that was keeping me in the game.

By the end of my career I am pretty sure that leadership was the key reason my name kept being added to the young Saints team sheet.

Certainly it wasn’t because I was lighting up the footy field with my prodigious talent. Only the most one-eyed supporter would ever use the words prodigious talent as a descriptor of my abilities.

Don’t worry I am not offended. I knew from the first moment I walked into St Kilda F.C that my natural talents were at the lower end of the scale.

I couldn’t take speccies, dodge through traffic or snap a goal over my head. If a kick on my opposite foot went in the general direction I was aiming then that was a bonus.

I knew that if I were to have a career I would have to rely on two specific talents.

First, being the most competitive bugger the coach had ever seen. And second, being a good leader. Luckily neither relied on being overly skillful.

Leading was never an issue for me. There’s an old saying  ‘it is hard to lead a cavalry when you think you look funny on a horse’. Well, I thought I looked comfortable on the horse.

At the time, my version of leading meant memorising the game plan so I could answer the coaches questions and going out of my way to pat everyone on the back side. Being a good role model was also part of it so training hard, not drinking and being ready to play week in week out covered that.

In truth, I hoped this would cover for any lack of talent or keep me around long enough for me to develop some talent.

As the years progressed so did my leadership skills. My ability to confront players and have difficult conversations improved, as did my understanding of culture and the importance of designing the one you need to be successful.

I learned how to give a pretty good rev up speech and was adequate representing the club in front of the cameras.

Do I look back and regret anything? No, I don’t.

I have no regrets because I am content that I did the best job with the information and training that I had (which was basically none).

Would I do things differently now?

After spending the last 16 years working in the leadership, culture and high-performance space…absolutely!

The top 8 things I know now but wish I knew then:

  1. Relating to ‘all’ players and their various personalities.
  2. Having a more open and honest relationship with my coaches.
  3. Setting strong standards and holding people accountable.
  4. Understanding the power of a leadership group and how to harness this.
  5. Understanding mental health through emotional intelligence.
  6. Articulating where we were going and, more importantly, how we are going to get there.
  7. Building capability, accountability and trust throughout the team.
  8. Creating a more resilient environment.

I can’t help but think if I had known then what I know now, would the results we attained be any different? Would 1997 have turned out differently? Would we have made more of 1998?

I admit it does at times keep me up at night … wondering.

My advice to you is this; make yourself the best leader you can…right now.

Admit your shortcomings then do something about them, seek advice and never think you’ve reached your peak.

Understand that talent is never enough, it is what you surround your talent with that will make all the difference.

Be wise today so you don’t cry tomorrow.


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About the author:

Nathan Burke started his career as a schoolteacher before the demands of elite level football with St Kilda F.C. took over. Following a successful corporate career he founded Nathan Burke Consulting – a Melbourne based firm that offers High-Performance Training and Coaching solutions to corporates, schools and sports teams. Nathan is currently the Head Coach of the Western Bulldogs AFLW team.