Roper takes a Masters AFL training session. Credit: Sweet Kicks Football Academy
By Marcus Uhe
When announcing the appointment of new coach Craig McRae, Collingwood President Mark Korda highlighted his “impressive and holistic coaching resume”, the fact that he is “widely educated”, and has experience coaching his own teams at lower levels.
McRae has completed a serious apprenticeship in his journey to become a senior coach at an AFL program, including coaching a premiership at VFL level in 2019, serving as development coach at Brisbane, Collingwood and Richmond, and line-coaching at Richmond and Hawthorn. He even crossed codes to work with one of the most successful and respected organisations in the country under Craig Bellamy at the Melbourne Storm as a specialist coach, teaching AFL fundamentals such as kicking and marking (‘catching’ in the case of rugby league).
If clubs are looking for widely experienced and respected figures to head coach their football program, Dragons assistant Lisa ‘Kiwi’ Roper has to figure in discussions.
Not many would understand the nuances of how football clubs operate better than Roper.
She’s not only played in and coached premierships across nearly 20 years of football involvement, but she’s contributed to the game at a wide range of levels and across a breadth of demographics, including VFLW (Collingwood), Masters AFL, grassroots, and in 2021, at NAB League boys and girls programs with the Dragons. She even served on the AFL Sydney (previously SWAFL) committee and made significant contributions to the growth of the game in Sydney through the SWAFL talented player program, which, in concert with the establishment of AFLW, has seen exponential growth in the number of women’s teams playing football in the harbour city.
Away from organised competitions, she offers specialised football skills coaching through her Sweet Kicks Football Academywhich explores the nitty-gritty elements of the game; footwork, agility and speed training, the technicalities of kicking, and football specific fitness exercises such as interval running.
“I just love coaching, so it’s another opportunity for me to get onto the field and coach,” Roper said.
As a member of the BHP Coaching Academy in 2021, she’s expanding her horizons in coaching and continuing to build her football “dictionary” while completing her level three coaching accreditation course.
“When I came into Darebin (Falcons) I was talking about the midfielders doing something, maybe the centres, and the coach Jane Lange was like, ‘It took me a while to work out who you meant, but then I got it. You and your soccer lingo,’” Roper said.
“And the players understood me, but I just describe things a little bit different.”
This was a call-back to her time playing and coaching elite soccer in New Zealand, where she was born, before taking-up aussie rules in 2002 after moving to Sydney in 1999.
Again, the parallels with McRae are hard to ignore.
Her football journey began at the Western Wolves, where she played 148 games before establishing the Bondi (now UTS) Shamrocks in 2009.
It was at the Shamrocks where her coaching pedigree re-emerged, albeit with a different shaped ball, as she gathered Irish expats and encouraged her side to adopt Gaelic football principles. In turn, this made New South Wales players better equipped for the national state championships, the closest thing to a national competition in that time.
“In 2001 and 2, New South Wales was in the grand final against Victoria, and then after that sort of dropped out of the top four. So I saw an opportunity that if we learnt how to play Gaelic, or that style of football, we’d be fast with our hands and be able to compete better with the Victorians.
“I took it back to my Irish Gaelic clubs, and in the end we started our own football club and it really was all Irish girls that wanted to come down and play Aussie rules.”
Come 2021 and Roper is throwing herself completely into the volunteering and coaching space. In addition to her line-coaching at the Dragons, she’s serving as a development coach at Collingwood’s VFLW program, is senior coach at Fitzroy Stars in the Northern Football and Netball League, and was an assistant coach for the Vic Metro girls team for the 2021 Under 19s National Carnival.
That encompasses trainings sessions, gameday, team meetings, selection nights, reviews, functions and everything in-between that football clubs have to offer.
“The weekends are full-on, getting between games and fields, and the nights, I’ll say to anyone, if you want to get hold of me, after four o’clock, don’t bother: I’m on a field somewhere.
“But I love it, I love football and that’s what I’m here in Melbourne to do, so I’m happy to hurry and get changed, sometimes it might be getting changed in the car as I’m driving, getting between field and changing uniforms.”
She describes herself as a ‘sponge’, soaking-up as many titbits as she can wherever she goes, extending further than just the X’s and O’s of football.
At Fitzroy, where the overwhelming majority of the playing group have an indigenous background, Roper has encouraged the players to take pride in, and to educate others about indigenous culture. This includes having the players contribute to the design of their playing guernseys, acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that they play games on before the first bounce, and encouraging them to choreograph a welcome dance to be performed before their NAIDOC game this year.
The investment and connection to the players and their stories is something that Dragons senior coach Jackson Kornberg identifies as one of her biggest strengths as a coach, and as a leader.
“When we hit the track (at the beginning of preseason), it was really quite easy for her to get along with the players, which is so important in a relationships game,” Kornberg said. “It can’t be easy for Kiwi, coming in without knowing anyone, didn’t know any of the players, coaches, a new environment, and to be able to build relationships pretty quickly with the girls, considering we only had maybe a month of training before round one, was certainly her big strength.
“Meaningful relationships, not just sliding doors relationships with the players.”
Covid meant that the seasons of each of her sides in 2021 became a case of ‘what could have been?’. Both Collingwood and Fitzroy had qualified for the Grand Final in their respective competitions, and the Dragons boys were sitting pretty a game clear at the top of the NAB League table before the extension of Melbourne’s lockdown put the kybosh on local sport, and the remainder of those competitions were scrapped.
When harbouring ambitions to work at the elite level, you might wonder, why is she still so heavily involved at the grassroots?
“I wanted to be coached at a particular level and a particular way when I was younger, and so that style of coaching, I wanted to give back, challenge people or challenge players to get the best out of themselves.
“I think when we get high performance squads, generally we’re given the cream of the crop, and they’re already driven to be the best and they’re already driven to find the best in themselves. So I think I like to go back and give quality coaching at a community level and then hopefully discover others that we may not have come across or may not have realised had the talent, and they could go to the next level, something like that.”
Peta Searle’s departure from St Kilda’s AFLW program as senior coach means the 2022 AFLW season will begin without a female head coach, at time of writing.
AFL data says that female coaches make up just six per cent of all accredited coaches across the country.
Roper sees this as a reflection on the perception that those who were not involved at the top level are under-qualified or lack the football knowledge to take-up such positions.
“I think that at the moment, a lot of clubs probably don’t think the girls know enough, or probably don’t sound like they know enough, or probably don’t speak the right speak,” Roper says. “Whereas I think that if they opened it up or listened, females see the game differently.
“If you had a female on a coaching panel, they’re probably going to be able to spot things in a game that the male coaching may not spot, so then overall you can make better changes or adapt better or change the game up in a different way.
“I think there’s definitely benefits in having both (male and female coaches) on the panel, but at the moment I think it’s a huge challenge, especially, I guess, coaches around my level, people think that if we haven’t played AFLW, we may not know the game well enough, but there’s a lot of female coaches I know that are very technical about the game.”
When her head-coaching days come to a close, ‘Kiwi’ would love to act as a coaching mentor for those making their way through the system, specifically as the pioneers of the AFLW’s inception hang-up their boots and transition into coaching roles, ala 2021 Brisbane Lions premiership captain Emma Zielke, who will take-on an assistant coaching position at the Lions in 2022 following her retirement.
The aforementioned Searle believes that more needs to be done to foster the development of the next generation of coaching for females.
“My recommendation would be, if you’re employing a female coach, or a female head of AFLW, or maybe a female coaching director, that should sit outside the soft cap,” Searle told The Outer Sanctum podcast. “That would potentially enable a bit more money to go into these roles, to allow women to take these roles up.”
“In men’s footy they’ve got six or eight coaches, and then they’ve got a director of coaching. If you want coaching to improve at AFLW level, if you had a director of coaching overseeing and developing the current coaches, and especially if a few of them are female, you’d get significant spikes in ability to coach and gameday performance.
“I think a role like that would make a big difference to an AFLW program, but they can’t afford it.”
In Roper’s eyes, female head-coaches with a better understanding of what women are capable of would significantly improve the standard of play.
“What we’re seeing is that we’re not getting the best out of players; we’re asking for a style of play where we’re supposed to be kicking a long ball down the line to a contested mark.
“We’re not that great at taking contested marks like the males can, and even to feed a ball around the top of the 50, we don’t have great, long set-shots. So really for females, we talk about kicking inside 30.”
“It’s not the same game; our bodies are different. What we can do with our bodies is different. The size of the football. The rules. There’s so many variations between the two genders.”
Kornberg saw her ability to adjust her approach as she juggled the groups at the Dragons come to the fore this year, which became a real asset for the club.
“Primarily the differences (between coaching different genders), I think in the technical aspect of it, I don’t think that changes. Footballers are footballers and I’m of that opinion.
“But certainly the communication of how you convey the message, I think that’s something I really looked at ‘Kiwi’ and she certainly taught me a heap of things in the way she communicated with the players in making it fun and enjoyable, and making sure everyone felt like they belonged and that they were valued at the club, which I think was a real strength of ‘Kiwi’.
“I certainly leaned on her in that respect, to hopefully develop a really inclusive environment in the girls program at our club.”
Over the coming weeks, Craig McRae will begin his first preseason in charge of an AFL club as he settles into his senior coaching role.
In 12 months’ time, when the AFLW welcomes four new sides and finally comes to mirror its male equivalent, Essendon, Sydney, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide will experience what McRae will go through this summer, as they prepare for their first season in the competition.
Having gone through similar practices in establishing a club herself, minus the resources and professional infrastructure, who better to steer the ship through new and uncertain times than ‘Kiwi’?
Roper's Sweet Kicks Kicking Academy - https://sweetkicksfootballacademy.com.au/