Justin Longmuir addresses Fremantle players ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: Fremantle FC

COOPER Simpson can't stop his legs from shaking as he takes a seat in the Fremantle auditorium for what will become the most fun and impactful team meeting of a week that is set to launch the Dockers into 'in-season' mode. 

Fresh off their main training session and lunch, the players are relaxed as Post Malone plays over the speakers, but Simpson has been given a heads up by vice-captain Andrew Brayshaw that he'll be central to the fun and can't shake the nerves that have been with him all Tuesday morning.

"All right, men," director of football performance and innovation Adam Beard says, calling the room to attention for his weekly 'Pro Tip' session, which is designed to condense valuable performance insights into a humorous and energetic 15-minute meeting. 

A player has left an anonymous letter in Beard's 'Pro Tip' mailbox and wants to know if getting first-year players to sing in front of the group is a good thing for team connection and earning respect. Suddenly Simpson, who was recruited with pick No.35 in last year's AFL Draft and has shone this summer, isn't the only player with his legs shaking.

Cooper Simpson after being drafted by Fremantle in November, 2023. Picture: Fremantle FC

Beard, who has travelled the world working with NFL and Major League Baseball clubs as well as national sporting bodies, has planned this session meticulously to make sure he sets Simpson up to succeed, and he starts his build-up with the quote from author James Clear: "Motivation is overrated. Environment matters more." 

A clip from the NFL documentary series Hard Knocks is then shown, capturing young Detroit Lions star Aidan Hutchinson being called to sing Michael Jackson's mega-hit Billie Jean at the front of a team meeting. It's a thriving team environment as the hesitant defensive end's teammates push him to take the jump and then support him by taking over. 

Beard, however, doesn't want to just show the players what that looks like. He wants them to live it. Brayshaw, Caleb Serong, Hayden Young and Michael Walters are in on the plan, with Walters in the back row holding a whiteboard when Beard asks him whose name is on the other side. "You got a song for us, Cooper?" 

The room erupts as Taylor Swift's Love Story builds up, and the 19-year-old moves to the front of the theatre and puts on a show. Brayshaw is out of his seat driving the energy and the players produce a moment for Simpson on his 19th birthday that will leave him feeling on top of the world. 

For the rest of the group, it's delivered a lesson on being good teammates and letting people be their authentic selves. 

"Nice job, men," Beard says. "'Til next time, that's Pro Tip." 

An education culture

AFL.com.au was granted unrestricted access to the Dockers' inner sanctum last week, watching from within the football department as the players and staff build towards the 2024 season and plot their return to finals following a 10-win campaign last year.    

It was a week that offered insights into the connected and competitive nature of the players, how they plan to respond to a disappointing 2023, and the collaborative coaching methods of Justin Longmuir, who enters a contract year in his fifth season in charge.  

Justin Longmuir in a Fremantle meeting ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: Fremantle FC

The week launches with education and preparation as the coaches gather at 8am on Tuesday to run through plans for that day's main training session and make any final adjustments before addressing the players. 

Everything discussed flows into the team meeting at 8.45am, where Longmuir moves into education mode, asking the group questions about the training priorities and getting them to briefly discuss with the player next to them before he calls on individuals for their view. 

"What did you talk about, Jye?" he asks young forward Jye Amiss, before Jordan Clark and Jaeger O'Meara share their thoughts and Longmuir builds on the answers with vision. It's an 'anxiety-free' environment with no wrong answers, but the players are left in no doubt by the end of the meeting where the coach stands. 

"There's been a conscious shift from the coaches to get more input from more players," captain Alex Pearce tells AFL.com.au later. "It's common sense that you don't want just one person contributing to meetings, you want everyone to take ownership. 

"Whether it's in line groups or whole team meetings, we can see as older players the changes in how the coaches present and allow more guys to feel ownership of the gameplan, the program, and the club." 

Josh Draper, James Aish and Sam Sturt listen into Justin Longmuir's address to Fremantle players ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: Fremantle FC

There's a similar theme to every meeting through the week, including those run by assistant coaches Jaymie Graham (forwards), Matthew Boyd (backline), Joel Corey (midfield) and Harry Garland (stoppages and opposition).

And while there is a concerted effort for the players to all contribute, the same can be said for the various coaches and experts within the department who share responsibility for growing the group and give the team a variety of voices through the week.

"We need to have a weight of numbers approach," general manager of football Joe Brierty explains.

"When there is separation of key roles and an umbrella of really talented people who you enable to have their voice during the week, it means the players are really clear on where they need to go to have a specified conversation.

"If you have an individual who sits too much at the forefront of the week, then everything has to be funnelled through one person."

'Do the reps' 

"I think I read somewhere today that the buzz word in the AFL is speed, and it is," high performance manager Phil Merriman says from his office as he toggles through a presentation that lays out the key metrics of Fremantle's pre-season. 

"We really went after it this year, and more so based on first five running and accelerating out of contest."

'Doing the reps' is something the Dockers have grown to value highly, and you suspect Merriman has been among the drivers of that trademark since joining the Dockers at the end of 2020 following stints at Melbourne and Hawthorn. 

The former hockey coach is excited by the numbers in front of him, explaining that the Dockers have increased their high-speed running and sprinting by 40 and 60 per cent respectively when comparing the 2021 and 2024 pre-seasons. 

The players' individual development plans, which track up to five years of physical data, also show the group is significantly fitter and you get a sense that the Dockers have great confidence in the work they have done and how it will translate in-season.  

The focus on building their sprint loads this summer has both a protective element to build the players up for the demands of the season, as well as a coaching benefit as the game gets faster and the ability to break tackles and burst from congestion becomes more valuable. 

While the Dockers paid a price for a heavy recent loading phase with soft-tissue injuries to defender/wingman Heath Chapman and small forward Sam Switkowski, Merriman said the club needed to consider the longer-term upside for the team this season of getting the physical work in.

"We've got a young group, and they need to accelerate fast through their development, but with that comes risk. Risk of injury and risk of overload. But a philosophy of mine is it's the risk versus reward," Merriman says.

Justin Longmuir addresses Fremantle players ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: Fremantle FC

"If we can get this type of work into them and the coaches can educate the players as quickly as possible, we'll get a greater reward for it sooner."

Another focus of the Dockers' summer was improving their gym culture, taking away distractions like phones, food, and players or staff who weren't scheduled to be using the space and would occasionally interrupt those who were.

It has resulted in more than 100 personal best results in the gym shared by 31 players this pre-season.

"I walked into the gym as recently as yesterday and I was talking to someone about their injury and one of the players said, 'What are you doing here? This is a gym, we're here to lift'," Merriman said. 

"These are all the little things they're now onto in the gym."

The player was Josh Treacy, who Merriman says has taken a big leap physically and with his leadership following some "lightbulb moments" over the pre-season. His work ethic was obvious through the week, with players highlighting his dedication by often arriving at the club at 6.15am to work on his game.  

Josh Treacy at Fremantle training on January 11, 2024. Picture: Fremantle FC

Dual Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe, who is often in the gym using stretching mats and doing spider crawls, has also excited Merriman after producing his best pre-season since the high performance manager arrived.

The loudest voice in the gym belonged to Serong, who would move from station to station at different times to encourage teammates over the up-tempo music during his rotation. The All-Australian is excited by the standards he has seen. 

"This is the hardest we've trained since I got here, and not just physically in terms of the running, but the contest, the physicality, and the way the players are training," the star midfielder said. 

"It's the most challenging it has been and everyone has had to rise to that level and push each other."

'Don't get sucked in' 

The mood shifts unmistakably as the week moves on from education and preparation and into the performance phase. On Thursday morning, there are line meetings scheduled at 8.50am ahead of Friday's intraclub, but the purple midfielders have organised an early-morning session among themselves to get on the same page after a beating the week prior. 

Among them are ruckman Sean Darcy, Brayshaw, Young and O'Meara, and the news filters back to the white camp when they meet in the midfielders' meeting room, which contains a high table with a replica field on top, a big screen, whiteboard and beanbags. 

"There's all stuff like that going on this week, lads," stoppages and opposition coach Garland tells the group, which contains Fyfe, Serong, Will Brodie, Matthew Johnson, Liam Reidy and Conrad Williams.    

Nat Fyfe at Fremantle training in December 2023. Picture: Fremantle FC

With Fremantle playing two intraclub matches, the teams have been deliberately kept the same, with Boyd coaching the white team after a 59-point win last week, and Graham in charge of purple and dubbing them the 'Redeem Team' – a reference to the 2008 USA Olympic basketball team – when they gather early in the week. 

Unlike the first intraclub, strategy between the two groups is 'blind' – including the coaches – meaning players and coaches will be forced to think on their feet on matchday and won't have the luxury of anticipating opposition structures.  

In the white midfield meeting room, the players are first asked to visualise aspects of their own performance in the first intraclub last week. "Think about what you did, what it felt like, and the flow-on effect when you got things right," Garland says. "I'll hand it over to you guys for an open discussion."

Serong kicks off the chat, with Fyfe involved and sharing detailed, strategic opinions while also reminding the group they are coming up against competitive opponents who will be physical after their heavy defeat last week. 

Fyfe encourages the group to tell the difference between opposition physicality designed to distract and what's real, such as a ferocious approach to the contested ball and the man. 

"Absorb it, embrace it, bring it on," Brodie says. The players are in game mode at this time of the week and everything they say is laced with competitiveness and a desire to win at all costs – even against their teammates. 

Serong is firm when he tells the group that they want their own performance on Friday to be the standard for the season every week and that should drive them to back up what they produced in the first intraclub. 

Caleb Serong listens into Justin Longmuir's address to Fremantle players ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: Fremantle FC

The competitiveness doesn't stop there though. They're quizzing Garland and development coach Brady Grey for intel on the opposition and want to get inside their heads and frustrate them, singling out opponents they believe they can knock off their game between the ears.

Outside the meeting rooms, buzz is building about the two teams, who is playing, who is lining up where, and what the groups are doing to get an edge. The external focus will be on individual performances, players returning from injuries and potential round one selection, but the scoreboard is going to matter for these players.  

Before the two teams meet for their final coach meetings with Boyd and Graham, Longmuir wants to bring his whole team together to emphasise an aspect of the pre-season that he wants to ensure everyone is on the same page with. 

'Mindset' is a word frequently used through the week, and club psychologist Neil McLean has drawn up mental skills handbooks for the players to use when reflecting on how their mindset impacts their preparation and gameday performance. 

Longmuir paces the purple carpet at the front of the room and references a whiteboard, where he has written 'decisive v hesitating'. He wants to know from his team what is decisive and what is hesitating when executing specific actions within a game. 

After discussion among the players and contributions, he underlines the importance of being decisive. "You can't build into the game with this stuff, lads," he says. "It comes back to everything you do during the week to prepare mentally. Trust that first thought that comes into your mind."

Boyd keeps the room for his final meeting with the white team before gameday and calls third-year midfielder Johnson to the whiteboard to set up a specific structure for all 18 players on the field. The 20-year-old nails it. 

The group then works through different modes for attacking midfield, defensive midfield, defensive 50, and corridor ball-ups. "No defensive 50 goals," Boyd says. "We need to be on our toes, defending like our life depends on it. We've got to get in good habits." 

The players are given three simple focuses for the match, knowing that if they execute them all the game will open up for them offensively and they'll be able to have fun with the ball. "That's us lads, that's us tomorrow."

'It's their time to have more influence' 

The way Fremantle has spoken publicly this summer mirrors the messaging inside the club and with the players – youth is not an excuse, and it has the potential to be a strength. 

In a window between scheduled phone calls on the corporate side of the business and a list meeting downstairs in the football department's teleconferencing room, chief executive Simon Garlick has time to discuss the state of the club and the playing list. 

The mantra the club has, the former Western Bulldogs chief says, is to build for a period of sustained success, following precedents set by Geelong, Hawthorn, Sydney and Richmond. It's something the Dockers have never achieved as they enter their 30th year, with the four-year run of finals appearances between 2012-15 the closest they have come. 

"A common theme with all of those clubs is they build success through their people and the culture they create and maintain. We're certainly taking an approach along those lines and I feel we're progressing in the way we want to be on that front," Garlick tells AFL.com.au

"That's the people we've got, the positions they're in, and the list build that is continuing to progress. I feel like a number of those cornerstone elements are where we need them to be. 

"The million-dollar question is how does that translate, and how soon does that translate, to on-field contention and success. None of us know the exact answer, but I'm really excited and we've got an incredibly strong foundation as a club."

Fremantle CEO Simon Garlick addresses the media on October 21, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

The youth in the team is obvious through the week, both in the energy created around the club in lighter moments and the way other meetings can take time to warm up. There's a deliberate approach from senior players to hold back and let the new breed emerge and grow comfortable. 

Players like Fyfe and Walters don't dominate the environment, but they pick high-impact moments to have their say on things that influence the team's strategy or club's culture. In a trademark session early in the week, for example, players are asked what they value most about the trademark, and Fyfe speaks up to share his view. "Family," the champion midfielder says. "Anyone who wears purple is us." 

Others, like defender Luke Ryan and Darcy, stand out as influential figures who keep teammates accountable to the trademark, which is encapsulated under the title 'For the Anchor'. In one recent example, Ryan noticed the club's new dietician doing dishes in the players' clubhouse, which they have agreed to maintain themselves, and quickly told her to stop, taking over and getting a group of players to help.  

Younger players, meanwhile, are called on more often in meetings to share their views on everything from culture to gameplan, setting up structures on whiteboards or explaining why a certain element of the trademark is important to how the team wants to play.   

Among the younger players growing in influence, Young stands out in meetings as someone who makes his points firmly and always has the attention of his teammates. 

Hayden Young poses for a photo during Fremantle's official team photo day on January 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

At least twice through the week, the 22-year-old leader highlights the importance of communicating on-field in a way that is direct and firm without worrying about how it will be perceived in the moment.  "We've got to be more demanding with each other," he says in an early week 'walk through'," with Brierty picking up on the contribution and recognising it. 

For Garlick, they're moments that augur well for the group. 

"I feel like there's a transition happening … and that younger cohort are starting to view this team as theirs. Not exclusively from the experienced players at all, but it's an impression I've got," Garlick says. 

"It's their time to have a real influence off-field and on-field and with how we prepare and how we train. I think we'll start to see that in how we play as well." 

Like Longmuir, Garlick is also entering his fifth season with Fremantle and he is full of praise for the way his coach has approached the pre-season and continued to build strong relationships within the team and football department, allowing younger players to grow in voice.  

"Those of us who work closely with him understand how good a technical coach he is, how good a handle he has on the game, and how passionate he is about teaching it in a way that really resonates and is impactful with the players," Garlick said. 

"But another key element to coaching is the connection piece, and that also allows the hard conversations to be had and to drive because it comes from a place of trust and safety. 

"I think he's coaching really well." 

'We're not that sort of club!' 

When Friday morning arrives, the intraclub build-up is designed to mimic what the players will experience in round one as much as possible. The teams start their day at the club separately and have different changerooms, and the coaching groups are set up on different balconies, with only Longmuir moving between them. 

Graham's purple team meeting starts with some country music to make the players feel present in the room before he shows a clip of two of his children practising Muay Thai to underline what is decisive and what is hesitant in a way that will connect with the players and draw a response. "That's us," he says as daughter Neve lunges without hesitation to land a kick on her brother.  

The team also emphasise the importance of celebrating each other on the field and communicating. When the group makes its way out, Longmuir shares a quick moment with former Bomber Pat Voss, checking if he got much sleep after officially winning a list spot and encouraging him to go out and play with freedom.

The match is high octane and temperatures boil over at different stages. There's altercations between Fyfe and Brayshaw, which is patched up quickly, as well as key forward Matt Taberner and half-back Clark, who wrestle behind the goals. When Darcy throws an elbow back at Bailey Banfield after taking a mark, it's clear the competitiveness of the week's build-up – and the entire pre-season – has flowed into gameday.

It's redemption for the purple team, which is led by a terrific performance from Brayshaw and standout goalkicking from Amiss (four) and Treacy (three). Longmuir calls the group in for a quick team meeting afterwards. 

"That's as competitive as I've seen an intraclub, lads," the coach says, encouraging them to channel their frustration and competitiveness into an opposition when they meet West Coast the following Saturday night. "I'm glad we're not bashing into each other anymore."  

The coach's tone shifts though, and he isn't happy after a series of 50m penalties were given away for umpire abuse. "We're not that sort of club, and it's f***ing selfish, lads," he says. 

After a quick analogy that ties back to one of the key themes driving the Dockers in 2024, the coach finishes by telling the team to enjoy each other's company at a Friday night get-together they've planned at the house shared by Fyfe and defender James Aish, while the coaches get to work coding the match. 

'Leave your ego at the door' 

Longmuir's office is located at the front of the football department, next to Brierty and opposite a larger space shared by his assistants. There's a gridiron ball and a baseball – gifts from the New Orleans Pelicans and Texas Rangers, respectively – on his shelves and an old Koorda Kangas footy jumper, where he grew up playing in WA's north-eastern Wheatbelt region. 

The whiteboard is a mix of lines on an oval depicting ball movement, neatly written strategy notes and a philosophical quote. His phone buzzes constantly with players who are keen to chat ahead of their weekend off. 

He's happy with the way his players approached the week and the competitive edge Friday's match gave them. 

"It's a tough one to manage as a coach because you're trying to work on things for round one, but also make sure the players are really focused and competitive in the moment. It felt like we had a good balance with that," he says. 

"I wanted to see them (purple) bounce back. If we can keep getting guys to lift the bar, it pushes others along with them and their midfield lifted their physicality and asked the question of the white team."

Justin Longmuir addresses Fremantle players ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: Fremantle FC

It's been a week where Longmuir has been able to hand a lot of responsibility to his assistants, and it's a group he's grateful for, given their ability to collaborate well and "leave their egos at the door". As round one draws closer, however, it'll soon be time for the coach to take the reins more strongly. 

"I think he is about to come into his own," Pearce says following the Friday match. "We've had different head coaches for the two teams, but we're about to get the best team together and that is his domain. 

"When he speaks everybody listens and is switched on. But he has empowered a lot of other people."

Asked when Longmuir is in his element, Serong adds: "Football gameplan, the ability to see the game and different tactics. That's where he gets his energy and what he loves. He sees the game so well, so he captures the room when he's talking about that."

'On top of the world' 

It's been a big week for Cooper Simpson. His parents have visited from Victoria and surprised him by sending over his car, and he's shown more glimpses of his talent in Friday's intraclub as Longmuir starts to think more and more about the type of asset he could be as an inside 50 kick. 

Tuesday's Taylor Swift show in the auditorium, however, could well have been the highlight as his teammates plot how to tee up some more performances and Brayshaw reflects on why it was made possible.

"We talk about culture and connection and belonging, when I first got to the club I wouldn't have felt confident enough with my teammates to get up and do what 'Coop' did," the vice-captain says. "So to see him get up in front of the group and sing a Taylor Swift song shows how comfortable we've made him feel within the group and hopefully that extends to all the first-year guys."

Simpson has been messaging Beard back and forth about the experience and the impact it has had on him, and he grins when he thinks back to his teammates turning the room into "a bit of a rave party" by the end of the song. 

"To get out of your comfort zone in front of all the players and coaches and staff, it really helps drive and speed up that connection, which I'm super grateful for," Simpson told AFL.com.au at the end of a big week. 

"It wasn't something I would probably put my hand up to do, but I got the opportunity and I'm better off for it. I feel more connected, calmer, and like I fit in more.

"I was jittery and my legs were bouncing up and down. But as it finished I felt on top of the world. It was an awesome feeling."