Zak Butters, Errol Gulden and Nick Daicos are among the AFL's 'contortionists'. Pictures: AFL Photos. Design: Lucas Scott, AFL Digital

ERROL Gulden gets so many kicks that this one probably went under the radar. Early in the second quarter of Sydney's win over Collingwood in round one, the Swans star received a handball just outside the 50-metre arc at the MCG.

Gulden feigned left, took some quick steps backwards, bought a second of time, engaged and then baulked Scott Pendlebury before he spotted something in the corner of his eye. Almost directly to his right, teammate James Rowbottom was at the top of the 50 in front of goal in space.

His body already twisted and slightly off balance, Gulden screwed the ball around on his left foot between Pendlebury and Will Hoskin-Elliott, who was attempting a smother as the ball also got through three more Magpies to find Rowbottom, who slammed home the goal.


The Gulden boot produced a piece of magic, quickly calculated by one of football's 'contortionists', the players who manoeuvre, manipulate and move the ball in their hands in all sorts of positions and connect with their feet to hit some of the most spectacular kicks in the game. 

Collingwood's Nick Daicos, Port Adelaide's Zak Butters, Geelong's Gryan Miers and Bomber Zach Merrett are other members of the contortionists club – a crew of fast-thinking, special-skilled, laser-eyed kick composers who can distort the usual kicking process to deliver an unexpected, and game-opening, pass.  

"It's a real attribute to have. It just gives them options," said Damian Farrow, the AFL's innovation manager who has worked with clubs in skill acquisition and as a biomechanist. "They can hit angles or directions that someone who kicks more straight-line or transitionally might not be able to do as accurately. They give a tactical advantage.

"I look at Butters, Miers, Gulden and Daicos because they're such elite movers, they're a smaller size and quick, they get themselves into space easier than some other players and then you couple that with their ability to manipulate the ball like they do.

"They get time and space and though it doesn't look like much, it's enough for them and away they go."

Gulden, who was a talented soccer player in his youth, had essentially set up the 'cross' to Rowbottom. His kicking art on his preferred left foot comes from thousands of hours trying different kicks, with a round-ball element of shape, curl and precision. Even now, the gun midfielder estimates he has more than 200 kicks a week at training.

"The biggest thing is having volume of kicks and practising. But one size doesn't fit all with kicking – the best kicks in the competition have their own method or ball drop or the way they hold the footy. It's about finding something comfortable for you and working on it over and over and backing yourself in," he told earlier this year.

Errol Gulden in action during the R1 match between Sydney and Collingwood at the MCG on March 15, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

The flight of the ball, Farrow said, is also an important factor in the making of the contortionists.  

"Gulden is a good example who will kick that low, hard, penetrating 45-metre kick that gets to a teammate quicker than the zoning player can cover the space. That's the advantage of it," he said. 

The extra time in possession gives the artful kicks an important buffer to create their grand design with the ball. Daicos' decision-making is central to his ball use.

"I don't make my mind up with what I'm going to do with the ball until the last second a lot of the time. That's a strength of mine and something I think good players can do – they can adapt to what the defence presents," Daicos told in April. 

Nick Daicos in action during the R1 match between Collingwood and Sydney at the MCG on March 15, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"I watch Errol Gulden, Zak Butters and the like and the way they're able to contort the footy and kick across their body late and really open the game up and those aspects to kicking and decision-making really break a game apart."

Daicos' elite kicking has been central to his immediate ascent to the game's best. 

In last year's Grand Final, his stop-and-prop kick and pass on the outside of his boot that set up Jack Crisp's goal was classy, while his delicate, deft lobbed pass to Hoskin-Elliott in the final minute was kicked to space so his teammate could run onto the mark and start a slow play. 

Even last week against the Western Bulldogs, Daicos was the game's executive director through his ball use, while his winning goal against Carlton in round eight saw him running towards the boundary line but quickly turn the ball in his hands so it would strike his right foot and swing through. 


Years of kicking rolled-up balls of newspaper around corners in his house as a kid, working out the dip and drop and touch, has come through for Daicos at the top level.

Farrow said coaches would give their contortionists as close to free rein as possible to make the play, and that the team structure would help inform their moves.

"When they're coming out of stoppage they probably already have a picture of what is likely. It all moves but based on team system, they'll know there is a defensive winger sitting out wide who is an option or similar and then they might know they'll have their tall, long-down-the-line option," he said. 

"I reckon they already go in knowing, and then it's about buying enough time through their speed and agility to see which one bobs up that they think they can bite off, then they manipulate and go.

"They'll try a different grip with their hands but hitting the ball with the boot as well as the drop is a 'tightly coupled' skill. It needs both things to work. They're magnificently good at controlling that interception, which is what it is. It's an interception between ball and boot and they're really good at controlling that through these experiences."

Butters' bravery with the ball nearly matches his physical courage, with the Port Adelaide superstar adept at kicking all sorts of ways: snaps, off the instep, on a slight checkside, a floated pass, an arrow. Butters is eye-catching in his variety – he uses all parts of his feet (the inside, outside, midfoot, different toes) to impact how and where he wants the ball to go. 

He reads the cues quickly and reacts even faster. Some players around the competition have also been taught to take in the 'auditory information' they get from kicking, how the sound of the kick is different depending on which part of the foot it strikes. 

Zak Butters runs clear of Jarman Impey during the R10 match between Yartapuulti (Port Adelaide) and Hawthorn at Adelaide Oval on May 19, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Merrett can do the same. Against Richmond in the Dreamtime at the 'G game, Merrett did a 'lookaway' kick when he spotted a free Kyle Langford to his left, almost at his nine o'clock. Knowing he would get tackled if he turned to straighten his kick, Merrett instead loosened his left-hand grip so the ball fell further onto the side and found Langford using an off-beat angle. 

Farrow likens this group of kickers to golfers: they have all sorts of different shots for different circumstances and conditions.   

"Whenever they have to fashion a shot, they're in the light rough and they're blocked out or at the Masters they have to hit it through that tree and bend it and try to run it up to the green. You see that adaptability," he said. 

Zach Merrett snaps for goal during the R4 match between Essendon and Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval on April 5, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"They change their grip. They might choke it down, they might change their stance and go forward, they'll shape their swing pattern as well or flight. It's not one thing in isolation, which is my point about ball drop and actual kicking. They keep it tightly coupled. But they know if they do A and B, they'll get the outcome.

"The other thing with golf is they all have different ways of hitting the ball. There's no textbook approach to hitting a golf ball anymore – that's finally commonly accepted, which is what we see with these guys. They’ve all got beautiful looking kicks. Miers is the one where you think that can't work, but it works."

Miers' style is homegrown: as a kid, he would go to the park and imitate AFL players, specifically left-footers Lance Franklin and Matt Suckling and their around-the-body motion.  

"I'd kick around corners and it'd make me be able to kick all different directions quite accurately. I'd actually kick it on my left foot to be like them, so maybe I've just converted it to the right foot. There was no right-footers who did my style at the time," Miers told last year.

Gryan Miers in action during the R9 match between Geelong and Port Adelaide at GMHBA Stadium on May 10, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"I wasn't fast, I was just little, but I had OK agility. So I used to run out sidewards from packs or stoppages rather than running straight lines. When you run out sidewards you just twist the ball around your body to kick so those factors played into it and it became what it was."

The group of contortionists will doubtless grow. Demon Jake Bowey and Western Bulldog Caleb Daniel have their tricks, and Adelaide's Izak Rankine has even more. Richmond champion Dustin Martin has been a long-time contortionist, while his teammate Tom Brown looks one of the future.

"We've got these guys who have clearly played and learnt how to control the ball in a whole range of different ways. To me that's where the skill acquisition part is. They're going, 'What happens if I put the ball on a slightly 45-degree angle and then drop it and hit it with my instep?'," Farrow said. "They've earned credit with their coaches to take the difficult, risky options."