ADELAIDE coach Don Pyke is happy to admit he had been "spinning the wheels a little bit" by the time he took a hard-earned break in Africa at the end of last season.
Appointed as the Crows' new senior coach in October 2015, Pyke had been working for two straight seasons without a break by the time last year's NAB AFL Trade Period closed and a window for downtime finally opened.
It's a long stretch for a first-time AFL senior coach who arrived at the Crows six days after working as an assistant to senior coach Adam Simpson in West Coast's Grand Final loss to Hawthorn in 2015.
The 48-year-old wasn't just taking any senior role either. He was replacing the late Phil Walsh, who was tragically killed three months earlier.
Pyke's first year in charge – and the players' performance in reaching a semi-final for the second straight season – could be described as a great tribute to the Crows' former coach. But by the end it had taken its toll.
"Based on the fact I took the job basically the week after the Grand Final with West Coast, I must admit I was due a break and I'd been spinning the wheels a bit," Pyke told AFL.com.au.
"I continued to work through until the end of the trade period, and then from there I went away with my wife and a friend to Africa for a week and had a look at a game park and played some golf.
"I just tried to relax. That's the challenge, to take time off and relax when other decisions are being made in that October period before players come back.
"The year was pretty full on and it's important I stayed fresh, otherwise if I start getting fatigued (it affects) my messaging and my moods and ultimately the players can feel that."
Don Pyke guided the Crows to another semi-final in his first year. Picture: AFL Photos
Reading widely was part of Pyke's downtime, looking at topics he wanted to work on and searching for ideas. One particular book on storytelling made an impact.
"I looked at myself and thought about what areas I could continue to get better and grow in," he said.
"I like reading so I generally go away and read quite a lot in various areas, not always down the coaching line.
"I read one book on storytelling, which was around how you can get messaging out through stories. I just looked at topics that I want to be working on to give me some ideas."
Part of the coach's "continual education" was a trip to Sydney in last year's finals series with assistant James Podsiadly to watch the preliminary final between Greater Western Sydney and the Western Bulldogs.
It was a brutal match that would have underlined an issue already highlighted internally at Adelaide – their contested ball needed to improve.
It was a critical issue in the club's two most devastating defeats of the season – losing the contested ball count to West Coast (-24) in round 23 and Sydney in the semi-final (-20).
"We could clearly see – and it's been this way since I played the game – that winning the ball in a contested situation is pivotal to the result," Pyke said.
"I think it's when you get to those bigger games … there were times in those games where we lost more than our share and that placed us under some pressure.
"We went from top-four the year before to around seventh or eight in those areas last year. We just want to tweak that up."
The balancing act in the Crows' pre-season has been maintaining their strength in ball-movement and efficiency while rediscovering a hard edge at stoppages and in the contest.
Pyke is hopeful the coaches have got the balance right, and his players have been enthusiastic about improving the elements of their game that saw them fall short of a preliminary final.
Likely finalists again, the Crows enter 2017 with "a determination about them to recognise that last year was maybe a bit of an opportunity lost".