WHEN talking about the importance of Adelaide's finish to 2020 and the belief it gave his players, coach Matthew Nicks doesn't jump to any of the Crows' three late wins to illustrate the point.
Coaches often take more out of a loss than a win, he says, and he starts the discussion with the 57-point loss to the Western Bulldogs in round 12 – the team's 12th straight loss for the season and 15th on the trot as a club.
It was a game in which the Crows were "nowhere near" the Bulldogs, losing the contested ball (-40) and tackle count (-13) – numbers Nicks highlighted post-match – and conceding nine consecutive goals at one point.
But it was a game full of lessons, and the loss that followed seven days later against Geelong continued a six-week period in which Nicks' team found its game style and built a launchpad for 2021.
"We came off quite a disappointing game against the Western Bulldogs where we took a lot of learnings and we came up against Geelong of all teams, and that Geelong performance really set up those wins," Nicks told AFL.com.au ahead of his second season.
"We were able to find our game plan and we were able to put out there on the weekend what we had been practising all week in the lead-up.
"We didn't win that game, but we were able to push a really high-quality side right to the end and I think that set us up for the Hawks and it set us up for a number of those wins.
"The Geelong game just instilled that we had the game plan if we believe, (and) if you can have the players believing that what you're doing is right, it goes a long way in the ultimate outcome.
"We've done a hell of a lot of work on what we did well in that game."
The Crows would go on to beat Hawthorn, Greater Western Sydney and Carlton in consecutive matches, before ending the season with a 44-point loss to eventual premier Richmond – another game full of lessons for the coach.
Winning was important, though; if not so much for Nicks, then for the players. It gave them belief in the game style, belief in Nicks' overall philosophy as a coach, and belief in the direction of the club.
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"Ultimately it was my players who I needed to have belief in where we were going," Nicks said.
"As a coach, I strongly believe the direction we're heading as a footy club is the right direction and I feel all the work we're putting in we'll get reward for that in time.
"We've got to be extremely patient when that comes, but there's no doubt, to get in amongst a football department – players and staff – after that first win, it was a great feeling just to see smiles on people's faces.
"And (it provided) a little bit of reassurance that the hard work is going to pay off."
The "buy-in" generated by the end to the season manifested quickly during the off-season when players turned COVID-19 travel restrictions into an opportunity to train as a big group.
Veteran forward Tom Lynch was a leader in getting the players organised and the Crows had up to 20 players training together at times, leading to many setting new benchmarks with strength, speed and endurance testing when they officially returned.
It's allowed Nicks and his new coaching team more time to work with the players in match simulation training and it should give the players confidence they are as fit as any opposition when the season starts.
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"We felt strongly that we could lift the level of training in that first, second and third week," Nicks said.
"We're now pumping out 80-odd minutes of match practice and we're not getting the same level of soreness that you normally would at this time of year.
"It has set us up well. We've had a really good training period … (and) I have no doubt that they'll come out of it believing that they can perform at a really high level.
"We're confident as a football department that we'll have a group that will be fit enough and able to match it with some of the best in the competition.
"Our job now as a coaching group is to make sure we're connected and we're playing a style of footy that we're all on the same page and our game plan comes through and we actually see the style we're looking for."
Nicks started coaching 12 months after he retired at the end of 2005, watching Sydney win a drought-breaking premiership while he was sidelined with a stress fracture in his leg.
He couldn't think of anything worse than football for a year, he said, but he was soon drawing Xs and Os on share trading sheets while working as a broker.
He started coaching the University of NSW team and got "back to the basics of footy" working with a raw group of players and honing the coaching philosophy he has brought to Adelaide.
"I've got a philosophy that there's no one more important than your teammate," he said.
"It's about prioritising others and we do a lot of work in that space on and off the field. On field … that's about having each other's back."
It's a philosophy that was evident in the way the Crows played late in 2020 and how Nicks hopes they will start 2021.
"Those final weeks of the season, there was no doubt a style (and) there was a way that we played our football that our members and supporters really enjoyed," he said.
"We felt like when we did have the game on our terms last year it was quite an aggressive style. We were moving forward and we were happy to take the game on.
"When you're not quite in that space it can look extremely different to that, and unfortunately for the first half of the year we were so far from that.
"When we got there, it's quite an enjoyable style to watch. It looks quite attacking, and we like to let our guys really play.
"That's what we're driving and that's what we'd like to get to."