AT THE end of last season, Mitch Lewis set himself to get stronger. After five years at Hawthorn, the young key forward had noticed the difference coming up against bigger and more experienced key defenders. He wanted to make sure that, heading into his sixth season, he was the one outmuscling opponents.
He met with the Hawks' fitness staff, who decided to take one of his running sessions out prior to their Christmas break and add in some extra weights programs instead. And he spoke with the Hawks' dietician, setting up an increased food intake that had the desired effect – and then some.
"I was eating pretty much until I was sick. I ended up getting to about 108 kilos which was way too heavy. I actually had a time-on-legs session around the time when I was around 108 kilos and I had to stop and start walking as I was way too heavy," he told AFL.com.au.
"It all happened really quickly. I went from finishing the season at about 96 kilograms and then I was around 108 kilos probably two months later. It was all good foods, I was just having six meals a day. I was really committed to putting on weight and I was able to do that but I probably took it to the extreme and I was able to come back down.
"I'm at about 100 kilos now which feels like a good weight for me. I'm still able to cover the ground well and I feel I'm holding my own more in the one-on-one contests with the big key defenders."
The difference has been noticeable in Lewis' performances, with the 23-year-old enjoying a hot start to the season with 15 goals in the first five rounds before a minor hamstring injury ruled him out of clashes with Sydney, Melbourne and Essendon in the past three weeks. He has been selected to take on the Tigers on Saturday, with the Hawks having lost every game in his absence.
"I've still got a long way to go in terms of the strength that I want to get to and size as well to really have a strong performance as a key forward," Lewis said. "But it's definitely a step in the right direction to not get pushed out of contests as easily as I may have been."
Lewis' improvement can't be put solely down to some extra muscle and a good pre-season. Entering the AFL as pick No.76 at the 2016 NAB AFL Draft – the second-last selection of the night – Lewis admits he walked into Waverley Park with some way to go in the self-confidence stakes.
Slowly that has built and developed and new coach Sam Mitchell pinpointed Lewis as a big improver over summer. It was Mitchell's belief in Lewis, as well as a shift in game style and ball movement, that has also been a significant driver in his displays so far in 2022.
"[Mitchell] instilled a lot of belief in me as he does with every player. He just tells us to use our weapons and it's that confidence that has really helped me stick to my strengths rather than focus on some of my weaknesses perhaps," Lewis said. "A lot of the aerial marking and contested marking stuff I've tried to hone in on and make it my one wood."
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Lewis might have been at this point a little earlier in his career if not for last year's dramas, which saw him accidentally concussed by teammate Jacob Koschitzke during a boxing session at the club. After a solid start to his 2021 season, Lewis missed seven weeks after the boxing incident before round 12, not returning until round 18 after battling ongoing concussion symptoms.
He kicked 10 goals in the Hawks' final six games, but was frustrated by his time on the sidelines.
"That incident is something I couldn't help and it wasn't on the football field so it was hard to [reason] with as I couldn't fathom why I was out of the game because it was not a training or game incident, so that was frustrating," he said.
"I was trying to cement my spot in the side and felt like I was building toward a decent year and for that to happen in a way that was outside of my control was quite unfortunate. The symptoms dragged on as I tried to increase my heart rate.
"I was fine with all sorts of things like looking at screens and focusing on meetings and stuff but as soon as I raised my heart rate on the track that's when it would induce the symptoms and that carried on for about three weeks or so which was the most frustrating part. As soon as that subsided I was able to focus on getting back to playing."
The incident was investigated by WorkSafe and the League, with the AFL then banning 'combat boxing' sessions and sparring between players. Boxing training remains permitted but only under stricter recommendations. Lewis said he had tried to put the incident behind him.
"It was such a freak accident, we did sessions like that a lot of the time during pre-season. It was just a one-off in-season session to give the boys a bit of a wake-up call after a poor performance against Gold Coast the week before," he said.
"I think that clubs should be able to tailor their own programs as they see fit but it has to be safe for the players. So if the AFL's rule change makes it safer for players then I'm probably for that."
Koschitzke and Lewis combined in round five in the Hawks' win over the Cats, with Lewis suffering his minor hamstring strain at the start of the last quarter to his left leg (not from his final goal).
The pair are among a fleet of young Hawks who have shone in the start of life under Sam Mitchell at the club, including Dylan Moore, Jai Newcombe, Connor MacDonald and Josh Ward, with Lewis' attitude symbolic of the Hawks' shift.
"This year that role has turned into more of a performance role so I'm not just playing my role for the team but I'm actually going beyond that," Lewis said. "I want the ball in my hands which is a good change in mindset."