Travis Colyer was a 22-year-old who had played 34 games in four years when he signed a new contract with Essendon late in 2013. He wanted to get back into the team and stay there, but was still wondering how to do that when the 2014 season started. "It's just a little bit of hard work, getting in the right mental frame to be playing each week," said Colyer of the conversations had with his coaches since then. "Not worrying about one little mistake here and there, just having a crack and playing footy."
But back to the hard work. Colyer is just four games into his fifth season, but his last three games have been the his best three in a row ever. Since being added to the round-12 team he has played a part in more than 30 per cent of Essendon's scores, kicked three goals and averaged 6.5 marks, more than double his career average. Busy, energetic and as helter skelter as ever, he has averaged 431 metres gain from just over 17 possessions a match, but more notable than that has been his improvement at the game's most fundamental skill: kicking.
Colyer is far from the most improved kick in the competition, ranking 52nd on Champion Data's list of the 344 players who have kicked the ball more than 50 times this season and last. Jack Macrae's efficiency is up 19.3 per cent on his debut season with the Western Bulldogs, and Adelaide defender Matthew Jaensch's 82.8 per cent efficiency is the best in the competition and up 18.7 per cent. Two of Colyer's teammates are next on the list, with Jobe Watson's 72.9 per cent reliability up 15 per cent on 2013 and Michael Hurley up to 75.5 per cent, another 15 per cent rise.
Colyer has improved by more than 6 per cent, from 59.6 per cent to 66 per cent, and for a player still trying to make sure he gets a game each week, it has been a significant increase, if not one that has come about through hours of basic practice. Colyer has done that, said assistant coach Nathan Bassett, and worked hard at being better when the ball is up for grabs. But he has also learnt how to place himself under less pressure, to use his pace not only to scoot away with the ball but get in better positions to receive it.
Being able to kick the ball in more space, Bassett said, has given Colyer a better chance of getting it where he wants it to go. "He's a pretty good kick after he takes a mark, and we've done a lot of work on where he leads to, because with his pace he's able to get out into space pretty quickly," he said.
"At slow speeds he's a good, solid kick, so we've just given him some ideas about how to win more uncontested footy, and one is to take more uncontested marks. He's averaged seven or eight in his three games back, more than anyone else, and it's meant he’s found another way to get the ball."
There has been other advice. When you move as quickly as Colyer does it can be hard to kick with steadiness and Bassett has seen him start to settle and slow down in his last few steps, so that he is more balanced when his foot meets the ball. "It's not that easy to kick when you're running at 32 kilometres an hour," he said, "so it's helped him, to slow down that bit before he kicks."
Bassett also think he's working with a more assured, less anxious player, and that the two months Colyer spent in the VFL before turning his first game this season into more meant he has come back into the team feeling like he deserves to be there and like he's in good enough form to stick around.
"Sometimes, for all the technical aspects of footy, it comes down to how they're feeling about themselves, and he had to play four, five or six really good games at VFL level to break into the side. As frustrating as they might have been, I think it's given him some confidence," Bassett said.
"He's still a work in progress and there are things we're still working on, but he's come back wanting to play well and ready to play well. He has some belief, and he's been really important for us."