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To September... and beyond? The psychological shift turning the Hawks from cellar dwellers to contenders

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Expert
10th June, 2024
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This may not be as bold of a prediction now as it would have been six weeks ago, but on recent performances, I have Hawthorn playing finals this season.

It’s a remarkable thought, given that the Hawks lost six of their first seven games this season: so what’s changed – apart from them winning five of their last six to be sitting just four points out of the eight?

It’s not like the past six have all been ‘easy’ games, either – Brisbane, the Bulldogs, St Kilda, Adelaide and GWS are all top-eight contenders.

Statistically, very little has moved for Sam Mitchell’s men. From their Gather Round loss to Collingwood to now, three key effort stats have remained fairly stable: disposals have ranged between 270-358, disposal efficiency 69-78 per cent, and contested possession 117-150.

From a personnel perspective, no one player has put the Hawks on their back either: there have been just two Hawks since Round 4 who have surpassed the 30-disposal mark in a match.

Jai Newcome has the best disposals average of any Hawk in 2024 with 22.7 – that’s equal 58th in the AFL. Compare that to, says, Essendon, where Nic Martin and Zach Merrett both average more than 28 a game for the season to sit inside the top 12; or Gold Coast, who have two players – Sam Flanders and Noah Anderson – in the top ten.

Goal-wise there have been just four games out of 13 where individual players have kicked four goals or more in a game, with Dylan Moore doing it twice.

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There is no individual who is a standout and carrying the team more than others – it’s been growth as a team that has sparked the Hawks’ mighty.

At the same time, the most noteworthy attribute of their wins since being thrashed by Sydney in Round 7 has been the margins of their triumphs – they haven’t been blowing teams off the park.

Three of the Hawks’ six wins have been by seven points or less, with the only thumping a 45-point victory over North Melbourne (plus, of course, the match they should have won against Port Adelaide but threw away in the dying seconds).

This suggests that the key improvement made at Waverley is more around the mental and attitude side than anything major tactically – and this psychological strength is going to win more games than any tactical change or individual form.

Since the heartbreaking loss to the Power, the penny has dropped, with the Hawks competitive for long enough to win matches. They just scrap and lift at the right time to get themselves across the line.

It is by fine margins, but often these fighting performances teach you more about a team than the big blowout wins.

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After a 53-point hammering at the hands of the Suns, Sam Mitchell was filthy with his playing group and the effort shown, giving them a public spray in his post-game press conference.

The coach also came under fire for giving a quarter-time spray to Jack Scrimshaw against Sydney: derided by many as not a good look, people seemed to forget that as coach, it is his responsibility to set the standards for his team.

It’s also his job to teach and mentally prepare his players. On 3AW after the Crows’ win, Dylan Moore revealed that the team had a ‘mature meeting’ after they collapsed against the Power, to ensure that lessons were learned moving forward, while acknowledging the mistake of trying to play defensive for a whole quarter.

Mitchell wasn’t the only one giving the team a dressing-down in the public eye: James Sicily did several media interviews revealing harsh home truths. If that was the public messaging, imagine what was being said behind closed doors to lift and maintain standards.

The Hawks have shown the attributes of a team where it is clear and certain that the players want to improve. Many looked at the list and said they are building for the next 3-5 years, but on the performance of the last few weeks, they are well ahead of schedule.

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2024’s crop of Hawks are every coach’s dream: responding to feedback and growing. You can tell every achievement means something special, and every setback hurts. It’s all you can ask from your players, win, lose or draw.

There was a moment against the Bulldogs where young Nick Watson took a handball off James Sicily and ran into an open goal, only to provide a miss-of-the-season contender from point-blank range.

The skipper was fuming jumping around on-field and giving the 19-year-old a few stern words. He later apologised in a TV interview, but it doesn’t erase the passion at his core, which is also being shown by the rest of the players.

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If the rest of the league isn’t careful, Hawthorn have the heart and desire to not just make it to September, but to go even further.

Yes, footy is about physical skill – you can’t win without it – but what separates the contenders from the pretenders is that psychological X-factor sprinkled on top.

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Teams are not going to get far without confidence and the right mental attitude, and at the moment the Hawks are brimming with enthusiasm that even opposition fans are envious of, deep down.

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