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Academy: Better players, better people ... and a dab of deodorant

The U15 QBE Sydney Swans Academy stars compete for the footy.

What life lessons have a group of 15-year-old boys learned from being in the QBE Sydney Swans Academy for the past five years?

When the 102 members of the current U15 squad came together to play their final Academy Cup matches at the training ground opposite the SCG earlier this month, it was a pivotal moment in their football journey.

Most of the boys have been in the Academy since they were 10 or 11. But next month, more than 60 of them will be informed they won’t progress to the elite U16 squad.

So as the full squad trained together for the last time in early September, it was a moment to reflect - even if they’re still only 14 or 15.

For Lachlan Howarth, being in the Academy helped him through an intensely difficult time.

Two years ago when he was playing for the Academy in the annual U13 series against the Giants academy in Albury, he learned his 18-year-old brother, who had cerebral palsy, had passed away.

“All the coaches got around me and my friends got around me, and ever since then I decided this is what I’m doing for my brother,’’ Lachlan said.

“Being in the Academy has definitely made me a better player and an even better person. The coaches have helped me with life lessons, I’ve made a lot of friends and it’s made me more determined.’’

Lachlan, who plays club football for Mosman-Willoughby, says no matter what happens in the future, the Academy has had a big impact.

“I definitely want to go further. Even if I can’t continue on in the Academy I want to keep playing and improving.’’

But not all the lessons have been serious stuff.

Academy General Manager Chris Smith is fond of imparting light-hearted pearls of wisdom to the boys, and every one has his favourite.

For Lachlan it was this: “My favourite was definitely when Chris brought along the deodorant cans to training for us. He said we stink, and girls don’t like it when boys stink, so we needed deodorant, and I’ve definitely taken that advice!’’

Jeremy Woodford has spent the past four years travelling to and from Wollongong to be part of the Academy.

“I started when I was 12 and it’s been a brilliant experience,’’ Jeremy said. “I came across from soccer and I just love this game, I love being with the boys, having fun on the paddock.’’

A talented midfielder, Jeremy received a Rising Star award in the U14s last year, a highlight of his time in the Academy.

“I’ve improved a lot being in the Academy. I’ve got more physical, I attack the footy a bit more, I kick the footy a lot better than what I used to.’’ 

He has also tuned in to Smith’s advice.

“Just Chris pushing us, that is my favourite part, making us strive. You just want to push yourself to the best level you possibly can,’’ Jeremy said.

Lincoln Powley from Cronulla joined the Academy at the age of 12 after he was scouted through the Kieren Jack Talent Search program.

“My understanding of the game has improved and so have my people skills,’’ Lincoln said.

“I feel like I’ve become a lot more mature from talking to adults and from meeting new kids.

“My favourite lesson from Chris is to make your bed in the morning, help around the house. It’s not that hard, you just have to get it done.’’

Saxon Sullivan from the East Sydney Bulldogs has also taken up the chores challenge and reckons he did the washing at home last week.

But his favourite part of the Academy has been making new friends and improving his leadership skills.

“It is about footy, but also about leadership and commitment,’’ Saxon said.

“I try to talk more on the field. Chris is big on that." 

For the past five years, Damien Haynes and his parents have regularly made the five-hour-round trip to Academy training from their home in the Hunter region north of Sydney.

He admits it has been a challenge at times, but a worthwhile one. 

“At the start of this year my parents were thinking about taking me out of the Academy because my grades dropped a little bit, but I promised to get them back up and they’re getting there,’’ Damian said. 

“The Academy is very important to me. I said to my parents, ‘Please let me stay in, this is what I want to do’, and they’ve let me keep going and supported me through it to see how far I can go.’’

Damian has reaped the benefits from training at a high standard with his Academy teammates.

“Playing with better players has made me a better player as well. My skills have improved a lot, but so has my respect for umpires and other players. That comes from our Academy coaches.

“I’ve learnt commitment, to put your heart into it, never give up and see where it takes you. That is the big lesson for me,’’ Damian said, who, like most of the Academy boys, aspires to eventually play in the AFL, preferably for the Swans.

Byron Middleton, who plays for the Moore Park Tigers, has strong memories of the day he trialled for the Academy as a 10-year-old.

“There were about 500 kids, and there were older boys taking each of the groups and you looked up to them and wanted to impress them. I remember thinking I’d like that to be me one day, and then to be here now is pretty cool,’’ Byron said. 

“I started in the U11s and hopefully I can go on next year to the U16s, but it has been awesome. It has paved my football development.

“Chris (Smith) is constantly nagging on about how we need to do the little things, to not just improve our skills and our fitness but to encourage other boys, learn to talk, and also to help your parents at home doing the chores. It has taught me to become a better person all round." 

So what chores has Byron done recently? “Um, I haven’t done too much, probably a bit of washing the dishes and stuff like that.’’

Under the Academy’s inclusive system, all 100 boys who are selected at the initial U11 level remain in the squad until the end of their U15 year. From that point on the Academy becomes more focused.

Only the most talented 40-45 boys from the current U15 squad will progress to a Benchmark testing program this November, and about 35 will then be picked for the 2019 U16 squad.

Smith says it’s difficult to make those cuts, but the aim is that every boy benefits from his time in the Academy whether he makes it to the next stage or not.

So let’s leave the last word to Byron.

“Chris said when you come to the Academy it’s not about being a big head, it’s about being a team player; not just hogging the ball but sharing it with teammates,’’ Byron said.

“That has been one of the biggest things I’ve taken out of my time in the Academy. It has taught me a lot about life and footy.’’