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Sideline symbols to revolutionise AFL coaching on game-day

For instance, a coach may communicate that he wants to slow the tempo by using an agreed-upon symbol that conveys that message to the team mid-game. Exactly what those symbols will look like remains to be seen.

The LED boards will also be used to signal rotations to players that coaches want to come on and off the ground.

Clubs are impatient to receive the technology and put it to the test with little over a month remaining before the season opener on March 21.

The AFL was hopeful of having them available for the first JLT game but says it’s more likely they will be available in JLT2.

The introduction of the technology has come about as clubs look for ways to manage the limitations imposed on runners, who can now only enter the playing arena after a goal has been scored.


Clubs were concerned that the absence of runners might make it difficult for teams to adopt a co-ordinated approach without a message being conveyed, and were also worried about the disadvantage teams would be at if they did not have senior players on every line.

AFL operations boss Steve Hocking said the system was not a gimmick but rather a progression in the game that reflected the sophisticated approach clubs take in planning game styles and when they choose to execute them.

He said symbols were also in line with the way modern athletes learned and communicated messages in games.

“There are a number of icons that have been identified, roughly 30 or 40, that will be provided to the clubs, and then the clubs will obviously identify, once they have full use of them, what icons they are going to attribute to game play and changes in games,” Hocking said.

“What we’re aiming to do is make sure [the icons] are football related and over time the clubs will develop them to their liking.”

Although some clubs have referred to the symbols as “emojis”, Hocking said that term was a misleading description, as it might create the impression the boards were not serious tools that clubs will use to get their team to change the tempo of games, or allocate numbers to particular parts of the ground, or use specific zone defences when defending kick-outs.

Hocking said the system teams use will evolve over time, and while the introduction might take some getting used to, club football departments will eventually maximise their value.

“If people think that where it starts is where it is going to finish … this sport evolves rapidly,” Hocking said.

“It is important that fans understand that there is a level of sophistication that is going into this decision making and we are not being flippant about it.


“We are genuinely trying to innovate and move the game forward.

“It is a significant investment and it is an investment that the AFL is making. They are coming in from overseas and we had to do a fair bit of work to try to establish what was the best available in the market.”

The LED boards being bought by the AFL display a powerful image that Hocking described as being consistent in clarity as images used for surgery. They will have handles on either side that will enable a club official to hold them up for players to see.

In US college football, play-calling cards or boards are used on the sidelines to communicate particular plays to teams, although they are not used in the NFL.

There is often humour used to communicate the plays, but the intent is serious.

The AFL is attempting to limit the number of non-players on the arena and will restrict the number of officials allowed on the bench during a game.

Runners were introduced to the game in 1955 when trainers were allowed to pass on messages from coaches to players.

Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.

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