Monday , August 3 2020
Home / AFL / Inside the camp that brought down the Adelaide Crows

Inside the camp that brought down the Adelaide Crows

Prop guns, combat knives and players tied to trees as teammates hurled personal abuse at them. This is what Adelaide Crows players remember of a pre-season camp that shattered the trust between a football department and its players, and brought about the capitulation of an AFL club.

The players were blindfolded and taken on a bus to a mystery location. They weren’t allowed to shower; nor were they allowed to talk unless given permission.

Brett Burton, then head of football and one of the main drivers of the camp, infamously said it was a program run “all across the country for school children”.

Eddie Betts, left, pictured during the Crows' 2017 grand final loss, found elements of the club's camp offensive.

Eddie Betts, left, pictured during the Crows’ 2017 grand final loss, found elements of the club’s camp offensive. Credit:Eddie Jim

In the months afterwards, Burton said he and members of the football department would “sit back and laugh” when they read some of the media reports about the camp.

He, coach Don Pyke and senior assistant Scott Camporeale have all left the club.

At a press conference held six months after the camp, Burton also stated: “There are no lingering issues out of the camp. That is categoric.”

Interviews with six Adelaide Crows players who attended the camp suggest there are lingering issues, and that many of them are still deeply troubled by what happened. But exactly what took place has been shrouded in secrecy until now. The Sunday Age has obtained detailed and distressing accounts of events and exercises players were put through, and learned of a report written by club doctor Mark Cesana, in which he expressed grave concerns about what took place.

The club confirmed the report exists and that it was seen by Burton. It was uncovered during a subsequent investigation by the AFL’s integrity unit, which stated the planning of the camp lacked “due diligence”.

Neither Adelaide nor the AFL are willing to discuss the contents of Dr Cesana’s report.

‘We fly as one’

In 2017, the Crows were flying. They were one win away from a premiership — beaten on grand final day by a rampant Richmond side that ended a 37-year drought, crushing the Crows by 48 points at the MCG. Afterwards, Adelaide’s football department questioned their players’ mental strength. They were told in no uncertain terms they must improve.

Since the camp, eight players of the best 22 from 2017 have left, Pyke and Burton have departed, and an external review of the football department and its leadership, led by former Hawthorn great Jason Dunstall, led to key personnel changes. Dunstall has said he found “an environment that desperately required change”. Football director Mark Ricciuto, a Crows great, recently launched a remarkable justification for the player exodus, claiming those who left did so mainly for money or were pushed out. Ricciuto’s comments sliced open old wounds, with high-profile manager Colin Young citing two reasons for client Mitch McGovern’s departure: “The reasons Mitch left the Crows was because of the camp and the Adelaide football department and that’s it.”

From the top of the ladder at the end of 2017 to the bottom after four rounds of 2020, players say issues from the camp eroded trust and destroyed the once-sound foundations on which the Crows were built.

‘We were absolutely petrified’

When players gathered in the basement car park of a Broadbeach hotel in late January 2018, many were apprehensive.

They knew they were going away for four days, but were given little information.

Some players agreed with Pyke and Burton that the group that lost the grand final needed to build resilience. Some would have given anything to erase the humiliation and guilt. Others felt it was an overreaction.

“We were absolutely petrified,” one player said of the mood at Broadbeach.

Collective Mind, a Queensland-based consultancy group hired by sporting teams and businesses to build a mentally resilient culture, had worked with the Crows throughout 2017, and although many players have described their methods as “unorthodox” and “strange”, they had proven successful, in part.

Before Christmas in 2017, the team had gathered for a punishing running session at their training ground in Adelaide. They completed a succession of 100-metre sprints under the supervision of Amon Woulfe — the head of Collective Mind. As they ran, the Richmond theme song was blaring through speakers placed in the middle of the oval.

It was playing on repeat.

The talking stick

As they climbed onto the bus in Broadbeach, players were unnerved to be greeted by men in army fatigues and carrying what looked like automatic weapons but were in fact fakes. The windows were blacked out and the players’ unease grew as they were each blindfolded for the duration of the journey, with no idea where they were being taken.

Before getting on the bus, the Crows players were split into three groups: seniors, young players and those in-between. The coaches were spread across the three groups. Group one was comprised of then captain Taylor Walker, Rory Sloane, Eddie Betts, Tom Lynch, Josh Jenkins, Matt Crouch, Daniel Talia, Kyle Hartigan, Richard Douglas and the new recruit, Bryce Gibbs. The group was rounded out by senior coach Pyke and his senior assistant, Camporeale.

Then there was Woulfe, the architect of the camp. A self-proclaimed “coach, facilitator and trainer”, Woulfe founded Collective Mind after studying business at the University of Queensland. Woulfe does not currently appear on the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency register as a registered psychologist. Woulfe was No. 13 in group one.

Group three consisted of first to third-year players and has been described by players as a “fitness boot camp”.

Group two included the likes of first-team players McGovern, Curtly Hampton, Brodie Smith and Paul Seedsman. Their experience has been described as “weird” but not nearly as intense as what the members of group one endured.

Groups two and three travelled to the camp together on a separate bus, a day later. They weren’t blindfolded, but were ordered to keep their heads down for the entirety of the journey, as heavy metal blared through the speakers.

After what felt like an hour, group one arrived in the woods. The “facilitators” – of which there were at least 25 helping Woulfe and business partner Derek Leddie – refused to reveal their location. Some players thought they were still on the Gold Coast, while others swore they saw the clock change on their phones to NSW time as their blindfolds were removed. That would be the last time the majority of them would see their phones for four days: they were told to hand them in.

Things began to go wrong almost immediately.

There’s good reason why the military performs resilience enhancing exercises, it’s to protect life. But this is just sport.

Jeff Bond

One of the first exercises on the first afternoon was based on focus and staring. Players were told to pair up and concentrate on each other’s eyes, switching from one to the other.

Suddenly Lynch, the Crows’ experienced half-forward, fainted. As teammates raced to his aid, he was told by one of the camp leaders to “get up” and return to the exercise. But Lynch’s condition deteriorated and soon he was lying on his bed vomiting. A facilitator claimed it was simply dizziness and that he should return to his group. Several teammates interjected and demanded that Lynch be given medical attention, and a doctor was called. Adelaide say Lynch had a bout of gastro, which was not related to the activity.

Enter Cesana, the Crows’ long-time, highly respected club doctor.

Cesana, along with club welfare boss Emma Barr, was not allowed to attend the camp.

He was given no details of what they were doing nor where they were going. Cesana responded to the call about Lynch by driving to the mystery location and taking Lynch back to Broadbeach, where he provided him with medical attention.

Back at the camp, the first night entailed a sharing session which involved an Indigenous artefact that was used as a talking stick. Players were asked to divulge their fears and weaknesses. The talking stick was later raised by Betts and young Indigenous player Curtly Hampton, who told senior club officials that they were offended by it.

Hampton played only three more games for Adelaide. He retired in July 2018 with a year left on his contract. Hampton declined to discuss the camp this week, but at the time said: “I’ve lost the passion, motivation and enjoyment for the game that you need to perform at the highest level.”

Betts, one of the most-loved figures in the game for his exhilarating goalkicking, told The Age earlier this year that the camp had sapped his enjoyment.

Months after the camp, several of Adelaide’s Indigenous players addressed the group.

In a group including Betts, Cam Ellis-Yolmen, Wayne Milera and Hampton, the players expressed their disappointment with several culturally offensive elements of the camp and their discomfort working with Collective Mind.

Milera is the only one of that group still at the club.

The club offered to remove the Indigenous players from the program, a remark that didn’t go down well. Several senior players rebuked the offer.

Wolfgang in the woods

It was still dark, somewhere between five and six o’clock in the morning on day two, when players in their tepees were woken by the constant rhythm of a drum. One of the facilitators, still dressed in army camouflage, was walking around the campsite beating a drum.

After getting up, the 10 players and two coaches were taken deeper into the woods where, after stretching and a warm-up, they were introduced to Wolfgang.

Dressed in blue overalls with no T-shirt underneath, and tattoos stemming from his neck, Wolfgang was in charge of the “harness” activity.

He explained and demonstrated that a player would harness himself to a contraption that was tied to a tree. In order to get out of the harness, the player would have to crawl on his hands and knees towards a combat knife that Wolfgang had set on the ground, about 10 metres away.

Each player could choose two teammates in the group to sit on chairs and offer moral support. Nine other teammates were instructed to pull the other way.

As the nine others pulled the player away from the knife, facilitators encouraged them to hurl abuse at him. At first, it was relatively harmless; “Come on, mate. You’re weak, you’ll give up!”

But as the struggle increased, the insults became more personal.

Using people’s personal trauma to drive them is so illogical and dangerous it’s not funny.

Jeff Bond

Episodes of childhood trauma, relationships with partners and incidents of domestic abuse were among the subjects referenced as players tried to crawl across the mud.

In some cases, the information was so sensitive that players hadn’t even shared it with their partners.

Players are certain sensitive information confided to club staff had been handed on to Woulfe and Leddie before the camp.

“There’s no doubt that private and personal information was used without our consent,” a player told The Sunday Age.

The club strongly denies this allegation.

‘Our bond with the club, with each other, was torn apart’

It’s not unusual for AFL clubs and other sporting teams to hold pre-season camps, which are often designed to build physical and emotional resilience through commando-style drills, and strengthen the bonds within a team. Some players thrive in such environments, while others resent being dragged away from young families, and come away injured and exhausted.

Jeff Bond, former chief psychologist at the Australian Institute of Sport, believes sporting organisations continue to be fooled by consultants who promise to deliver a mental edge.

“Using people’s personal trauma to drive them is so illogical and dangerous it’s not funny,” Bond told The Sunday Age.

Bond, who has previously worked for Melbourne and Richmond, is now a psychologist for the Brumbies in Super Rugby.

“They take some of these models out of the military for these camps,” he said.

“They are put through highly stressful circumstances to be mission-ready in case they get captured and tortured.

“There’s good reason why the military performs resilience-enhancing exercises, because it’s to protect life. But this is just sport.”

The harness activity was spread across the best part of two days. When a player was finally allowed to reach the knife, he could cut himself out.

The point of the exercise, according to Woulfe and Wolfgang, was for players to free themselves of their deepest fears.

When asked about the camp by The Sunday Age, Woulfe said: “We stand by our work with the Adelaide Football Club at that time, but are no longer involved with the club and don’t have anything further to add.”

When asked about the purpose of the blindfolds on the bus, the harness and the knife, Woulfe did not respond.

But our bond with the club, with each other, was torn apart at that camp.

A player

During periods of downtime, players were told not to speak to each other. They were also not allowed to access their phones. Some players had pregnant partners and were granted special permission for a few minutes a day.

The final day was deeply emotional for many players. When they met in the common area, many broke down and cried as they waited for the bus to go home.

“It’s not necessarily the specifics of the camp that I think about the most, it’s what it did to us. We were a team and a group of players in the peak of our powers that was ready to win a premiership. But our bond with the club, with each other, was torn apart at that camp,” a player told The Sunday Age.

Another player said the camp didn’t have an impact at the time, but his mind would often revisit it without warning.

“Sometimes, a few of the players would just be sitting around and one would say: ‘What the f— did we just do?’ It’s difficult to explain. I sort of felt brainwashed.”

The camp affected players in different ways. Rory Sloane, now captain, spoke glowingly about it in March 2018.

“I absolutely 100 per cent came back from that camp feeling like a better husband, a better son and a much better teammate than when I was before I left,” he said.

Gibbs, the new recruit, admitted it was “cultish” in some quarters but said he had been on “a lot worse camps” at Carlton.

The Sunday Age asked for comments from both club CEO Andrew Fagan and chairman Rob Chapman. Both declined to comment.

In response to a list of questions about the events of the camp, the club said in a statement: An AFL investigation found the club did not breach any industry rules. However, as we have previously stated, there were elements of the camp that clearly missed the mark and should have been done differently. There has since been considerable changes in personnel, both on and off the field, and the nature of our industry means we must now focus on the current season and beyond.”

Pyke declined to comment. Burton said he had “no interest” talking about the camp. Camporeale did not respond.

About admin

Check Also

‘Critical’ to keep positive, Bulldogs coach Beveridge says

“I still think we’re a chance to get there in the end. We’ve got seven …