Callan Ward is going to work on a heavy bag at the GWS Giants’ state-of-the- art training facility at Sydney’s Olympic Park. Head down, his hair hides his face as he unloads combinations. It’s his day off. No one’s watching but Ward is meting out punishment as if he were being barked at by a surly club conditioning coach.
Later as he sits down to chat to MH, you wonder if Ward didn’t have a voice in his ear as he went about brutalising the bag. A couple of voices actually. One would be his own, clear and precise in his head as it hasn’t always been when he opens his mouth. The other? His father Greg’s. Watching him, looking for weaknesses, urging him to punch harder, run faster, do better, just as he’s done since Ward began playing footy as a youngster back in Spotswood in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
“He was hard on me ever since I was too young not to listen to him,” says Ward of his old man, as we chat at a picnic table overlooking the Giant’s sprinkler-dense practice oval. “Even in under-12s we’d drive home from the game and he’d tell me how I played and say, ‘Why did you miss this tackle?’ At 12 years of age.”
Nothing much has changed. Ward remembers a time in his second year with the Giants when he was going back with the flight of the ball and ducked his head. No one else seemed to notice but the voices in Ward’s head were loud and clear. “Straight away I was like, ‘What have I done? I’m so embarrassed!’” Of course no one said anything. Then a week later he saw his dad. First thing the old man said: “I saw you duck your head last week.”
We all have a voice in our head (hopefully just one). What that voice tells you can be the decisive factor in how you perform, driving you to charge head-first into a crowded pack to win the ball or push out those final fibre-tearing reps on the bench. As Ward has found, your inner voice can shape your actions – even if your words fail you.
FIND YOUR VOICE
Thanks to the ongoing feedback and encouragement from his dad, who played for Yarraville in the old VFA, the voice in Ward’s head has always been strong. It was the one he talked to rest of the world with that was the problem growing up.
As a kid, when he struggled to get his words out, his twin sister Aysha
would speak for him. He still remembers a day in grade 2 when he went to answer a question from the teacher only to stumble, torturously labouring over his words as his classmates erupted in laughter. Later in high school, having been drafted as a 17-year-old by the Western Bulldogs, he had to shoot a spot for the The Footy Show. On national TV, with his classmates watching on, he froze. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” he says with a wry smile.
He knew something had to be done. The answer, so often the case when it comes to your weaknesses, was to tackle the problem head on.
As hard as it was and as nervous as public engagements made him, Ward didn’t shy away from speaking at community events and school assemblies in his early years at the Dogs. “The best thing for me was that I attacked what I was afraid of,” says Ward, whose speech these days is pretty fluent. “I’m still doing that now because you learn, the only way to improve is to put yourself in those very uncomfortable positions.”
In his nine years in the AFL Ward has established a reputation for his full-throttle, kamikaze style of play, hitting packs harder than the local constabulary raps knuckles on a drug dealer’s door. His teammates at the Dogs promptly nicknamed him Cement Head.
“As a young kid I was always small so I’d get thrown around like a ragdoll,” he laughs. “I just used to get up because my dad told me to. Now I’m playing with the bigger boys it’s just something I do naturally.”
The style suits a man eager to lead from the front. It’s probably just as well because while Ward was naturally suited to leadership’s on-field demands, when he moved up to the Giants back in 2012, he felt unprepared for just about every other aspect of his new job.
“I was still trying to cement my position at the Dogs so to come up here as a 21-year-old as captain, I just thought there’s no way I’m ready for that,” he says. “It meant more responsibility, more media, more pressure, more everything.”
He may have been apprehensive, but as Ward was to learn, leadership is one skill best learned on the job. In this respect, it almost doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you’re committed to getting better.
“At the Bulldogs all I cared about was playing as well as I could to stay in the team,” he says. “Now, as a captain, you have to care so much more about everyone else than you do about yourself.”
It’s a heads-up should you ever find yourself in the hot seat. But if you’re worried the external focus might mean your own performance suffers, remember that not being obsessive about your game or your work may not be a bad thing. Your hang-ups can evaporate, Ward says, because you simply don’t have time for them. Captaincy certainly didn’t hinder Ward’s on-field output. He was the Giants' Best and Fairest in 2012 and polled 15 Brownlow votes in 2014, the most in the club’s short history.
TRUST THE PROCESS
Ward is sitting on a wooden bench in the Giants’ change room, rhythmically tossing a Sherrin above his head. The dressing room looks like something from a US sports movie. Long orange lockers are stamped with each player’s name, the club’s secret team code mounted on the wall. The aura of professionalism extends to the gym where each individual weight plate bears the team logo.
If you wanted proof the AFL came to the rugby-league heartland of Western Sydney with a war chest, it’s right here in this glittering facility. It’s also apparent in the astonishing playing list the club has assembled from the cream of the national draft. The Giants are a club that can’t afford to fail.
Which is precisely what they did in their first humbling years, enduring some fearful drubbings as boys just out of high school attempted to take on grown men. Inevitably morale suffered, leaving it to the club’s few wily veterans and the green-behind-the-ears captain to be the voice of hope.
“You’d get smashed on the weekend and have to turn up on Monday and be the one with a smile on your face saying, ‘Boys, this is all part of the process’.” The message, Ward says, was all about the future, the ethos focused squarely on improvement. So it remains.
Now, after a better-than-expected 2016 that ended in a pulsating home final against Ward’s old club and eventual premiers, the Bulldogs, the Giants find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being premiership favourites. For the first time, the club faces the weight of expectation and the pressure to perform. Is Ward worried? Hardly. Rather, he seems like a man whose been waiting his whole life for this.
“I’m a bit funny about the word pressure,” he says, smiling. “I feel like you’re only really under pressure if you haven’t done the work. If you’ve done everything you can to prepare to the best of your ability you should be right.” He pauses for a moment before adding: “This pressure, it’s only external. The only pressure I’m really under is internal.” And as Ward knows better than anyone, outside voices don’t matter if the one in your head is sound.
Build a Giant Upper Body
Use Ward’s upper-body blast to get huge in a hurry
ARMS: triceps pull-down, biceps curl, skull crusher
CHEST: bench, dumbbell fly, push-up
BACK: rowing machine, lat pull down, chin-up
>Do sets of 10-12 for each move (30 seconds on the rower) for each body part, rest 1 minute and repeat twice, before moving on to the next body part.