Painting bucket hats: how Gold Coast have bred their AFLW culture

By Ant Wingard

Picasso Paige Parker.

It may sound like the Instagram caption footnoted to Gold Coast’s Indigenous AFLW clash guernsey launched last November with the help of Parker. But it’s not.

Instead, it offers some insight into how the SUNS, only one game into their AFLW existence, have cultivated and nurtured a team culture and it begins with a half dozen paint brushes. 

The SUNS had just completed one of many Saturday training sessions in the lead up to the season and a select few headed back to Leah Kaslar’s house for a rather bizarre team bonding activity.

Among there group were Kaslar, former Lions Parker and Sam Virgo, Britt Perry, Hannah Dunn and first-year forward Taylor Smith.

Together, the congregated in Kaslar’s house and took turns painting one another. Some, like Parker’s depiction of Virgo, were good. Most however, left a lot to be imagined.

“We were drawing each other in sort of a cartoon way,” Smith explains.

“Leah always wears bucket hats so we had a classic photo of her in a bucket has and we had to draw that.

“Some of the girls can draw. Paige’s drawing was spot on.”

The painting session took place just weeks out of the start of the 2020 AFLW season but with preseason reaching a passionate crescendo, the exercise gave the players a genuine opportunity to mingle, have a laugh and learn more about one another.

It wasn’t the first time either that a similar group of girls had bonded in such a way. A few weeks earlier, Smith went surfing with Ellie Hampson and Lauren Ahrens in the morning and found herself kicking back with Kaslar, Parker and Perry in the afternoon.

The former Queensland Under 18 representative takes pride in her drive to spend time with as many people as possible at the club and often mixes it up to ensure her first AFLW experience is the best it can be.

Together, the SUNS are driving a culture fostered through the care and attention of coach David Lake and General Manager of Women’s Football, Fi McLarty, who were forced to literally build a team, with the right people in the right places, from the ground up.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job getting who they’ve got [into the team],” Smith said.

“I go home every day and say to mum and dad ‘I just love this team. I love our culture.

“This is on another level.”

Smith has been rather fortunate in her quaint football journey which started just over two years ago, but now feels genuinely blessed to be sharing the AFLW stage with some of her now closest allies.

Externally, it feels as if the SUNS’ culture is driven by both the players and coaches alike. An open-door policy is employed as Lake and McLarty implore their team to approach anyone and at any time.

The foundations of such a culture are driven in large by the trust which exists between the many stakeholders than can lay claim to apart of football history with the SUNS.

Such trust was on show just one week before the season opener when Gold Coast played their second practice game against Brisbane at Yeronga’s Leyshon Park.

David Lake was in attendance, but it was only on the rare occasion where he was vocal. In fact, some players may have not even noticed if he was there, such was his willingness to let others take charge.

That night, it was Lake’s band of assistant coaches – Andrew Swallow, John Taylor, Darryl White and Matt Bedford – who shuffled the magnets against the Lions.

“You can tell Lakey has the trust in his assistant coaches for him to be able to take a step back like that and for them to step forward,” Smith recounts.

“Everyone is on the same page so the communication between the coaches is just really good.”

“It all meshes pretty nicely Everything just flows and the communication is great. I feel like I can go and talk to any other coach about any position. It’s an open environment.”

Smith may not have been on the field in the SUNS’ first foray into the realm of women’s football, nor did the SUNS get the win in the slippery stalemate against Greater Western Sydney, but off the field, the SUNS are kicking goals.

Whether than be on the training oval, on top of a wave or in the art studio – it appears the Gold Coast is in good hands.

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