When she finally became a coach in 2021, Lou Wotton was conscious she was a novice who needed to go to school fast.

Fortunately she had two wells of experience to draw from, having been a player for 16 years, and a teacher for just as long.

Her first challenge was getting her message across without actually being out on the ground.

“As a player, my style was to show people how to do thing," she said.

"Coming into a coaching role you have to rely on your communication and making sure you’re clear with your messaging."

As well as an historic all-female coaching crew alongside her under Bec Goddard’s leadership, she was blessed to have Andy Collins as a mentor.

Clearly Sam Mitchell wasn’t the only Hawthorn coach benefitting from Collins’ vast experience.

“I rang Andy before the first practice game and said, ‘I need your help, I’ve never coached before!’

"He really led me down that path of making sure you give the players some voice, and they can give you really valuable feedback as to what’s happening out there.”

Little tips had a big impact.

When the Hawks’ VFLW outfit played North Melbourne, Collins spent the afternoon in the coaches’ box observing. His feedback included something that took Wotton by surprise.

“The coaches’ boxes are usually a fair way from where you meet the players in the breaks, and I’d be running down the stairs to get to them as quickly as possible.

"Andy told me, ‘Just walk – let them huddle, they’ll have their own conversations and work through things as you’re walking down there.’

“I found when I took my time I was a lot calmer. I wasn’t puffed, trying to blurt out what I wanted to say. It gave me time to gather my thoughts.”

Working with the midfield, she welcomed the honest appraisal of former teammate Tamara Luke as to how the game “felt” out in the middle, and was blessed to have a diverse playing group covering the full gamut from seasoned campaigners like former captain Luke to those with little or no state league experience and some who’d played only a few games.

“As a first-year coach it was really valuable to me, working with those who didn’t quite have the ‘footy IQ’ right up to experienced players.”

Approaches that helped her in the classroom soon filtered into her coaching.

She prizes honesty in engaging with her Health and Human Development VCE and VCAL students at Rowville Secondary College, knowing they are young adults who need both clear direction and a level of trust.

Bringing the same approach to football was a no-brainer.

“As a player, that’s what I really valued – I wanted to be told exactly how it was, not sugar-coat it. Also making sure things are clear," she said.

"If players don’t show an understanding I’m very reflective back on myself – what could I have done better? Maybe my messaging wasn’t as clear as it should be? That’s what I always do in my teaching.”

Reflection is a mainstay of elite team sport via weekly game and individual player reviews, which Wotton now uses as a developmental force with her students.

“After games we’re so critical, we look at what we did well, where we could improve. I really bring that into my classroom now in terms of their assessment tasks – kids will often just look at the mark, tick it off and toss it to the side until the next one comes along.

“I’ve developed a tool with the kids to look at their room for improvement for next time. I think teaching and coaching really work hand-in-hand both ways.”

When Wotton stepped away from football in 2014 to compete in triathlons she missed the camaraderie of team sport, a craving that eventually drew her to dust off the boots.

A stint with Collingwood fittingly allowed her to strut women’s football’s biggest stage in 2017, and after a Hawthorn VFLW premiership in 2018, 233 games, three All-Australian honours, two Helen Lambert Medals and Victorian representation, she contentedly turned the page to the next chapter.

Across a career that started with Deakin Devils (later Eastern Devils) she played under many female coaches, from Rohenna Young and Leanne Gill at club level, to Michelle Cowan as a Demon in Melbourne-Western Bulldogs exhibition games, to Peta Searle, Lisa Hardeman and Gill again when chosen for Victoria.

To be part of the first all-women’s coaching outfit at VFLW level, under Goddard and alongside Christina Polatajko, Hayley Gregory, Natasha Beck and Steph Carroll, was a privilege.

Goddard’s mix of quirkiness and seriousness ensured it was a fun ride.

The experience swelled her affection for the club.

“I’ve got a real soft spot for Hawthorn – ever since I walked in there it’s felt like home," Wotton said.

"I needed somebody to give me that opportunity, for Bec to see something in me means a lot, and to do it alongside Christina who has some coaching experience, and Hayley who’s been at the Hawks, was wonderful.

"It was a bit of an eye-opener to other clubs – if you give females the opportunity, there are women out there, they sometimes just need that little push.

"If you take gender out of it, it’s the people with the ideas, the strategies, and really the connections.

"I think that’s the most important thing for a coach – if you don’t have the connection with the players there’s no use having the strategy and the game smarts.”

Wotton’s first steps in coaching coincided with two other momentous moments in brown and gold in 2021 that gave pause to look both forward and back.

The announcement in August last year that Hawthorn will take part in AFLW Season 7 in 2022 sharpens purpose and focus, while being there as Meg Hutchins’ stellar playing career came to an end put context around the football journey they’ve shared.

The pair went to school together, and Wotton laughs that she brought the talented all-round athlete to the game by luring her to the Devils in 2003.

For two decades she was in awe of Hutchins’ talent, “the greatest kick, a really strong set of hands”, and treasures their shared role in that 2018 VFLW flag.

“It was so special this year – she actually played in the midfield in her final match, and it was really nice to be her line coach for that.”

After two seasons cruelled by COVID-19, Wotton can’t wait for the next VFLW campaign to continue her learning curve.

Game analysis in real time is a focus, and again she feels blessed to have observed Sam Mitchell up close, seeing how he picks up opposition trends and patterns in a heartbeat and acts to nullify them.

“That’s what I aspire to be, to pick things up that quickly.”

She’s lived the evolution of the women’s game and tries to avoid slipping into “back in my day” reminiscences, but wants today’s players to know how fortunate they are to have changerooms that are big enough, to play on grounds with immaculate surfaces, and most of all to have a genuine elite competition to aspire to.

“Now I just want to continue to get better, so I can make other players better too.”