For all the ultra-professional preparation and strategic chicanery that goes into getting an AFL team ready to play these days, one factor still looms arguably the largest over how a side performs. And it's a lot harder to control. We're talking about the mind. And even Australian football's most elite level of the game still offers weekly evidence that it plays the biggest part in whether teams win or lose. Take the recent curious cases of North Melbourne and Essendon. North Melbourne, having lost 14 games in a row by an average of close to 10 goals, finally broke through for its second win of the season last weekend against top eight team Richmond, no less, just days after the departure of coach David Noble. Indeed, the Roos had almost broken through the previous week against another top eight team in Collingwood when Noble was still in the driver's seat. This, after 11 games in which North not once came closer than within 47 points of its opponent. Essendon? The Bombers, finalists last year, had been woeful from the opening game, with just two victories in the first 12 games. Switch forward a bit over a month and the Dons have now won four of their past five, all four victories against teams either inside or competing for a spot in the top eight. For Essendon, such late-season revivals have become something of a habit. In 2018, it was two wins from the first eight games before winning 10 of the last 14. In 2019, it was a 4-6 record before winning eight of the last 12. Last year, it was 2-6 again before going 9-5. And then this season's horrendous two wins and nine losses to the halfway point before this latest recovery. Each time, when the real stuff has begun, Essendon has proved either under-prepared or unable to cope with the weight of expectations. Is it mere coincidence that again, finals prospects up in smoke, the Bombers have finally found some belief? North Melbourne's thrilling win over the Tigers was emotional stuff, Roos midfield star Jy Simpkin saying he felt like crying with joy. He paid tribute to the departed Noble in an on-ground TV interview after the siren. "We owe this to 'Nobes'," Simpkin said. "He's been there for the last couple of years, he worked his arse off to get this group better and send us on our way. This is for you, Nobes. You deserve it, mate." To which the obvious response was: were the previous three months of abject performances also for him? If Simpkin was being truthful, he clearly had a more favourable view of his former coach than plenty of teammates, whose dissatisfaction had been made quite public. Had they had an inkling of the coach's imminent departure prior to the Collingwood game? You could be forgiven for thinking so, given the sudden, dramatic spike in three obvious indicators of effort - contested possession, clearances and tackles. North Melbourne, prior to the Collingwood game, ranked last for tackles on the differentials and a dismal 16th in the other two categories. Against the Pies then Richmond last Saturday, it won all those statistical measures. As much as you can measure effort, the Roos' spiked sharply. And that was about the mind, not personnel nor game plan. Essendon's own version of "Groundhog Day" in its appalling starts is surely not about repeatedly misjudging how it should attack the beginning of a new AFL season, unless its entire football department is completely delusional. But a playing group which continually under-performs when there is something at stake and then belatedly finds its best when there is little of consequence at stake four years out of five would seem to have some issues coping with pressure. Neither can it be coincidence that that same tendency is prevalent at a club which hasn't won a final now for 18 years, that 2004 success coming when no fewer than 20 players on Essendon's current list were no more than four years old. Dealing with the psychological demons of pressure requires the passing on of experience. In this arena, the Bombers have none. Both Essendon and North Melbourne will continue to slog away in their attempts to haul themselves back up the ladder. Like others who have spent extended periods in the wilderness, they, too, will get there at some stage. Until then, however, for both, it appears to be as much about a battle of the mind as it is about the body.