Developing Coaching Philosophy

Michael Malthouse directs Dale Thomas

by David Parkin

Consolidating coaching philosophy

The actions of every coach are guided by an underlying set of principles or beliefs; their coaching philosophy. Coaches should regularly review and consolidate their coaching philosophy. 

As David Parkin explains "if you're reproducing exactly what you did previously, then the best you can do is come a good second. Why? Because someone has already taken your bench mark and added something better and different to it."

Although the system or philosophy can and should change over time, Parkin explains that "often coaches get themselves into difficulty when they haven't firmed up their approach, or they unexpectedly change their system."

Understanding coaching philosophy

An exercise to help you understand coaching philosophy is to analyse a current senior AFL coach and identify as many aspects of their philosophy as possible.

  • What are they good at?
  • What do they bring to their role?
  • What is their game plan/style?

Now consider your own coaching philosophy. Start by figuring out your own beliefs on coaching.

  • What is coaching – why do you believe that?
  • Why do you coach?
  • Why are your players participating?
  • Are they your players, or are you their coach?
  • What are your expectations?
  • What are the expectations of your players?

An effective coaching philosophy should help you to set goals to ensure your players and assistant coaches are all striving in the same direction.  Limits (codes of conduct) can help you achieve these goals.

A coach should be able to articulate their coaching philosophy. David Parkin explains that “footballers should clearly understand the truths, principles, attitudes and values you bring to their environment as a coach.”

An effective system should provide “clear guidelines for consistency, trust, cooperation, understanding and expectation, as it relates to discipline, teamwork and communication between all parties,” Parkin explained.

Developing a coaching philosophy

Consider the following categories/points when developing your philosophy. It is not an exclusive list and they are not presented in any particular order. You will create your own categories as your philosophy develops and different areas will have more importance than others to you as a coach.

  • Teaching
  • People Management
  • Leadership
  • Character
  • Care and Interest
  • Discipline
  • Planning and Preparation
  • Training
  • Innovation
  • Strategy and Tactics
  • Success
  • Failure
  • Criticism
  • Assistant Coaches
  • Recruiting
  • Communication
  • Feedback
  • Honesty

To help provoke thinking you might like to determine your beliefs around the following:

  • Youth or Age?
  • Character or Ability?
  • Athleticism or Skill?
  • Risk or Safety?
  • Defence or Attack?
  • Motivation or Inspiration?
  • Individual or Team?

When times are tough and wins are few and far between, you need a strong system of coaching. It's not appropriate to significantly change your philosophy. Confidence in what you believe is negated rapidly, if the coach 'loses their way'. Have confidence in your coaching philosophy - have the faith and belief to live by it.  

Elements of a Coaching Philosophy

1. Motivation vs inspiration

Inspiration comes as an externally imposed influence, which has minimal impact in terms of choices in behaviour, intensity of that behaviour and the sustainability of that behaviour. Inspiration is most often short lived. When a challenge requires sustained force and application over time, inspiration may assist to kick start us, but motivation produces the perseverance required.

Motivation, on the other hand is principally based on the intrinsic needs of people, i.e. How important is the outcome for the doer?

Once the footballer has made up his mind as to the desirability of this outcome for him (he is in control of his motives, not the coach) then the coach can assist him to achieve it. When athletes/footballers are dependant on the coach for his so called motivation, then he's in trouble. Coaches need highly motivated players to work with. This is where recruitment of the right people is so critical. The "wanting" is always basic to success.

2. Continual improvement

Even if you're the so called 'best in the business', coaches need to be looking for better ways of doing all things. Improvement means 'change'. Change for many people creates stress/anxiety.

But if you view change and stress as a stimulus and challenge (not a handicap), you can keep up with, and often ahead of the pack. The fact is, in the competitive world of Australian Football, if you're reproducing exactly what you did previously, then the best you can do is come a good second. Why? Because someone has already taken your bench mark and added something better and different to it.

3. Plan, prepare, perform

Planning must be the key ingredient for all aspects of football. If you plan well for everything, then there is a better chance of preparing adequately and performing optimally. I have always believed the emphasis should be 3:2:1, i.e. three hours of planning, for two hours of preparation, for one hour of performance - not the other way around. Planning must be equally stringent for the individual player as it is for the team.

4. Fitness, skill and game sense

My attitude to preparing footballers for the most challenging and demanding game in the world, has changed, as the game has changed. By the nature of the games demands, it's the most difficult game to get right, when training the body, the techniques, the strategy and the mind. Whenever, wherever it's possible, the coach should attempt to reproduce 'game type' preparation (being careful to control aggression with competitive activities).

We obviously need to train specific physical parameters. Technique and skill at times need concentrated work, but above all we need not to be doing 'mindless drills', and focus our attention on 'game sense' activity. Footballers need to spend lots of time in situations which are pressured (in terms of time and space), to win possession, make good decisions, and execute effective disposal.

5. Leadership

A critical component in terms of coach effectiveness. Most of us believe (due to personality and experience) that we need to use the same style of leadership with all people, in all places, at all times. My experience suggests differently.

You need to adopt your style / approach according to the maturity / experience of the individual / group. Young, inexperienced athletes need some real direction and control. But as the player becomes more confident, educated, experienced and competent, they need to be far more involved in the coach / player relationship.

Successful teams in the finish, always have a strong leadership group, who want to take ownership over the dynamics of the processes which are in place. The coach needs them to become far more democratic in their approach to the important issues of 'team'. Mature coaches give up some power to the group. They realise that group empowerment in most cases produces greater commitment through ownership.

6. Feedback systems

Very few individuals (coaches and athletes) have the capacity to self reflect accurately re their performance. We all have biases and blind spots when evaluating our roles. As a coach you need:

  • An accurate, immediate feedback system for your footballers. If possible during (via the runner and quarter breaks) the game, and obviously following the performance. If you want players to improve they must start with a very accurate / realistic view of themselves. That usually has to come from an outside source. Little change will occur without feedback of quality
  • To set up your own system, i.e. mentor, or critical friend, or coach director, where you can receive consistent, relevant feedback as to the effectiveness of your own performance as a coach. Obviously this can happen on a week to week basis, both in training and on game day. At the end of each season all coaches (and those support staff who service the needs of players) should be subjected to a review by the athletes with anonymous type questionnaires
7. Honesty is the best policy

Honesty really does build trust between player and coach. Sometimes it's difficult to convey information which will not be pleasant for the athlete. But the one universal truth I have learnt, that whilst the truth may hurt, people of quality deal with it extremely well. Lies, innuendo and half truths, very few people can handle. Remember though, you aren't always right. Be careful to acknowledge privately and publicly when you are wrong.

8. Measuring success

It's not always possible, but to be able to confirm, or question or reject your methods, it's necessary to come up with performance indicators. These can only be validated on the basis of objective measures. Find systems and processes which can deliver constantly your key performance indicators. They give credence to your methods, and confirm your improvement or otherwise. Footballers will confidently give themselves over to a game plan when you can provide the evidence of its effectiveness.

9. Individual vs team

One of the ongoing dilemmas for coaches of Australian Football. It's easy to hide behind 'the team' in coaching, i.e. working in generalities - one shoe fits all concept. But the reality is that your success as a coach is more dependant on your ability to coach individuals within the team. All teams are made up of at least twenty two (AFL) individual players. It's your capacity to deal with them as individuals, as well as a co-operative, sacrificial and cohesive unit, which will make your coaching successful. In the finish you will win or lose as a team. But the individual worth of each member should never be underestimated.

10. Team life - sacrifice

All things being equal, it's the team whose members are prepared to not only work with, but for each other, that wins. This requires a high level of commitment to sacrificial acts, i.e. individual players are sincerely committed to making sacrifices so their mates can be more efficient and effective. Like all inputs that are critical for team success, these sacrificial acts need to be recorded, recognised and rewarded. Like all important football behaviour it must be consistently reinforced or it drops away. The coach needs to, in conjunction with the team, work out a system or method to record, recognise and reward this kind of behaviour.

11. Goal setting

Whilst it can be very time consuming, the coach should have a clear picture of what the team and the individual members want to achieve. Knowing people's motives can enhance the manner in which we communicate and direct people's behaviour. Goals can become lighthouses along the way, and specific markers to judge the degree of improvement and success we achieve. Take time with your footballers to understand why they are playing the game.

12. More is not better

We have reached the stage in our football education to understand that in preparing to play this demanding game, 'more is not necessarily better'. In fact, rest and recovery are equally as important as strength and power training. How much is enough and how much is too much is the question a football coach must continually ask.

Educate your footballers to understand and read their bodies. The doctor, fitness advisor and coach, is often only as good as the honesty and accuracy of his player's understanding of themselves when they communicate. The first AFL Club to educate their players to understand themselves in an honest and accurate way in relation to injury/illness, plus fitness levels and current form, will take an enormous advantage.

13. Lifestyle balance

My belief is that both player and coach need to plan and commit to the principle. Unless both can have a blockading technique, football can become a very, all consuming and often debilitating experience (especially when things aren't happening as you would wish). This means having a small, but sincere, commitment to establishing something beyond football. I would recommend this to all professional footballers and coaches.

The research is starting to indicate that not only do you play (coach) better, and have a longer career, but you give yourself a better chance of making a successful transition to normal life when it's all over. Coaches must be sincerely interested in their footballers, beyond their capacity to just produce good football. If you are committed to developing the whole person, the benefits and returns are significant.

14. Passsion and fun

Passion for your sport is essential for coaching success. Footballers must sense your love for the game, and the role you play. It's a very demanding task. No-one denies the need for a very committed approach. But if this prevents us from having some real fun, i.e. laughing with and at each other, then we have a problem. Encourage joking relationships. Create an environment where people want to be.

15. Attitude

We know that talent (how we choose our parents), and preparation are really essential for athletic / football success. But I'm convinced that the attitude which a footballer brings to his competition is by far the most important ingredient for immediate and long term success. It's amazing that if you want it enough, it will often overcome a lack of talent and preparation.


When times are tough and wins are few and far between, what you need is a strong system of coaching. It's not appropriate to significantly change your philosophy. Confidence in what you believe is negated rapidly, if the coach 'loses his way'. Having made up your mind as to the system for conducting your coaching, have the faith and belief to live by it.