Characteristics of an Assistant Coach

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Art of Coaching draws on David Wheadon’s extensive career as an assistant coach at a number of AFL clubs. As one of football’s most innovative thinkers, Wheadon demonstrates his deep knowledge of coaching and details the principles that underline the game of Australian Football, and how to get the best out of diverse groups of talented young men.

The following is an extract from The Art of Coaching.

Characteristics of an Assistant Coach

1. Loyalty

As an assistant, you should be loyal to the senior coach and the club. This does not mean you agree with every decision the senior coach takes—in fact, you owe it to the club and the players to argue for issues you believe in that others may not support. Importantly, though, once a decision is made, you must be loyal to that decision. This does not necessarily have to stop you from re-arguing your point at the next meeting. After a couple of failed attempts, though, you need to be empathetic, read the coach and realise that there comes a time when there is no sense in continuing to take a futile counter-position. Endless debate over an issue that the coach is strong on can produce unnecessary tension between the coach and assistant. Worse still is bringing up a failed decision during the heat of a match. Again, this applies to both coach and assistant.

It is not one way, though, as the senior coach should in turn be loyal to you. Loyalty must also apply in your relationships with other assistants, and theirs with you.

2. Philosophy

As an assistant, you need to develop your own philosophy on all aspects of coaching, especially teaching and people management but also how to handle success and failure. How close do you want to be to the players? How will you react to the lack of public recognition? What will you do when you strongly disagree with the head coach’s position? A strong set of principles will assist you not only to develop the art and science of your role but also to handle the pressures that accompany the elite competition of the AFL. These two elements are publicised weekly, and you have to have a template to fall back on as to how you are going to react, especially in times of failure.

3. Intelligence

Coaching panels need smart assistants who may in fact have better knowledge of parts of the game than the senior coach. Bear Bryant, the famous University of Alabama football coach who won six national championships, stated that he would never employ anyone dumber than him: “I don’t hire anybody not brighter than I am. If they’re not smarter than me, I don’t need them.”

There should be an environment on a coaching staff where you as assistant should be able to throw up well-thought-out suggestions to the senior coach without fear of unnecessary criticism or ridicule. On the other hand, you must realise that the coach has the right to reject any idea. Then you must have the confidence and courage to continue offering suggestions into the future.

Intelligent assistants understand more than just methods—they understand ideas, principles and concepts. Don’t try to prove how smart you are by spending time delving into obscure statistics; instead, identify the most important parts of the game and then be smart about how to teach what you have learned. Smart is being able to make the complicated simple, so that the players can understand and do what you are asking. 

The better assistants, like the great senior coaches, have a depth of intellect, are well read and have a range of interests outside of football. Many pursue tertiary courses and maintain a willingness to learn throughout their careers. They are more than just ‘footy heads’.

4. Independence

Assistants should be different from the senior coach and from each other. If two people are always agreeing then one of them is not needed—and it is easy to work out who is expendable if it is a choice between the senior coach and an assistant! Coaching panels need strong-minded assistants who are not deliberately argumentative or constantly take a different stance just for the sake of being different. They need assistants who have the courage and independence to take a well-researched different position even if it is unpopular initially. If you have confidence in yourself based on a strong philosophy, you should be able to feel comfortable around other strong-minded people. 

There can be problems when the basic philosophies of a senior coach and an assistant are different. This needs to be clarified at the time of appointment as both eventually have to speak from the same book. If the disagreements continue, you as assistant have to decide whether you should stay or leave. For an assistant, a most humiliating experience is to be criticised by the senior coach in front of the players.

5. Humility

To be humble does not mean that you are meek or weak but simply that you do not know it all and are willing to learn. On a coaching staff someone should always be learning from someone else, and no assistant should be so proud that they cannot learn from others around them.

6. Commitment

Assistants must be prepared to work long hours and attend numerous meetings on selection, medical issues and list management. As assistant, you will be expected to spend late nights watching video, preparing reports and attending matches involving your club’s feeder team. If you have a responsibility in opposition analysis, you will often be expected to fly interstate on weekends in addition to being in the coaching box of your own team. All this is on top of the compulsory team and individual training sessions.

Your role is carried out in an unspoken environment of insecurity, where all on the coaching staff are aware that after a period of sustained failure the chances increase that assistants will lose their jobs. An assistant is easier to sack than the senior coach, and new senior coaches usually bring their own staff. You can soon be in that transitional world of employment uncertainty, which can have a very unsettling effect on your family.

Assistant coaching is a big commitment but there is always someone who would love to have your job! Such is the attraction of competition, of winning and losing.

7. Enthusiasm

As an assistant, you should be prepared to undertake tasks that are not glamorous. It may not be comfortable to go outside in poor weather to assist a player with skill practice or give time to a lower-profile player who will have a limited career at the club. You will be tempted to put more time into the star players as the results and possibly some credit may transfer to you. Kevin Sheedy once reminded me, because of my friendship with Michael Long, that there were other players at Essendon! This taught me a lesson that even though I had not deliberately been playing favourites, the perception was there. It is your responsibility to spend time with and attempt to improve every player on the list while they are at the club, regardless of their prospects.

An assistant also helps to carry any “disease” that might be around the club—it is vital to remain positive and enthusiastic. Players are very smart readers of human nature and will soon decide which assistants are genuinely ready and eager to help them. I have seen many a player improve simply because an assistant constantly gave him time, helped him solve problems, believed in him and gave him confidence that he could perform at the demanding level required in the AFL.

8. Organisation

It is a given that assistants need to set a standard regarding punctuality and meeting deadlines. The trap is in becoming so pedantic about being organised that inflexibility obstructs good teaching. Sometimes spontaneous opportune moments arise that provide the ideal environment for a great teaching moment. I personally believe that the best teaching and learning is done in an atmosphere of relaxed professionalism.

9. Specialisation

It can be very wise for an assistant to develop an area in which they have a speciality—an area that you make your own. Not only does this assist the coaching at the club but this point of difference gives you a reputation that may assist you when looking for your next appointment. Assistants are sacked regularly as their careers are often in the hands of other people—the senior coach and the players—and it is much easier to remove assistants who are not seen as expert at anything in particular.

Some coaches like to regularly change their assistants’ roles so that the assistants can gain experience in different areas, widen their skill base and improve the overall coaching at the club. A new responsibility can promote enthusiasm, fresh challenges and a wider skill range, which may improve your chances of a longer coaching career even if it is at other clubs. There can be a problem, however, if assistants are constantly being rotated, as they will have less opportunity to develop experience and a knowledge base. The argument is that assistants should stay in the same position for an extended period to give them time to become experts in their craft.

I tried to reinvent myself over the years, continually exploring new areas in player development, opposition analysis, forward-line tactics, goalkicking and ruck work—but most of all I aspired to be an excellent teacher of skill.

10. Innovation

An assistant can be the club’s research and development officer, investigating other organisations, teams and sports in Australia and overseas. Developments in a sport rarely come from within that sport, and it is vital to explore new and different ways the game can be taught and played in order to improve performance and gain a competitive edge.

Sheedy created an environment where innovation was encouraged, and I was allowed to investigate many new areas of the game on and off the field. To Kevin’s credit he was never critical of ideas that did not prove to be immediately successful.

The Art of Coaching, By David Wheadon, is available at the special price of $20.00 from

Please enter the Coupon Code 'coach2014' at the checkout to save $9.95 off the RRP.

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