Commander-in-Chief

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

By Peter Ryan
AFL Record

Not for the first time, the concept of the coach in the modern game needs explaining.

As the role has become more complicated, the gap between what the talkback set imagines clubs require and what they actually need has never been wider.

Successful Italian soccer coach Arrigo Sacchi once described his role as “both a screenwriter and director”, a succinct definition in keeping with a coach’s penchant for plain language.

The modern senior AFL coach has become, in effect, the CEO of football, setting direction and driving implementation.  This is the clear view of those in the role.

“When it is all boiled down, the senior coach is still the leader and the face of the football club,” said North Melbourne coach Brad Scott, who has been in the job two years, after an apprenticeship as Mick Malthouse’s development and assistant coach at  Collingwood.

What clubs need now more than ever is a coach-manager, someone with a skill set akin to that of any modern executive (with quite a bit more scrutiny thrown in for good measure): the coach is now a marketer, media performer, chief operating officer, teacher, human resources manager and numbers man, as well as the great leader and footy strategist, visionary and entrepreneur.

The average senior AFL coach has 70 people (including the players) reporting to him on issues ranging from a player’s hamstring injury to the latest in sports science research.

As well as leading this group, he has the board, sponsors, club staff, the media and, through the media, supporters to impress along the way.

No wonder effective senior coaches are now up there with the best and the brightest in the community.

“The tactical side of things and actual football planning is potentially the easiest thing,” Scott said.

West Coast coach John Worsfold has seen the dramatic shift take place since he started playing in 1987, and then after he became senior coach in 2002.

When he defines the role, it is apparent the qualities required to succeed in the gig go well beyond getting through to the players (even if it is still what attracts most people to the job in the first place).

“The coach has a massive role in creating a vision for what the group wants to achieve,” he said. “They then assist in the implementation of different systems or structures to make sure things are geared around working towards that vision.”

The coach is pivotal in setting that direction, but he does not work in isolation. The club’s system must work to support the football department’s vision so the club CEO, the board and, importantly, the football manager, must operate with the coach as a cohesive unit.

“You have got to get the whole club on the one page,” said former Bulldogs and Swans coach Rodney Eade last week on Triple M when asked to describe how he saw the role of the coach. “I don’t think you are just a team coach, I think you are a club coach.”

The coach is at the head of the system, overseeing the different sub-groups within the football department.

“The role of the coach now is really critically analyzing the performance of all our staff,” Scott said.

“To be able to do that, I need to have relevant qualifications and at least a base level of understanding in all those areas”

It is hard to imagine Jock McHale espousing such a philosophy, although he may well have done the same things, in the amateur era he coached in.

Scott has defined a managerial role, whatever way you cut it. The range of issues that fly across the coach’s desk and the types of conversations they engage in are never ending in their scope.

One minute it is about a player’s living arrangements, the next training loads are being discussed. Then the president is on the phone, then there is the team meeting detailing systems for the game ahead, and then the list manager is there to consider next year’s list, and the one for the year after.

The system coaches create to process all the information and manage their time is therefore critical.

At Collingwood, during a year I spent as an in-house observer, the system was explained with one short phrase: ‘Know your role, play your role’, a line intoned with sharp directness if anyone stepped over the mark.

What such a system allowed was for people to flourish within their area of expertise— whether as an assistant coach, a physiotherapist, sports scientist, doctor or information technology manager—without over-reaching it.

There was only one person expected to direct in all areas, and that was the senior coach. Malthouse’s approach was to question and listen and direct when required. He gave those under him more and more autonomy as they proved capable of working in a way that  added value to the organisation—it was his idea to give his deputies control through the NAB Cup, including the Grand Final.

Malthouse is forever industrious, competitive, always searching for ways to make the team better, never shirking from the difficult responsibility of being the leader. He has authority but he is not an authoritarian.

It may surprise those who only know him through the media, but he has a talent of knowing when the mood needs to be lightened.

Scott said his first season was hugely demanding as he set the direction for the club, not only coaching the players but also the staff about what he expected. He now has total confidence to delegate responsibility to other staff because they understand what he wants.

“That gives me more time with the players and developing that coach-player relationship, which I think is a vital component of the coach’s role,” he said.

It is essential coaches can rely on their staff to deliver a consistent message because the coach depends on his players being trained  to make good decisions aligned to the way he wants the club to operate.

It is why the coaching team is increasingly important, the assistant coaches’ roles crucial factors in team performance, their  professionalism and smarts as essential as the senior coach.

The assistant coach works long hours, assessing vision, preparing training and meetings, being the first go-to person for players and providing one-on-one tuition—as well as promoting ideas through the senior coach, or exploring ideas from the senior man.

Their relationship with players extends to phone calls at all hours or invitations to dinner. It is pastoral as well as technical.

The criteria used to select Geelong coach Chris Scott last October was the best public indication yet of how the senior coaching role has changed and expanded.

The Cats’ wish list was sophisticated, with leadership and cultural development, personal qualities and management ability being weighted as 55 per cent of the job, while technical ability, coaching history, ability to communicate and commercial appeal made up 45 per cent of the criteria.

According to Geelong CEO Brian Cook, a modern coach has to have the ability to lead and manage people to collective outcomes. If that seems like mumbo-jumbo, it isn’t.

Cook said on-field performance remained the No. 1 performance measure.

And that win-loss column, as Eade suggested last week in his departure from the Dogs, is the main tool when used to assess whether someone can coach or not.

No one complains about that reality, but is it possible to really analyse someone’s performance as a journalist? Brad Scott thinks it is possible but not necessarily palatable because much of the reality is not that interesting to read about.

And he understands that interesting media coverage is critical to him being able to ply his trade.

“The thing that most people don’t understand about professional sport is that it is the boring daily routine that separates champions from others, but it’s not exciting,” Scott said.

“People think it’s exciting, and there are parts that are super-exciting, and they get reported, but there’s another 95 per cent that isn’t exciting and doesn’t get reported.”

Worsfold admits the role is difficult to describe, such is the extent of its reach, but it is, he agrees, comparable to the CEO of a company.

The balance between the broader vision and immediate needs to be found, and the coach has to be able to handle both big decisions  and deal quickly with issues as they come to hand.

In the textbooks, it is called situational leadership; in the land footy clubs inhabit, it is called the ability to win respect and command authority.

This is where the position requires an X-factor, a mix of wisdom and brilliance that goes beyond the process.

It is what has made Malthouse such a strong modern coach and allowed Alastair Clarkson, Paul Roos, Mark Thompson, Kevin Sheedy, Mark Williams, Eade, Leigh Matthews, Neil Craig, Worsfold and Ross Lyon to shine over long periods.

They are mature people managers, with their heads above the parapet, generally aware of the right call in any circumstances, and very capable of driving their vision through all levels of the organisation.

A sense of humour and a sense of perspective are essential to achieve this objective.

Worsfold said getting a feel for what is affecting the players on and off the field was where he devoted most of his energy.

“To do that, you need to be among the players as much as possible. It may not be a formal chat with them but an informal feel you get walking among them,” he said.

Those informal moments are where real insight can be gained. Any coach worth his salt has his ears pricked at all times for knowledge, a voracious appetite to get better or seek advice on improving a characteristic that can then be passed on to their players. Such skills cannot  be measured.

Nor can the maturity to make the right call when the moment demands a decision.

Worsfold said there was as much art to coaching as science.

“As you get more experienced, you get the balance of making decisions based on hard facts and data and balancing that with the decisions you make where something just feels right at the right time,” he said.

To cope with the inevitable scrutiny those decisions attract, a coach must have an overriding philosophy that keeps them steady even when the boat begins to rock.

Scott understands it is the profile and scrutiny that allows him to work in professional sport, so he has no complaints when criticism comes his way, but he is not immune to the pressure.

“I’ve always believed that, in times of severe pressure, you fall back on your preparation and on your knowledge base and the  comfort that (if you are) thoroughly prepared and really diligent in what you do, then when the pressure period inevitably comes,  you are better able to deal with that,” he said.

And don’t worry; every coach has their moments. Scott’s team was on the end of a 104-point thumping at the hands of St Kilda in just his second game as coach, an event that tested his mettle. Worsfold coached the Eagles as they finished last in 2010.

It is the AFL coach’s lot to go through a period when doubt surrounds the team. Both held their nerve.

“I always ask myself where my focus is,” Worsfold said. “I’ve got some tools that I use to say, ‘Am I still vision-focused and not too focused on the current reality?’ That does affect the way you think. It affects the decisions you make if you can focus on the big picture.”

It is why trusted sounding boards are essential for coaches. Any coach who thinks he has all the answers is on a quick path to oblivion.

Scott is happy to hear and assess criticism: “If you’ve got enough confidence and you’ve got enough belief in what you’re doing, it actually encourages criticism because it provokes thought.”

That does not make coaches bulletproof. The demands of the job are huge.

Roos and Thompson voluntarily stepped away from the spotlight that comes with being a senior coach, their life beyond football receiving more attention than it possibly had in previous years.

Those who are in the position need to build a wall around them to ensure they can direct their energies where they are most needed, as well as keeping personal relationships away from football alive.

It is a tough but satisfying role. Worsfold said the satisfaction comes when he sees the rewards from constant hard work. Those rewards include the factor that gives Scott (who started as a development coach with Collingwood in 2007) the most satisfaction: watching people under his coaching succeed in footy and life.

This same mantra has been part of the Malthouse package, and was mentioned many times by those coached and directed by Allan Jeans last month when the great coach passed on.

Once you look beyond the myth of the super coach or the messiah and start to see the coach as a young professional, a brand that represents their club to the outside world, your capacity to analyse their performance changes.

Coaches are driven individuals in an increasingly complex environment, all motivated to chase success by the thrill of the chase itself, a point stressed by Worsfold. “If you win lotto, it doesn’t necessarily bring the same sort of reward as working your butt off to make a million dollars,” he said.

Peter Ryan is the author of Side By Side, a year inside Collingwood, the story of the 2009 season.

The Modern Coach is Commander-in-Chief (AFL Record - PDF)

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