Adelaide Crows Coach Brenton Sanderson contemplates making changes

Making Change

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

By Peta Searle
Assistant Coach
Port Melbourne FC

A coach’s job is to develop a game plan that they believe is appropriate for their group to achieve a positive outcome, which is usually to win. However, our great game has so many variables, that sometimes, no matter how well drilled the team is, something is just not working out on the day.

The question then confronting the coach is “When do I make a change, or do I keep to the game plan regardless?” If the coach backs their players and game plan and then goes on to lose, media perception is that the coach is not as tactically advanced as the opposition coach. However, if they react quickly and boldly, they may be considered reactive, and their faith in the players and the game plan is a little vulnerable.

An example of this was evident in an article written by Gary Lyon which talked about Essendon’s decision to allow Grant Birchall to play loose across half-back as the Hawks made a mess of the Bombers. Birchall had 33 possessions, including 26 uncontested.

Lyon put the question to James Hird on Triple M the following day about why he had allowed this to happen without changing his tactics on Birchall. They had a discussion and, in the end, respectfully agreed to differ on their reading of this tactic and its impact on the game. 

Earlier in the year Brad Scott was heavily criticized for instructing his team to constantly kick long to Drew Petrie, in a scoreless last quarter against St. Kilda and in a game that the saints went on to win.  But was this really the coach’s instruction or was this just what the team carried out?

Gary Ayres once said to me in his first year of coaching that Dennis Pagan changed his forward structure from a tall to a small. Gary responded by making the appropriate change that he thought at the time, a small defender.  You could guess what happened next! Denis changed it around again. Gary, on reviewing his coaching that day, could see that there was no benefit for Dennis to go small or tall. It was merely a process to see how quickly Gary was ready to change his structures in response to the opposition coach. 

So what does a coach do in these situations?  I suggest he or she needs to Indentify and rectify

1) Thorough preparation

As a coach the first thing I do is analyse my own team’s current form.  Then I would analyse the opposition, creating a detailed report on how they play, looking at how best certain individuals should play on specific opponents, but most importantly prepare for the “what ifs” that present in a game. What if they do this, what if they do that? As a coach you are constantly trying to predict and combat all possibilities that may present in a game and then train and educate the players for these scenarios.

2) Identify whether the problem is crucial to the rest of the game

If as a coach the team is getting comprehensively beaten in the inside 50 count what should be done?  Whilst the opposition may have a high inside 50 count we could still be ahead on the scoreboard. Hence our conversion rate is higher than theirs; and therefore it is likely our backline is performing well by possibly cutting off angles, intercept marking, spoiling aggressively, killing the contests, pressuring their shots on goal or forcing them wide to shoot on goal. We could also be rebounding well and hence setting up scoring opportunities for ourselves. So do we really need to make a change?

In the above example if they were converting well or looking dangerous when moving forward I would argue that it is crucial to the outcome of the game and proceed to correctly identify the reason why the imbalance is occurring.

For the above example we could be losing the inside 50 count for a range of reasons:

  • Getting beaten in the centre clearances. Where and why?  Are we losing the ruck contest? Are they too easily picking off our hit zones? Are midfielders not gaining dominant position? Are they not playing their roles?
  • Getting beaten in the stoppages around the ground. Are we not covering the exit points? Are they forcing extra numbers up around the ball?
  • Is our defensive midfield pressure in transition not good enough? Or are we not working hard enough?
  • Are there too many holes in our Zone?
  • Are there not enough players in the defensive structure?
  • Is our delivery into the forward line too predictable hence the opposition are able to rebound effectively?
  • Is there not enough spread from a contest around the ground allowing opposition to apply pressure on us and create turnovers?
  • Are our skill errors causing turn overs?

All of this is a lot to process very quickly. I suggest a quick checklist is essential to help clarify issues in this fast-paced and heated situation. Also the more you coach the more proficient you will become at identifying situations in the game.

3) Rectify: Correctly applying the right change

Correctly applying the right changes needs to be performed whilst still enabling the team to play to the style of game they and I, as coach, believe in.  By correctly identifying the issue, generally small adjustments can be made and be just as effective, if not more effective, than big structural changes.

The other critical issue to consider is when these changes should be made. Traditionally such deficiencies are usually identified and counteracted in the quarter and half time breaks. The problem is, in 20min plus time on for quarters of footy; the game can be already won or lost in that time.

The signalling of tempo footy to prevent and create momentum swings is an example of a change to the state of play, and one which the players can control during play. This has been a tactic used to address the issue that the lengthy time frame between breaks creates. This is why player education, preparation and on field leadership becomes so important. 

Finally, despite all of the above, you have to ultimately believe in yourself as a coach. Have faith, belief and trust in your coaching, players and follow your own gut instincts of the game! 

Peta Searle is an assistant coach for the Port Melbourne FC. This article was written by Peta as part of the requirements for AFL High Performance Coach Accreditation. 

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