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How to succeed in the AFL’s cutthroat coaching world

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31st January, 2023

Some AFL coaches hone their survival instincts, while others battle to overcome imposter syndrome. The most successful ones lean into the uncertainty, focusing on discovering what winning looks like week after week, year after year.

It’s the lead-up to the 2014 grand final. Around the table are some legends of AFL coaching history: Ron Barassi, John Kennedy Senior, Leigh Matthews, Chris Fagan and David Parkin. They share rare insights into the senior coaches of the day and what it takes to win in the modern game.

Barassi says the best coaches know how to “sound sensible under pressure”, make good decisions, communicate clearly and own the outcomes.

Fagan echoes that successful coaches and clubs looking “to be strong culturally and ethically” have to “take responsibility for their own actions” and keep their approaches simple, limited to basics. like winning the ball first.

Matthews still admires the great “orators” – those powerful match-time speakers – but concedes that today’s game is more about preparation and coaching strategy.

All agree that communication, listening and the ability to read the clubroom (and the boardroom) are critical tools for modern coaches planning to stick around.

“You haven’t [really] coached until you’ve coached a bottom team,” Fagan says, summing up how tough the game has become for coaches in the modern era.


So has much changed in nearly a decade since these sentiments were captured in the Peter Dickson documentary The Chosen Few?

What it takes

The modern coaching toolkit had already started combining soft and hard skills. Data-driven football – in the spirit of the 2011 baseball film Moneyball – was well established and no doubt already yielding results. But a few things have changed in the interval, adding more complexity to the lives of senior coaches.

Recruitment has become a year-round proposition, while list management borders on alchemy.

Health and safety is now built into every stage of the game, as reflected in regular rules changes to protect players. COVID certainly added a surreal dimension to the impacts of health on a team’s performance – just ask Eagles fans about that in 2022!

Coaches of yore would tell their players to worry about the ball first, then think about the man – to step up and be counted. “Don’t think, don’t hope; do something!” Kennedy Snr famously told his Hawthorn team in the 1975 grand final.


But they would also concede that coaching is way more nuanced in the modern game. As North Melbourne’s David Noble was to learn in 2022, the old-school spray is dangerous territory if not handled with care.

Coaches today need to look for uplifting ways to inspire and encourage players, building character and resilience across the whole team. They need to be students as well as teachers, drawing on different sources of inspiration, from philosophy, psychology and sociology to what’s going on in the natural world.

Greater emphasis is on wellbeing than in the past too. Team-building camps delve into group dynamics, cultural connections, and core value systems. These yield varying results, as revealed by Adelaide and Carlton player Eddie Betts last year.

From theory to practice

Modern coaches including the Scott brothers – Chris at Geelong and Brad now at Essendon – are known to be great students of the game in their approach to coaching. In the thick of the 2021 season, Chris offered a taster of how his Cats could rise to the challenge of beating benchmark teams like Richmond at the time.

“There are some parts that we look at and, when we get the game on our terms, the next part is how do we make sure we finish the job,” he said, per the AFL website. “That’s so easy to say and the theories are easy,” he added, but the real secret is in the planning and execution, something the premiership player and coach knows a thing or two about.

Indeed coaches like Richmond’s Damien Hardwick and former Hawthorn and current North Melbourne coach Alastair Clarkson have taken this to new levels, spending their off-seasons – and between club spells – studying what other professional sports get up to abroad.

Chris Scott and Joel Selwood of the Cats hold the premiership cup aloft.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

As a coach, Hardwick says he can’t rightly keep asking players to improve every week if he is not prepared to do the same. His recent trip to the USA to learn some new tricks from different codes, including the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, is part of that lifelong learning approach to winning. A look at both coaches’ CVs and the proof is hard to ignore.

Deakin University coaching expert Fraser Carson suggests in a story about learning from successful AFL coaches that the value of bringing fresh perspectives to the job is underappreciated and potentially misunderstood.

“In fact, it’s more common to experience imposter syndrome when bringing a unique set of skills and experience to a new job,” he said.

But if you “lean into your skill set and believe in your capabilities”, the article continues, “you could offer something significant”.

Diverse experience helps you to “view things in innovative ways” and find that edge needed to succeed in a cutthroat business.