Lessons from a day in an AFL Coaches’ box

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spend the afternoon in the St Kilda coaches’ box. Here’s what I learnt.

A day in the coaches’ box.

Sunday afternoon. The week’s preparation all comes to a point. Two and a half hours of moving parts. Action. Reaction. Decisions. Consequences. A room of specialists drive a team for performance. A room that requires focus and immediacy. What follows is what I learnt during my day in the St Kilda coaches box.

The day has been more meaningful for me in the few days since I have had a chance to reflect and think about the day. And as a management consultant, I’m always interested in the lessons I can take to clients and apply my own professional life. In my line of work I am often asked for advice on how teams and leaders could and should work. What works? What doesn’t? The cauldron that is the coaches’ box was a great example.

No chit chat

The first thing that struck me was that there was no chit-chat, no small talk, no jokes, no wasted time. From the moment the coaching staff walked into the box it was nothing but business. All the conversation was about the task at hand. Even as the coaches got settled the conversation was very targeted. Not having seen the coaches in the lead up my assumption is that they got all the pleasantries out of their system early. When they get to their “office” – it’s time to work.

Lesson: Intensity. Everything that is and nothing that isn’t. When there is a job to be done – do it with intent. Be present for the job at hand. There’s a time and place for chit chat – choose it wisely.

Clarity of role and accountability

One thing that was immediately clear was the trust that Alan Richardson had in his assistants. He trusts them to fulfil their role and manage their part of the team. The midfield, back-line and forward-line coaches manage their troops and make the decisions that they need to make. Their accountability is crystal clear.

Lesson: You hire people to do a job, let them do it. Set the boundaries and expectations then let them get on with it. Without a doubt you need to review performance but if your hiring regime is thorough and your expectations and values are clear, then let them do their job.

The importance of information

During the game there was information constantly being thrown around the box. Line coaches would call out their observations. Player movements, changes in position and match-ups, time left in the quarter. And most of the time the information called out was never directed at anyone in particular nor was it ever acknowledged unless there was a very specific follow up. Otherwise there seemed to be snippets of information “in the cloud” and people were expected to know what was important, grab it and do something with it.

Lesson: Know what matters and focus on it. Ignore the noise. Take what’s useful, do something with it, and leave the rest.

Once a decision is made – it’s made

There was often debate between the line coaches themselves or between the senior coach and a line coach. The debate was always specific and from memory never left unresolved. That resolution took a couple of different forms. The senior coach and the line coach agreed and the action was taken, or when there was a difference of opinion the senior coach made the final decision. This isn’t ground breaking but what followed was, once the decision was made there was no further debate or questioning. The senior coach decided on a direction and that was the way the team went.

Lesson: Leaders have to lead. It’s better for a leader to make ten decisions and get eight right then only make six of ten decisions, get them all right but leave four unmade. Debate which decision to take but once decided – get on it.

From game to team to line to individual

The senior coach watches the whole game but his attention always seems to be on a list of things. He sees his own team’s strategy play out against that of the opposition. He will speak of his team and the opposition. When necessary he will drop his attention down a level to discuss and review a specific thing that his team or the opposition is doing and he will use his IT/stats person to inform his point of view. He will question or discuss something with a line coach – and they better be ready to answer. The senior coach will also give specific feedback on an individual with very targeted comments for their development. The conversation also turns to specific things that the line coaches needed to take note of and work on in upcoming training.

LessonKnow the field you are playing in – your market. Know your organisation. Know your staff and always look and plan for development opportunities.

Feedback to players

The senior coach never missed a chance to speak to players that had rotated off. Sometimes it was just to reinforce the good work they were doing and other times it was to deliver a specific message. One thing that stood out was the tone of every single message. It was direct so that the player was very clear about what was required. And it was always positive. The message was always about what the coach needed more of or what needed to be done. It was never about what not to do. This left no space for ambiguity and reinforced lessons and principles.

LessonPeople respond to positive reinforcement. If you tell someone not to do something that can leave uncertainty. If you tell them to do one thing then there is clarity. 

The day didn’t end with the result that the team was after. But it’s obvious that the positives and development opportunities from the game will be taken and used to extend St Kilda’s journey. There are no hysterics. No tantrums. Just a focus on what needs to happen to improving.

This was an amazing opportunity and I was happy to be able to support Maddie Riewoldts’s vision at the same time. The hospitality shown to me by the St Kilda team and in particular by my chaperone Luke O’Brien, was outstanding. The day reinforced the two things I suspected all along. First, after 48 years of supporting the Saints and following football I still know very little about the game, and second, and more importantly, we are in good hands.

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