Chris Scott the Diplomat

Chris Scott has an extraordinary ability to think clearly and calmly, and to speak eloquently. He has a career waiting for him in the UN, post-footy, if he chooses. Australian politics needs more with his demeanour. Sometimes I think he’s a Mensa man.

 

As an AFL coach he is yet to go from good to great; is his strength his flaw? What makes a great coach? Having the right players is a good start, but even then a coach is required to orchestrate. It’s not like the drover’s dog in an election.

 

Those on the inside will no doubt verify Chris Scott’s impressive coaching credentials, and are better informed than me. From a fan’s lofty perch, and at risk of being undiplomatic, I have previously suggested that Scott is a great people manager, but was uncertain about his strategies or his ability, or inclination, to motivate at crucial times – that he sometimes appeared too measured. TV grabs of him impassioned in the coaches’ box should dispel that doubt, but they haven’t – not completely.

 

Bearing in mind, a fan’s observations also jump up and down in unison with the win-loss ratio, and footy scribes can sometimes be too analytical. Would I have written this piece three weeks ago? Probably not, even if it was still in the back of my mind looking for evidence either way.

 

The opposite of ‘too measured’ is ‘too emotional’, and successful coaches have regularly been guilty of the latter. Malthouse was on the cranky side of emotional, Sheedy was quirky and cantankerous, Pagan could get heated, and Parkin wasn’t opposed to face-contorting rage. Among current coaches, Clarko can be angry, but less so after the Hawks recent success, though mostly the ranting coach seems to be a fading trend, and that’s probably a good thing, if less entertaining.

 

Leigh Mathews, meanwhile, was rational, with a hard-edged reputation to back it up. He was also Scott’s coach and a likely pragmatic role model. Calm, cantankerous or quirky, the most required attribute is that the coach ‘get through’ to the players, that they buy the message.

 

The flat-patch the Cats are currently going through is not new. Similar lack of spark has cruelled the past four season ends. One win out of our last six finals is somewhat damning given the effort required to get there, and our typical position on the ladder. Last year, a lacklustre three-game stretch at the end of the home-and-away season ruined finals hopes. Typical Cat behaviours that become immediately evident are less willingness to chase, habitual handball (over 200 of the blighters against the Blues on Sunday), along with general lack of intensity. Of course, all teams go through slumps, and players aren’t able to be ‘up’ all season: it’s the timing of the Cat-naps that concern.

 

Is a coach to blame in these situations, or does it just reflect the dynamics of the playing group? Not to mention that every other team is aiming for the same goal – it’s not easy. How able is a coach to instil hunger and desire in players if it isn’t there?

 

Where may diplomacy be a flaw?

 

In a press conference toward the end of last year, Scott admitted he doesn’t talk to the players after the game – after a loss anyway – that he waits until the team meeting the following week to avoid saying the wrong thing while emotions are raw. I doubt Scott would say the wrong thing, but immediately after the game could, sometimes at least, be a good time to issue spontaneous home truths, and speak from the heart.

 

The reaction to this year’s goal-kicking inaccuracy seemed to be fatalistic rather than pro-active, and what began as a small problem became a major one, undermining confidence. Even fixed inaccuracy woes now could still fester in the back of minds for the remainder of the season. Was this an example of diplomacy glossing over reality/strategic requirements, a kind of glass-half-full pragmatism?

 

This year there’s also been an issue of free-kick imbalances, raised initially by the media. Scott’s reaction has been “it’s not them – it’s us”, referring to player technique, and that “we have to keep working on it”. Diplomatic or clever? Either way, the self-blaming ambassadorial approach hasn’t made the umps appreciative or kinder to Cats.

 

The matter of Geelong and free-kick imbalances has a long history, despite rare purple patches. I have my theories as to why this happens, but one thing coach and club rarely do is make a public outcry of it. Sadly, to get respect from umpires, it seems outrage has to be expressed; you have to become undiplomatic squeaky wheels in umpiring subconsciousness.

 

None of the above are, in themselves reasons, or excuses for losing games. And to suggest Chris Scott is always diplomatic is clearly inaccurate. He has had to, rightly or wrongly, make hard calls and send champion players on their way (though I’m sure he was diplomatic about breaking the bad news).

 

While usually at pains to focus on the positives, after last week’s defeat by Collingwood, Scott said he would have sleepless nights trying to figure out where problems lay. This week, he was at a loss to explain our poor showing against the Blues. During the same press conference, he also said he didn’t focus on players’ mental attitude because you only did that when you didn’t know what the problem was. Mixed messages or just evidence a coach’s press comments need to be consumed with liberal doses of sodium chloride?

 

Is being ‘at a loss’ just Scott saying he doesn’t know how to motivate during these form slumps? Or is he less interested in that aspect of coaching because it’s a player responsibility?

 

What causes a footballer to miss easy shots at goal or dish off a hospital handpasses? What are they thinking? Why are they showing lack of care and awareness? It is partly due to opposition pressure, but attitude, mindset etc, are as likely to be responsible.

 

There seems to be a belief that footballers are so professional these days that external motivation isn’t required. This shouldn’t be taken too literally, because I’m sure clubs are often about giving players the tools to motivate themselves, so it’s a semantic fine line.

 

When thinking goes astray, who is responsible for getting minds right if not the coaching staff? Players can break a coach, but a coach can make the players, make them believe possible what they were previously only able to imagine, give them confidence. But, in this time of professionalism, maybe all those observations are now relegated as simplistic.

 

As stated above, this form-slump is not new, and not exclusive to the Cats. North Melbourne, for example, were prone to shockers in recent seasons, but seem to have gained consistency now. In this Twins Paradox, Brad Scott has a different demeanour to Chris, but there are still parallels. Collingwood and Richmond are other teams prone to fluctuating form. I could be imagining it, but there appears to be more occurrences of teams ‘not turning up’ these days. Perhaps it reflects less player depth in the competition.

 

With a 7 – 3 win-loss ratio, the season is still set up for Geelong. Having a Cat flat-spot now could mean we don’t have one at the end of the year. I would call it a successful season if we made finals and reached our peak in them.

 

Chris Scott is only five years into his reign and took over at the tail end of a dynasty. He has a winning percentage many coaches would dream of. He also has a flag in the bag, and was the right man for that occasion. That early success may have become a slight millstone, but it also bought him time.

 

While I’ve been focusing on Scott, I find most AFL coaches to be intriguing, larger than life personalities, and the psychology behind their roles fascinating, along with all the eccentricities and obscure allegories. It can be frustrating sometimes that we’re only given an inkling of what happens behind the scenes. But maybe knowing would dispel the illusion.

 

Fortunately, in our game the secret to success can be as mysterious as the Dark Arts. Like proof, it’s in the pudding, and Scotty Footy Diplomacy may still win the day.

Comments

  1. Well said, Spinksy. I don’t think he can coach – Geelong recruited him as a manager and he needs to surround himself with brilliant tacticians, which have been lacking, until the addition of Simon Lloyd. You can’t blame him for some of the silly acts shown by players on the weekend. Carlton were too good – they applied ferocious pressure, Geelong couldn’t adapt, and when the Blues got free out the back there was no defensive structure to restrict them. That’s the Geelong players playing poorly.
    The players always give that one extra handball too many, and the poor player that receives the final one is caught. Whereas Carlton would handball to get clear and then kick or run. I
    Case in point, Varcoe was always in the right position in his final year at Geelong, but instead of turning on the jets, he’d give a dinky handball to someone in close. Now at Collingwood, he’s a line breaker. Was he confused by the coach’s plan at Geelong? Was the plan to handball-handball-handball?

  2. Paul Spinks says:

    Thanks, Cookie. I haven’t given up on him as a coach yet, though, as you say, ‘manager’ could be a better description, and yes he does need good assistants, as they all seem to these days. But if we have another late fade out this year I might revise that.
    The Blues have often played well against us in recent years, despite the win-loss ratio, so we should’ve been ready for a tough encounter.
    The handball game served well as an attacking weapon in 07 & 08 then it became too habitual and the opposition figured it out, would be on the hammer of the player waiting to receive it, would turn the ball over etc. We started the season with the right balance, the mystery is why we keep falling back into it. I would like to think it wasn’t instructions from the coaches, but if it was that could be a worry.

  3. Peter_B says:

    Coaches are like politicians. Watch what they do. Don’t listen to what they say. Adam Simpson is very measured in public like Chris and shows little emotion on game day (he did throw a clip board when the Suns kicked 3 cheap goals last week – rare). My guess is that the public and private personas are often very different.
    NSW Premier Neville Wran could swear fit to strip paint when aroused. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was a regular tantrum thrower. But you would never guess it from their public persona.
    Other than the highly successful like Clarkson or Sheedy who seem to be able to reinvent themselves as they go, I reckon most coaches (like CEO’s and managers) have about a 5 year life span in a position. Messages get stale and familiar. Strategies have been tried and failed or overtaken.
    I think the mix of young and old; new to the club and fixtures – would be a particular challenge at Geelong. The old blokes look like they think that they can just “flick the switch” to me. But old engines need a lot of priming and choke – just when you want them to fire they splutter.
    Thanks Paul. Thought provoking.

  4. Peter Clark says:

    You certainly got me thinking also Paul. Chris Scott’s post-2011 record in big games at the pointy end of the season is worrying. The spotlight needs to be on him and his coaching staff just as much as the players right now. Let’s wait for their responses. Maybe Peter_B is right and that the five year life span in a position is the reasonable expectation for most coaches nowadays. There are exceptions of course, currently Alistair Clarkson – or is that just the Hawthorn way? Chris Scott could still prove the doubters wrong with his brand of footy diplomacy.
    The stats show the Cats have things to fix – goal kicking accuracy and the free kick imbalance especially. I don’t know if the “squeaky wheel” theory works with umpires but I agree that self-blaming diplomatic comments by coaches only reinforce the umpires belief in their calls. And I reckon over zealous home crowd booing of umpires can actually turn the men in budgerigar-green against you. The free kick issue is largely a matter of technique, but it sure helps if you win the ball around the clearances more often and have the opposition in panic instead. Paul, you have the answers to the inaccuracy question, pressure and mindset – now practice to regain confidence is next. I bet they are peppering the goals at practice down at Kardinia Park at the moment. But that doesn’t guarantee immediate improvement on game day. They are creating enough opportunities, so when confidence returns the goals column should start to exceed the behinds column once more. Hopefully that is not in round 20 or so!

  5. Paul Spinks says:

    Thanks Peter B & Peter C:
    Chris Scott is into his sixth year, so will be interesting to see how it pans out. He’s young enough to reinvent himself if able.
    Adam Simpson came to mind as I wrote – he appears even more laid back, but again, public persona?
    I could imagine Wran prone to being blue, less so Gareth, though ‘tantrum’ sounds like a good description of anything I would imagine.
    But, don’t mind some fire in the belly.
    On the subject of five years – we Cat fans had it very good for that period – maybe now is the new normal.
    Perish the thought!
    Here’s to peppering the goals at practice leading to perfection, and to recalibrated engines..

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