Culture wars: the new frontier of player development?

by Peter Baulderstone

Chris Reardon’s incisive piece on football team ‘culture’, and the thoughtful responses from other contributors inspires me to make my own observations on the closely related issue of young player development

I have been following the WAFL colts competition pretty closely for the last 3 years.  These Saturday morning matches are a much greater source of enjoyment to me than even a 9 goal win by the Eagles.  For 2 main reasons – they play the pure open, running, long kicking, contested marking footy with minimal interchanges that is AFL circa 80’s and 90’s – before the evolution of the defensive zonal structures for a revolving door of athletic battering rams we call modern football.

The second is noticing the development of young men through their playing performances.  Some gain strength, confidence and team awareness.  Others fall away as injury, pressure to succeed or outside interests diminish their capacity to enjoy the game and hence perform to their greatest capability.  It is an unfolding canvas, and the more relaxed environment of only 500 dedicated parents and coaches watching a Colts game gives you the space to muse on the reasons behind success or failure on the field – for both teams and individual players.


Culture to me is ‘the way we do things around here’ – it is subtle and implicit, but you can recognise the different styles.  The main thing is that ‘how you begin’ (with a young player at 15 – 19 years of age) largely creates how you ‘end up’ (whether the result is Chris Judd or Brendan Fevola).  Much like the Jesuits “give me a child until they are 7, and I will show you the man”.  Of course there are other influences than coaches and clubs on the young player – parents, childhood experiences, friends, innate abilities and personality characteristics.

However the effective coach and club have a critical opportunity between 15 and 19 to shape the young man as both a better person and a better player.  Young men silently cry out for clear personal role models and models, in an age where everyone is time poor and immersed in technology and career.  Its no-one’s fault, it’s everyone’s responsibility to think about how we do it better as football clubs, family members and the wider community.

I often muse about the relationship between developments in society and developments in footy. 

Here is an overlay of 2 articles from the media over the last 3 days.  Firstly Noel Pearson in the Australian on Saturday discussing his Institute’s application of the best international research on what makes a good school and teacher.  (I have only change teacher to coach; student to player; school to club or team etc – to make the parallels between football education and school education more apparent).

“Our metaphor for footy culture is a stone archway with nine building blocks. One column of four blocks represents what we call the supply side of the club: the provisioning of a good development to the players of a team by the coaches……………

The other column of four blocks represents what we call the demand side of education: players who are ready to learn and are supported by their teammates and coaches to engage in learning and development…………..

At the top of the arch is the keystone, which unites the supply and demand. This keystone holds together the whole structure.

It is the central organising principle of the entire door to success. Without it, the structure doesn’t work.

In our thinking the keystone is not the coach, contrary to the preponderance of reform discussion in Australia and North America. It is not the player either. It is what goes on between the player and the coach. It truly is the heart of the matter.

There are many dimensions to the coach-player relationship.

There is the personal connection and the pastoral support provided by the coach to his player. There is rapport and friendship. There is concern and commitment on the one side and respect and trust on the other. Yes, with the one or few special coaches in our development, there is indeed a kind of love.

But while these dimensions are important, they are not primary. The degree of pastoral support and rapport is by its nature variable: variable according to the specific relationships coaches have with individual players and variable between coaches. Some coaches are gregarious and warm, others are reserved and colder. The permutations of coach-player relationships are diverse.

Primary to our thinking is the quality of the instruction that passes from the coach to the player. Effective instruction is the heart of the matter. It is the keystone to development. Reserved and less expansive coaches can deliver effective instruction. Conversely, warm and generous coaches can fail to deliver effective instruction if unequipped to do so…………..

The need to improve coach quality dominates prevailing education reform policy. Our thinking in Cape York (read Footy Almanac) has a slightly but critically different emphasis. We say effective instruction makes quality coaching and should be the focus of coach quality.

This is consistent with research insights: it is the quality of the coaching that makes the quality of the coach.

It is good to get an intellectual slapping once in a while. Sometimes there’s no way to make a leap in thinking without it.”

Noel Pearson is director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership (from the Weekend Australian on 30 April 2011)

Then consider the article yesterday by Peter Hanlon on the Age website about Brendan McCartney (Assistant Coach at Essendon and previously Geelong) who James Hird calls “(the best) coach in Australia in the way he develops players and teaches them to play football”.  The link to the full article is

Here are a few highlights from Hanlon’ piece so you get my point:

“Tom Harley says “When you want to influence someone from a coaching point of view, the relationship is where that comes from.”  Harley (recollects) a man deeply interested in his players’ lives beyond football — “your family life, how you’re going with your girlfriend, your wife, work, study, whatever.” Harley says (McCartney’s) black-and-white approach equates to fairness. “The most important part of any sort of teaching is the follow-up, and he would put hours and hours into you.” He sees the McCartney philosophy as essentially old-school: win your own contest, and never, ever give up. “If you’re not willing to relish the contest, you won’t survive too long under any regime that Macca’s involved in.”

Will McTaggart who played in 3 McCartney coached Bellarine League premierships with Ocean Grove in the 1990’s remembers care married to blunt honesty. “He could tell you in a football sense exactly where you were at in one sentence, and ask how you were going personally in the next,” McTaggart says. “He always finished with a positive.”

Recognise the parallels in both articles?  To me its 2 words – relationship and instruction.  Where AFL ‘culture’ has been deficient is in the relatively laissez-faire attitude to the development of young men.  The attitude is ‘boys will be boys’ and particularly gifted players like a Cousins or Fevola get a lot of latitude in their attitude and behaviors.  While Clubs have educational sessions on behavior standards, there seems to be little real monitoring, sanctions or individual intervention to deal with early transgressions before the cancer really takes hold.

The rehab ambulance ‘at the bottom of the cliff’ is a tough gig, with uncertain results.  The best preventive barrier at the top is the sort of intensive mentoring/role modeling that Brendan McCartney demonstrates.  That’s also a tough ask for coaches who need a lot of personal maturity and self assurance to take on that role.  In my observation, young coaches often find it easier to be a bit matey themselves, and ‘turn a blind eye’ when early intervention would avoid a lot of grief and waste later on.  It is also immensely time consuming for coaches, particularly at the below AFL level where there aren’t so many assistants and paid staff.  It takes a lot of time and effort to get beneath the surface and ‘truly know’ what is going on inside a young person.

The other aspect is instruction, and my observer perspective is that even at Colts level there is too much emphasis on team structures and skills, with not enough instructive work on individual skills and deficiencies.  By AFL level that seems to be endemic.  Is it because individual instruction is considered too time consuming, too intrusive or ineffective?

For example ‘natural’ kicking styles are taken for granted.  Brett Ebert at the Eagles is an obvious case to my eye.  He is a very good and developing player.  He has a high ball drop, and his kicks tend to float and miss targets when under pressure on the run.  By contrast he is quite an effective set shot for goal where he can better control all the moving parts.  An AFL scout told me that kicking deficiencies were the sole reason Adelaide took Patrick Dangerfield ahead of him in the Draft – despite Ebert coming from a legendary South Australian football family.  As an Eagles supporter I fear it will end up being the difference between him being a very good rather than elite player.

The other anecdote is from a conversation a few years ago with Ben Allan (the former Hawthorn and Fremantle star and now a Dockers committeeman) about set shots for goal.  At this time he was not a part of the Dockers coaching group, but he said he was taking several players at training on a regular basis to show them techniques for lining up set shots.  These were things he had been taught at Hawthorn in the 80’s and 90’s, but that current AFL players had never understood despite constant video reviews of their game performance.  Where were their Colts and current AFL coaches in this individual skill teaching process?  Chest square on to goal and run in a straight line at the target seems pretty obvious – like a professional golfer lining up on the tee.  Obviously you can face to the right, run to the right and swing your leg to the left to compensate – but not too many golfers win tournaments that way.  It’s just adding to the difficulty of replicating under pressure in a game situation.  Watching television of games, you can see how common these basic flaws are – particularly as players tire late in games – and ingrained habits overtake their conscious control.  Somehow modern coaching seems to often overlook these fundamentals, or think players are beyond individual learning.

As Noel Pearson says, paraphrasing Bill Clinton – “It’s the Instruction, Stupid”.

Relationship and instruction are independently critical elements in the development of young men.  McCartney and Pearson seem to have a common insight that when intertwined these 2 elements are a key to unlocking peak performance both in life and for football teams.  Young men often automatically grant sporting coaches a ‘tribal elder’ status that can give them access to the fears, uncertainties and hopes that are often denied parents, family and other intruders.  McCartney shows how that unique relationship can be used to teach both football and life lessons.

Relationship and instruction – we take the basics for granted at our peril – in football and in life.


  1. Really interesting stuff, Peter. I remember talking to John Longmire in his early days as Sydney’s assistant coach. When he first arrived there he was struck by the fact that there appeared to be two distinct “social” groups amongst the players, with age being the general dilineation factor. One of his first aims was to ensure that this “line” was dissolved. In other words the relationship BETWEEN players was also very important. Not to the point that they all had to be best friends off the field but that they needed to have a strong relationship with each other within the club.

    It’s a difficult thing to quantify but I would argue that, based on the club’s achievements over the past decade, John and the other coaches were very successful in achieving that aim.

  2. johnharms says

    Recently I sat in a pew in a chapel at a school in Indooroopilly, Brisbane. Across the aisle was Noel Pearson, sitting on his own. He had made the trip down from Hope Vale, near Cooktown. A big effort. Which says something about the man whose funeral we were at. Mike Selleck was one of the finest people I’ve ever met. With a capacity to influence in the gentlest yet most powerful ways. Noel was one of his students; and regarded as one of the best students to go through St Peters. I was one of Mike’s colleagues.

    I can see a lot of Mike in Noel Pearson. Mike had the capacity to get to the heart of the matter. Which is what I like about Noel Pearson.

    Mike could cut through the rubbish.

    I suspect Peter you are looking for those who cut through the rubbish.

    I hope to write more about Mike Selleck when I publish his whimsical poem ‘Swansong’. Mike loved the old Bloods.

    A happy coincidence is that Dips O’Donnell, well known to readers of this site, is Mike’s nephew.

    Thanks for your words Peter.

  3. John Butler says

    A lot to consider here Peter.

    Anyone who’s ever coached at any level wonders what the help/harm balance of their efforts is.

    Sometimes it’s far from clear.


  4. a very interesting and well written article Peter, can we expect another sometime soon ?

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