The Art of Coaching

In Al Pacino’s film Any Given Sunday his character implores the team to victory Inch by Inch, winning and losing, living and dying is determined by gaining that inch. The monologue is timeless and resonates with most competitive animals, the mantra of looking into each other’s eyes and committing to the cause makes you want to shake the dust off the old woollen and crash a pack while playing kick to kick with the youngest.

Modern coaches appear a tad less demonstrative, while the veins can be seen popping out of the neck or vision of a coach punching the wall or ripping hair and/or shouting into their hand continually appears on broadcast TV, the role of coach is becoming less of a follow me boys/girls into battle type and more in the style of an executive leader.

Imagine Monday morning team review, coaching and leadership group sitting around the board table, general banter about footy tips gone wrong and fantasy players that didn’t live up to expectations. The room falls quiet as the coach walks in, asks for a review of previous minutes, looks at the agenda and then proceeds to review what each department head has been doing and how its meeting KPIs, how we can do better this week, what resources do we need to meet these expectations? Any issues with staff are discussed and then it’s back to work, a few light hearted jokes as the room disperses and off they go. Actually I think that is exactly what happens now.

A coach’s role is and always has been one of facilitator, a teacher, mentor; it is their action in facilitating the available resources to bring out the best in the individual and team. This involves developing the athlete, in character and skill, to instill an ethic of hard work and persistence and put in place the triggers for internal motivation. A coach should be positive, encouraging and sets standards for continual improvement.

At the last Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow, the behavior of former Athletics Australia Coach Eric Hollingsworth challenged me to comprehend what his role of coach was. I think Athletics Australia was also challenged by this proposition.

Pearson, the favourite to win her event, was also captain of the Athletics Team and was initially criticised for not attending a warm up team camp and then he subsequently publicly questioned her character less than a day before her major event.

Initially I thought his attack was to create a motivational wedge, to drive his star athlete and prove him wrong, to reverse her form with a gold medal, which she duly won. His attack and subsequent suspension and removal from the team actually resulted in a more galvanised team. Hiring your own PR agency to deliver the attack outside the explicit requests of team management was indeed a mighty sacrifice for team success.

Hollingsworth’s behaviour brought to attention the different styles that coaches employ to achieve results.

Results are the determining factors for Australian Sporting Organisations competing at the Commonwealth Games; they underpin funding from the Australian Sports Commission and directly impact their future employment.

It is debatable whether Hollingsworth’s actions were to gain maximum results for his team or to assert his position. His actions prompted me on the following; what makes a good coach and is there a formula for success, is the immediate success more important than the development?

That the passing of Tom Hafey, one of the more inspirational AFL coaches, had significance to so many was not surprising nor was the constant message of how Tommy had impacted their lives, not just his players but all who came in contact with him. Tommy’s teams were successful, he was a firm and demanding coach yet he was sincere in the welfare of his players during and after their playing days. T-shirt Tommy was genuine and his players responded accordingly. His genuine belief in developing character is a lasting legacy.

Interesting to note that coaches who played under Hafey carried forward similar attributes and levels of success, including premiership coaches Tony Jewel at Richmond, Kevin Sheedy at Essendon and Mick Malthouse at West Coast and Collingwood.

It is the development of relationships that are imperative in getting the most out of the individual. Gerald Fitzgerald, successful VFL football coach states, “I would like to think that I have a really strong interest in having a positive influence on my players, both as footballers and as people.”

In the NFL, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll introduced a different approach to standard coaching methods. Influenced by “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey, Carroll’s philosophy centres around clearing the clutter in the interactions between the conscious and subconscious mind. He believed through meditation that focus, clarity and belief in yourself will allow you to expose your ability without the negative thoughts and concerns.

A different approach with a successful outcome.

Australia’s most successful coach Ric Charlesworth believed that humility is one of the major attributes in achieving success. He states “Humility underpins an attitude that says we can get better, there is more to do, we have to improve. It underpins a disciplined approach to your lifestyle and your training in how you prepare and acquire skills”.

Paul Roos, when coaching Sydney Swans had a belief that he was the conduit for the team’s ambitions. What was it that the team wanted and he would empower them to get there. Through positive affirmation and encouragement to make mistakes from which to learn he developed a game plan that the entire playing group embraced.

A significant aspect to this was the introduction in 2002 of the Blood Culture. Initially introduced through Leading Teams’ Ray Mclean, the Bloods Culture was a trademark for their behaviour. As opposed to team mantras and statements of intent the Swans embraced the trademark faithfully and consistently over a decade of success. The culture is predominantly about playing a role, a commitment to engage and support your fellow “blood” not to put yourself above the team but to be as one. A new player does not come into the team until he has shown that he has embraced the culture. Every player knows their role.

Hawthorn’s coach Alistair Clarkson has a similar approach. When one soldier goes down another replaces him. Clarkson is also a believer in developing a culture of excellence where in pursuit of this objective the results will be achieved.

One of the key roles of the coach is teacher and it is no surprise that some of the more successful coaches have been school teachers, David Parkin at Hawthorn and Carlton, Alistair Clarkson and Gerald Fitzgerald to name a few and perhaps Brendon Bolton will shine at Carlton.

A Coach should also be adaptive and innovative; games are not just won between the ears, although it helps significantly. A strong game plan or strategy executed flawlessly provides a consistent platform to achieve results. The Hawthorn and Sydney AFL game plans are continually being challenged by opposition coaches, however when every person in the team carries out their respective role it becomes difficult to conquer. The game plan for both teams are consistent in their reserves and senior teams, when a player moves up they immediately know the game style and their role within that plan and are comfortable in executing their role. The role is the catalyst and the player one of many who is capable to execute it.

The need to be adaptive becomes important when an opposing coach develops a counter strategy. The Sydney Swans went through a period of consecutive losses against Collingwood. Collingwood Coach Mick Malthouse, in true Sun Tzu Art of War behaviour, turned the Swans’ greatest strength into their weakness. Malthouse knew that the Swans culture was to always contest the stoppages and he developed a game plan that questioned this culture by putting his major ball winners outside of the contest. The Swans’ players had to quickly decide to stay with their direct opponent or to engage in the stoppage, their culture demanded that they contest and Collingwood’s key ball winners would inevitably dominate. While the Swans eventually adapted to this counter move, the strategy questioned commitment to the cause and the culture was strong enough to survive.

The Wallabies under Michael Cheika are showing indications of a united team, almost like a chapter from Clarko’s coaching manual. The players have a role, one goes down the Coach has utmost confidence that another will replace him. His side plays with humility and a new found respect from the opposition, particularly in their biggest flaw, scrummaging. Success is gained when the execution of maximum effort, dedication and commitment to your team and team mates is achieved.

The role of Coach is about getting the most out of the individual and/or team. The more successful coaches understand that it is not just the execution of skills and game plan that delivers results. Nor is motivation through fear or intimidation. A coach that develops character as well as skill that encourages and promotes effort rather than outcome and coaches mastery and not victory will achieve sustained success.

Do we see this in our corporate leaders?


About David Parker

A keen observer of all things sport and a Swans tragic, David likes to dabble in sporting documentaries including the Max Bailey doco for Fox Footy. David is currently filming a documentary on the Australian Cycling Men's Team Pursuit squad as they prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics.


  1. Great Article David. Culture, whether sporting or corporate, is hard to define, easily fractured, but an extremely powerful force when positive. In my opinion this is a top down responsibility and I agree with your sentiments and your analysis of great coaches that you have observed.

  2. Really interesting analogy to corporate leadership. The answer is clearly no. Even the best project method we have in the corporate world AGILE has only 37% success rate. No prof sporting team would be satisfied with a 37% win ratio so I’m not sure why we in the corp world of are willing to accept this result!

    I think the problem #1 in corporate culture that needs sorting before we can even think about achieving the mastery motivation and continuous improvement objectives that you describe is that we need to find a way to (accurately) measure the things that matter.
    Thats not easy to do when teams are increasingly disjointed and remote.
    In sport we obviously use gps. health monitors. and god knows what else to monitor players along with cameras galore to watch games and review plays and patterns. Sport clubs have a deep understanding of the player and team strengths and weaknesses that can be used to optimize performance and help everyone achieve their individual and team goals. No corporate ive ever worked for does any of this or takes this need seriously.
    There is a way to do it with technology, and some gamification concepts that Ive developed and am testing at the moment.

Leave a Comment