The Ingredient to Successful Coaching


TWITTER – @JClark182

What is the key ingredient to being a successful coach? That is easy, it’s the ability to adapt:


To adapt to game plans. Adapt to external happenings both within and outside of the football club. Adapt to the opposition. Adapt to your own emotions. Adapt to the personalities of the individual players that form a team.


Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”


There is certainly no blueprint for what is required to be an effective coach; history shows us that many different styles have been implemented and become successful over time.


The game’s current most successful coach, Alastair Clarkson, has been described by former Hawthorn player Tim Boyle as a “peculiar man”.


But the tone of this description did not come from a man that was a disillusioned delisted player, but rather an endearing ex-student.


I racked Boyle’s brain on just what it was about this current Hawthorn unit that has allowed them to dominate the competition under Clarkson’s tutelage.


“Clarkson is an intense guy, as you can probably imagine, he is an incredibly driven person.” Boyle told Lace Out Podcast.


“He has a very aggressive personality and I think that has been an advantage for him as a coach.


“I think it has been proven over time that the playing group needs to have a certain level of – not fear – but a version of respect that goes beyond a regular type of authority figure.”


Clarkson demands a lot of his players, a lot of the people around himself, but perhaps most importantly, a lot of himself.


It feels apt to refer to the Hawthorn team as a “unit” and their game plan as a “system” because their methodological style almost dehumanises the group.


Clarkson has an innate ability to stay a step ahead of the game and has played a major role in the evolution of footy into the highly skilled and technical game that it is today.


His legacy will live on long after he is retired, largely through the assistant coaches he has nurtured who have gone on to achieve relative success at other clubs.


“Clarkson was able to raise the stakes – he has a teaching background and he was qualified in that sense to deliver a message and teach people what he wanted to do,” Boyle added.


“He had good people around him with clear, intelligent ideas on the best way to do things and they were willing to adapt when things weren’t working.


“There is always a bit of a mystery as to how the whole thing come together, otherwise every club would do the same thing – and they almost do.”


It is this mystery that makes the art of coaching such a beautiful thing.


I was fortunate enough to spend some time training under former Geelong All-Australian Matt Egan, who has experience as an assistant coach at the Cats and also at Essendon. Perhaps he is a future AFL coach in waiting.


I could not say a bad word about him; he was approachable, measured, self-assured and knowledgeable.


Everything was a learning process and training sessions were goal-oriented. It was not uncommon to stop a training drill for an on-field discussion on what we were doing well and what needed to improve – it almost felt as if I was back at school.


It is important to note that this was a genuine two-way back-and-forth discussion too, not the type of ‘discussion’ you get from an angry teacher or parent when they are reprimanding you.


But while I found Egan to be great, his style might not be conducive to other personality types.


Some coaches unnaturally attempt the “fire and brimstone” approach, which only serves as an avenue to losing the respect or confidence of the playing group.


But coaches are only human and football is a passionate game, so their emotions are not always going to be in check.


Coaching is undoubtedly a cutthroat caper and it is often the first position a football club looks to change when they are struggling on-field.


Further compounding the pressure on coaches outside of professional level is the different roles most are required to undertake for their club: recruiter, opposition analyst, player welfare, fitness coordinator, the list goes on.


Don’t get me wrong, a good spray can come in handy for certain scenarios, but the best coach is one who can diversify their message and relate to all of their players on an individual level. This requires knowledge of your group as people and good communication skills because what makes one player tick into good form may shatter another player’s confidence.


Coaching is certainly an intriguing art and you will never find a ‘perfect coach’, but the ability to adapt effectively to different stimuli should hold most coaches in good stead.

About Jackson Clark

Born and bred in Darwin, Northern Territory, I am a young, aspiring football writer that lives and breathes the game of Australian Football. I'm also a keen player and coach.


  1. Terrific article Jackson. Alastair Clarkson is the most interesting person in footy. I can see how his strategic vision and drive got him ahead of the curve. But how he and the Hawks stay there is a marvel. His ‘edge’ must be getting smaller and smaller as the Intellectual property is shared with other clubs, but he still keeps ahead of the game.
    Greatest coach of all time. Strategic genius who also had the drive to implement his vision. Very rare qualities in life. Most people are one or the other. Dreamers who don’t get things done. Or driven people still knocking the same square peg into the same round hole.

  2. Paul Spinks says

    Spot on, Jackson. It’s often said players get sick of the coach’s message. Clarko has the ability to reset. Sheedy would be an interesting comparison given how long he stayed in the job at Essendon.

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