Every AFL coach has 40-plus players with 40-plus personalities, writes Paul Roos

harry obrien

Collingwood defender Harry O’Brien in action at training while coach Nathan Buckley looks on. Picture: Michael Klein Source: Herald Sun

TWO weeks ago everyone was focused on Collingwood and Harry O’Brien’s revelations and his discontent with discussions in a team meeting.

Last week we were debating whether Stephen Milne should be allowed to play for St Kilda. And this week everyone has an opinion on how Geelong should be handling Stevie J and his consistent visits to the tribunal. All three cases are dramatically different but all three have raised enormous discussion and shown that, no matter how significant or trivial an incident is, the magnifying glass has never been more intense. What these examples also highlight is the tremendous gulf that exists between the senior coach and his assistants. Every assistant coach would have a wealth of knowledge about the game. They would understand stoppages, clearances, ball movement, defensive actions, and so on.

Most would be good communicators in team meetings and would be able to pass on their knowledge to their player group. A senior coach’s main job is to manage the 40-plus listed players. To do that effectively he needs to understand them – physically, emotionally and psychologically. A senior coach will often feel like a psychologist as he deals with so many issues on a daily and weekly basis. In fact, when I was coaching the Swans I would spend a lot of time with our club psychologist, trying to understand different personalities in order to deal with issues as they arose. We even had our club psychologist lecture all our coaches on generation Y. It was fascinating, insightful, and gave our older coaching group a better understanding of how this generation operated. Most AFL clubs now have leadership groups and standards of behaviour that every player must adhere to. However, the better coaches understand that with 40-plus players there are many different personalities and challenges they must face. A senior coach must have an open-door policy and must strive to create an environment where players feel comfortable in walking through that door. If a player is uncomfortable for one reason or another to front the senior coach there must be a system in place that allows the assistants to form close relationships to their player groups. Mentoring programs using senior leaders is also a great way for young players to express themselves in a comfortable environment.


There is no doubt the more open the environment is, issues are aired and dealt with far quicker than in a closed football club. The senior coach often becomes the face of an issue when it arises. Fairly or unfairly he is the guy that is seen as the representative of the football club. This is something that you cannot learn as an assistant coach. While the senior coach is the leader of the club, in difficult times he must not be afraid to lean on others. Far from being a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength that he is prepared to seek out others, discuss issues and then come to a conclusion. With so much of the senior coach’s role being that of a manager he must also have the ability to put tremendous faith into his assistants to prepare the team especially when an issue arises. Often it is the assistants that shelter the rest of the playing group away from the public issue. They take control of meetings and ensure there is no disruption to most players’ preparations. This allows the senior coach to meet with the CEO and chairman and focus on whatever problem exists within the club. This way the players know the issue is being addressed, but not to the detriment of their preparation. It is important that the senior coach doesn’t get too distracted, however. There is still a game to be played. It is an extremely difficult balancing act to prepare the team and not letting the players get distracted. Every week a new challenge presents itself and there is no manual that covers everything a senior coach will face in his career. A coach should go into the role looking to control what he can, set up an environment for success, hope problems don’t arise, but be prepared for when they do.

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