AFL coaching: Have we moved beyond the practice of the legendary Ron Barassi yet?

Dear coaching and learning peers, Are we still stuck in the black and white era when it comes to coaching in this country?  I think so...

Ron Barassi - a legend of Australian football!

Ron Barassi - a legend of Australian football!

Funny how my coach development sharing is far more popular in UK and Ireland rugby coaching communities than in Australian football?  No, not really, as they are prepared to try things a little differently!  Move into the colour television era... Whilst we in Australian football, coaching remains in the throes of the past... As I will explain.

I have the 1981 version of this cracker!!!

I have the 1981 version of this cracker!!!

'The Coach' by John Powers (1978) is a wonderful read regarding the amazing character of Ron Barassi.  I am from Queensland, so most of the coaches I grew up knowing as legends weren't named Barassi, Hafey, Sheedy, Matthews, Cahill and the like, but as a lover of coaching and new to the 'national game', these legends allow me to understand the unique coaching styles that don't make sense to somebody like me from a 'rugger' coaching background.

Exhibit 'A' below...


This photo has special significance in my Australian football coaching journey!

This photo has special significance in my Australian football coaching journey!

Mentioned previously in posts by me, was how three years ago, some brave leaders of Australian football approached me and asked if I could present something to their staff on Game Sense.  I remember saying at the time that if you want coaching improvement you might need to look at some cultural change strategy!  In any case, I knew that the coaches would be used to and probably over-relied on 'closed' drills, as are most coaches in this country, in any sport.  Hence, I 'googled' "AFL drills", and, the above picture caught my eye. 

My first question to myself was, "Isn't AFL a 360 degree game?"  Thus, later when I was invited at a Level One (where I too was getting my certificate) to present on 'Game Sense', the first thing I asked them was, "How come you coaches are getting your players ready for rugby league?"  I thrust my two arms in front of me and said, "Two lines, facing each other... Makes no sense to me!"  I haven't been invited back to present 'Game Sense' again obviously...

Exhibit B below:

The line-up and wait: source - 'Coach Assist'

The line-up and wait: source - 'Coach Assist'

After I made my rugby league comments to the Level 1 group mentioned above, I told them the following anecdotes that happened within 16 hours of each other:

1) After my u/11 girls finished their 45 minutes of games centred learning on Friday night, I then had to wait 45 minutes for my other daughter to finish her 90 minute U/13 session.  The second last activity had the experienced coach holding one solitary tackle bag and had the 15 girls lined up waiting for their turn whilst he followed the AFL promotes SPIR method well on tackling 'technique'.   In other words, 20 seconds of 'I' for instruction, whilst the waiting young women got better at cartwheels and the like.

So that I had some anecdotal information for the presentation I was about to give at AFLQ, I asked the three parents I was standing with: "What are they learning here?"

The librarian and saxophone player who gigs regularly (must know a little about feel and rhythm) said: "They are learning that bags are soft and do not move."

The engineer (very animated) said: "They are learning how to make a straight line - that's pretty straight!"

The plumber who spent 20 years in the army with his trade said: "They are learning discipline." 

"You were rightI" I nodded to the plumber when his answer was indeed confirmed when the girls finished the session with two laps...

2) The next morning I coached rugby union and had a boy from Normanton (remote Queensland)in my team.  The boys in his team and against him, had never seen footwork like his before, let alone his decision making. 

At one point, he was confronted by four defenders in front of him at the tryline and due to his skills and speed, he had run away from his trailing (long way back) support.  

Now, most high school kids or adults when faced with this situation, would engage the defence and try to fight and keep on their feet, until the support arrived, or, throw a wildly long pass back and across.  Not him though - he took the smart decision and ran backwards and across to his support and we scored in two phases.  This is rarely seen ever at an U/15 schoolboy level...  

I asked him about it after, and, he could clearly explain his decision. 

What perceptual awareness!  What skill!  

When do we learn this in ordered columns waiting for a turn?

That awareness develops usually by being allowed to play and create... No lines!!!  This was my message to the Level One coaches from these two vastly contrasting learning moments!  

Exhibit C below - AFL 'line' coaching:

One of my 'favourites' for strange is 'line' coaching...

One of my 'favourites' for strange is 'line' coaching...

To explain this, we best get another Gunny anecdote:

Last year whilst finishing my Level II AFL course, I was given the honour of coaching a Brisbane north AFL team for the state championships.  At training, the 'Top Dog' (great coach too) would say, "You know what your 'go' is Gunny?  Congestion!!!  The boys have got to get better at getting the ball out of congestion...".  No worries here!!!

There were lots of coaches and then I realised why!  "Gunny because you're from a rugby league background, you are going to be our 'defence' coach ok?"  I laughed inwardly thinking about just HOW different the two codes' defensive pressures were, but, sure... I could teach a few things about 'contact'...

Then!!!  "Here are your defenders mate.  Away you go and work with them..."

"Ok...???"  Aren't we all defenders and attackers (midfielders in particular)? I thought to myself.

Before games, the 'line' coach takes their group for a special talk.  Against Papua New Guinea (PNG), I noticed in the 'pre-match' section, they were playing 'backyard' type games for an hour and a quarter, whilst our boys got read, massaged or 'strapped'.  Thus, for the PNG game, I took my men to the fence and asked a simple question: "Do you see any strapping on those blokes?"  No...  "Be ready!!!"  And, ready they were!

During the game, to me it seemed that all the midfield 'line' wanted to do was attack!  My 'line' got plenty of practice defending and were doing their job.  Thus, when it was time (quarters and halfs for me to work with the boys on their own as a group before the final 'talk' by the head coach), I'd just say, "What do you reckon I'm going to say?"  That we're doing our job???  "Absolutely!!!  Thus, talk amongst yourselves now men about who you're marking and what they do, and, if somebody is better defending them..."

Now, come forward to this this year (2018), where I've also had the opportunity of coaching wonderful, experienced PE teachers and coaches in the state league, men (QAFL) and women's (QWAFL) competition.  One great learner (a Head Coach) just said, "Gunny, can you just watch what the coaches say and let me know your thoughts?"

Absolutely!  "Well, what happened mate, is that the 'lines' of players were together talking and problem solving about particular opponents.  Importantly, the senior men were really showing great leadership!  But... Then, the 'line coaches' arrived, and, all they talked about was what they saw and everybody shut up and listened.  Mate, wouldn't it be better if we let the players' perspectives have a bigger 'say'?"

But now, back to where all of this comes from... The 'black and white' days!!!

Powers (1978) observes Barassi's coaching: "Each group of thirty players divided into fifteen to an end, 30 metres apart.  Practice began with one player from each end sprinting towards the other, one carrying the ball while the other yelled for a handpass... After dispatching the ball the players went to the end of the waiting que until their next turn to sprint and receive a pass..." (p. 50).

Of course, Ron Barassi in the book had many, many tricks to get them a medal.  But... This, in my opinion, ain't one of them...

AND, with 'Kick to Kick' and 'Lanework' culture, it's still happening now.  BUT... There is hope: ME!!!  Plus, many others like Shane Pill, Dave Reynolds, Greg Forrest, Mark Upton and others!  In fact go to any university PE department!!!

Yet it will require cultural change...

By the way, did I ever tell you how I can't do a Level III because I'm not High Performance???

Yours in learning,