Don’t Dilute Danger

AFL is the most elite, professional and highest standard of Australian rules football available – anywhere. That’s a fact.

Whilst appropriate risk mitigation and controls are completely necessary, the AFL decision-makers run the distinct risk of over-sanitising the game to within an inch of it’s life.

Community competitions whilst inferior in skills and talent are becoming more watchable and closer to the entertainment that average fan want to see. These competitions do not have the funds, resources and infrastructure to manipulate games as deliberately as the AFL does. In essence they are raw and untouched, not overpowered by manipulation and manufactured outcomes.

We all understand the importance of safety, protecting players as much as possible and reducing the risk of serious injury. I’m 55 years of age and have played junior, community, country, representative, AFL and state football. I have also coached country, community, representative and AFL levels along with media involvement, commenting and providing opinions on the game. My playing, coaching, media career spans 47 years. In that time I have never witnessed a death due to the game. The most dangerous situation over that time was the terribly unfortunate incident involving Footscray’s Neil Sachse, who became a quadriplegic due to contact whilst contesting the ball in Round 2, 1975 – 38 years ago.

Players have also broken legs, arms, shoulders and jaws along the way. Too many to mention but not enough to surprise. In a bid to encourage parents to support their children to take up Aussie rules against the other sports, the AFL has seen it fit to sanitise the game to a degree that renders it a shade of its former self in a few critical areas.

The AFL competition should not be the guinea pig for appeasing parents. It should be the most brutally contested and fiercely fought showcase of the game. After all it is played by the greatest athletes this country can muster, it is the most elite form of the game, is supported by the highest levels of professionalism, science and medicine available and is the showcase globally.

In boxing, amateurs wear headgear and use bigger gloves which mitigates the risk of being hurt. Professionals don’t have headgear and use smaller gloves because they are the best in the world and have trained accordingly. In essence we want to see the absolute elite given the best chance to show off the full gamut of their talents and skills.

By all means put constraints and “governors” on community and junior football if you want to attract the number of participants (if you think that works), but let the big boys play and let the pro’s show their complete bag of tricks.

It warrants that the arena is a risky environment.

The thing that develops ability and progresses skill is fear.

The greatest asset – as I see it – that our great game provides is the fear factor. It’s the thing that gets the fans on the edge of their seat. It’s the thing that stretches players capacity to the limit which is where improvement and development emanate from.

Fans desperately want to see physical combat, fierce competition and duels of strength (physical and mental). Coaches are reducing the amount of contested footy by demanding strict disciplines of playing patterns aimed at maintaining possession and avoiding turnovers which also minimises combat situations. Uncontested ball numbers are going through the roof at the expense of contests.

Through umpire interpretation – at the direction and discretion of the AFL – players are no longer allowed to desperately lunge to win the neutral ball. Players are crazy to attempt a bump or engage in a physical test of strength in a marking contest or ruck duel.

Teams are instructed to allow their opposition to win the ball in congested situations and are set up to assist that outcome. Teams have a preference for a counter-punch attack rather than winning a contested situation at a stoppage. How many times have we seen two or three players refusing to pick up the ball in a dangerous part of the ground at a critical time in the game because they fear having a free kick paid against them? Reward is for the player tackling rather than the player attempting to win the footy.

All of these factors combine to reduce the most salivating, enthralling and inspirational part of our game – physical contests.

Incompetence Runs Amok

For more than a decade I have been vocal regarding the core competencies, experience and skills of senior “decision-making” managers and coaches within the AFL system.

Most have very little commercial and/or corporate experience and therein lies the problem. 

Most AFL players were the ring-leaders at school – the “jocks”. They were idolised and doted upon, with the authorities (read teachers) generally turning a blind eye to misdemeanours and errant behaviour including overlooking work not handed in on time and providing extensions not available to others.

Every week the whole school would adulate the efforts of the star player. At the end of year 12 he is drafted and by Christmas he is signing autographs at Safeway and being noticed having a coffee at the local cafe.

He then plays football for a decade or so – somewhat in a cocoon or bubble – experiencing not much more than constant adulation, worship and a smattering of leadership development  with an annual “respect and responsibility” video presentation that is meant to help him make correct decisions.

Post career he is recruited to the coaching staff at the ripe old age of 28-32 years old. He then “learns” on the job at the incumbent players’ expense for a few years. At this point in time the solitary thing he knows is that he was able to play football at the highest level. He has no idea about teaching, coaching, development, recruiting, management, planning, communication or selection. He has a somewhat compromised view of strategy and tactics. This usually is the result of how he has been instructed to play for the last decade OR if he has endured a somewhat unsuccessful team performance he adopts an alternate view to the one applied by his previous coach. He has no rationale or logic as to what is right or what is wrong. All he has is what he has experienced.

After developing and honing his coaching skills for a few years he applies for a Senior Coach or General Manager Football role and is appointed – sometimes after several interview attempts.

After that little introduction, perhaps we can understand and get a greater appreciation of the process behind appointing a senior person at a football club.

Is it any wonder we have problem after problem? Each season is highlighted by incompetence and mis-management. 

There is little doubt that the AFL environment can be akin to a seducing, intoxicating drug.  People fall over themselves to take control of – and get involved in – the AFL system. Unfortunately the process of appointment and the standards of engagement are as poor as the candidates and pursuant selection criteria.

Until the AFL starts to implement higher standards of competency we will continue to have the problems that exist within AFL clubs.

Essendon, Melbourne, Port Adelaide, GWS and Adelaide have all had their problems over recent years. In fact very few clubs have been immune from potentially disastrous situations. Be it off-field or on-field performance, there has been a litany of examples – and by no means are the AFL exempt from the scrutiny. 

In fact the AFL has created many of the existing problems with either a complete lack of understanding of the situation or an arrogance and denial that beggars belief – I tend to lean to the latter.

I read with interest the Dr Ziggy Switkowski report on the Essendon debacle.

It reads like organised mayhem. One glaring piece of ego driven incompetence after another. Is also exposes the massive lack of understanding, experience and skills of the people in senior positions of authority and leadership.

How can former footballers with little or no business experience be subjected to the situation at Essendon and handle it efficiently and effectively?

There is less excuse for the CEO Ian Robson and former People and Development Manager and current General Manager Football Operations Danny Corcoran. Both have had ample experience albeit I am not sure they have suitable track records of success.

The Switkowski report outlines the need for appropriately high levels of experience, management skills, leadership acumen and general corporate knowledge. Gone are the days of just appointing a former player as a coach and expecting him to wave a magic wand.

Given we have rarely adopted the recommended approach of appointing a seasoned, conditioned, experienced person with a strong record of management and commercial/corporate success, we have a diluted expectation of performance and only can evaluate the situation based on people who have held the positions. Therein lies the problem – we have nothing to evaluate against so the status quo remains. Clearly a change in strategy requires bravery and solidarity and unfortunately these qualities are not overflowing at AFL clubs.

The laughable thing is people still think you have to be a recently retired player and assistant coach to perform the senior coaching role successfully. This is actually the antithesis of what is required. I rate playing and assistant coaching as average core competencies.

The credentials of a successful assistant coach somewhat fly in the face of the criteria required to be a senior coach. One is a technician and developer of skills (Mark Neeld) and the other is an entrepreneurial, leader/manager of people and strategy (Sir Alex Ferguson).

Its incredible that AFL clubs tend to appoint inexperienced, young former players as coaches and sports overseas such as the EFL and NFL appoint experienced, older and wiser managers to oversee the entire production.

There was constant ridicule towards adopting a similar model in AFL. It was considered too controlling. Let me tell you something – I bet the Bombers wish they had a leader who took more control during the last couple of years.

The Switkowski report reveals the gross inadequacies of the people in charge of the processes. Was it experience? Was it personality? Was it leadership? Was it process? Was it management? It was all of that and more.

Rest assured you will not get “it” from many of the current crop of people in senior positions at football clubs.

Look at the collateral damage being experienced at Essendon and one can only imagine the consequences if the same debacle had occurred at Melbourne.