James Hird goes into detail about the negative emotions all coaches face before Round 1
JAMES HIRD, Herald Sun
March 22, 2017 8:00pm
ROUND 1 and all the excitement it brings is a nervous time for coaches. They are full of expectation, dreams and the hope that all the preparation during pre-season will pay off.
On Thursday night Damien Hardwick and Brendon Bolton will feel the excitement and adrenaline as they drive into the great MCG, each preparing for the game in his own way.
As a coach I liked to walk to games — a 50-minute walk to the MCG and 70 minutes to Etihad. When the cameras were out the front of the house I would jump the back fence and slip down the side streets. Other times it was more straightforward. The walk gave me a chance to sort through my thoughts and all the scenarios that could occur during the match.
For the 18 coaches, Round 1 is worth as many points as the other 21 rounds, but the build-up and the expectation adds another level of pressure.
Will the game plan that has been worked on for six months stand up to full competitive pressure? Are the new kids ready, is the team physically prepared, has the pre-season program been enough?
These are all negative emotions and doubts that creep into the mind of a coach in the lead-up to Round 1.
As a player, Round 1 feels like the toughest game of the year. Players have had a week off. Physically they are primed and emotionally ready for the contest.
As a coach it is your role to provide the environment and messaging that gets the most out of the players. Every player is different but less is more in Round 1.
Too many messages and too much complexity will lead to confusion. Confidence in the team’s preparation and a deep understanding of the opposition is paramount.
My first game as coach was against a Rodney Eade-coached Western Bulldogs. I had three messages on the white board.
Love the contest; bring intensity and effort
Coaches can be outstanding tacticians but without players who are ready to play and love the contest everything else is useless. In Round 1, effort from the players is normally a given and tonight the Hardwick and Bolton game plans and tactics will rely on full commitment and effort from the players.
Mistakes will be tolerated and somewhat expected, but lack of effort or commitment to the common cause will be harshly dealt with.
Outnumber with method
Outnumber, outnumber, outnumber. I repeated that word a million times as a coach. When you are winning it feels like you are continually outnumbering the opposition, but when you are losing it feels like the MCG has swallowed half your team.
Commonsense dictates that three players will beat two, but when superstars like Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood are involved, the two may beat three.
Outnumbering with method covers both scenarios and was one of our core mantras at Essendon. We dedicated an enormous number of hours teaching our players how to outnumber the opposition with method at every contest.
Outnumbering does not always have to be the result of an extra player at a stoppage or a plus-one in the backline. It can result from good balance around a stoppage, players who read cues earlier than the opposition and a player’s ability to work harder than his opponent.
Stoppages were viewed as a time for players to reset and work out where they should be. We worked at teaching the players to look inside the contest to make sure we had at least an even number on the inside then, 5m from the contest, how did our numbers look? At 20m and finally a full kick from the contest, how were we set up?
Smart half backs and half forwards are so integral to structure. Their decision to go to the contest, drop off, defend or attack is often the difference between scoring or being scored against. The best teams have smart players who are continually counting the numbers and talking to their teammates.
The ability of players to see the game and change the numbers on the field is crucial. On average it takes three minutes to get a message from the coaches’ box to the players. By then it's often too late.
Smart players who implement the game plan are precious. As coach I used vision of players such as Luke Hodge to show Dyson Heppell, Michael Hibberd and others examples of counting up the numbers around a stoppage and telling teammates where to go.
Back your craft and your instincts
When I started coaching Essendon in 2011, we had a simple strategy. We did not believe we had the talent or maturity to beat the best teams in an open, free-flowing game so we aimed to win more stoppages than we lost, to use our free players and, when players were in doubt, to create a stoppage and begin again.
We wanted our players to be masters of their craft, to be able to use their bodies in tight contested situations better than any other team.
Players like Jobe Watson, Ben Howlett, Heath Hocking and Mark McVeigh worked for hours with Simon Goodwin and Brendan McCartney to perfect the art of body work at speed in tight areas. They were also taught method around the ball, when to attack, when to tread water and how to clear the ball effectively.
Early in a game, when intensity is high, the players knew we would quickly kick the ball until the pace went off the game and we could better use our numbers around the contest and handball more. We wanted to be pro-active, play with intensity, use intelligence and back our craft. We wanted the players to understand that the more time they worked on their game the better they would be under the pressure of a big moment.
I won’t pretend to know what Richmond or Carlton’s game plan Thursday night is but I do know that the team that brings the maximum intensity and commitment to the contest, backs its craft and plays the numbers game better than the opposition has a very good chance of winning.
Richmond is favourite, but those writing off Carlton forget that getting the simple things correct can keep you in the game.
One of the beautiful characteristics of Australian Rules is that if you stay in the game long enough, anything can happen.