From the AFL coach's box, Part 2: The art of communication

With football having been shut down since the completion of Round 1 back in mid-March, ESPN was granted exclusive access to current AFL assistant coaches Ashley Hansen (Western Bulldogs) and Ashley Prescott (Gold Coast) to discuss the intricacies of modern-day coaching, as well as Port Adelaide star Travis Boak to offer a player's perspective.

This is Part 2 of our three-part series which delves into the specifics of communication.

Part 1 of this series, on formulating a game plan, has been published here. Part 3, which looks at the whole-club puzzle, will be published next week.

Communication: the act of conveying a message from one person or group to another.

We hear the word communication thrown around in the workforce and in relationships. Countless papers have been written on the complex topic and universities now even offer degrees in this field. It's fair to say it's a pretty important principle.

With that said, it's no surprise communication plays a vital role in football. Not just between players on the ground but from coaching staff to their troops.

There's no doubt communication is one of a coach's most powerful weapons, but how exactly is it used and developed?

Communicating a game plan

A common misconception is that a club's game plan is formulated by coaches and only communicated to players once it's finalised.

In reality, communication between coaching staff and the playing group begins much earlier. In many cases, player-coach consultations commence months before a season even gets underway. Topics which are discussed range from a player's skills and football knowledge to how they can best be deployed on game day.

"We really work collaboratively to try and get the best outcome that we possibly can," Prescott tells ESPN. "It's about creating and building a game plan as a collective group and really empowering the players to be part of that."

Hansen reinforces the importance of collaboration.

"Without doubt senior coaches speak to those in their senior leadership group," Hansen tells ESPN. "If you're coaching a more mature team, coaching groups are going to be more collaborative. You'll then review that and come up with a game plan. It would be remiss not to involve [the players] in these discussions."

During the season, certain players can continue to provide a wealth of knowledge. For example, players who have spent time at other clubs are a valuable resource in the week leading up to a game against their old side.

"They almost take control of the week," Prescott explains. "Delivering information to the coaching group and delivering information to the playing group, in regards to some of the intricacies of their game plan.

"But it's also about delving into some of the opposition's players. Whether that's their footy strengths or even some of their personal traits that you might potentially be able to exploit in some way."

It's not just the players and coaches who have a say in devising the game plan and style.

For many clubs, there are several other key stakeholders -- such as fans, sponsors and other financial backers -- who may all get to vocalise how they want their club to play.

Prescott says most clubs are well aware of the need to provide entertainment, with a whole-club approach needed to ensure everyone is on the same page.

"It's something I probably haven't discussed overly at AFL level but I think ultimately we're in the entertainment industry, so we're there to try and put bums on seats, I suppose," Prescott says. "Yes, you've always got to try and win games, ultimately it's a win-loss type [industry] ... but providing an exciting brand of football that appeals to the supporters, that appeals to your players is something that's really important too.

"That was something I refer back to at my time at the Essendon Football Club. The game style that was implemented was exciting and it fit the overall direction and strategy the football club had: creating a fantastic brand and a brand that people wanted to jump onboard with.

"It's a fine line because you can have an exciting game plan but if you're not winning consistently then that becomes a bit of an issue, so that's the fine line you need to tread. I certainly see more and more clubs making sure they're trying to be exciting, and I suppose the AFL to some degree has brought rules in to try and create a more free-flowing, high scoring game.

"The alignment you've got at your football club -- from your chairman and board down to your CEO, your football manager and your coach -- I think all being on the same page, with your game plan and what you're trying to achieve, is really important."

Once finalised, how is the game plan communicated to the entire playing group?

Every club and senior coach will have their own beliefs on the best way to communicate game plans to a playing group, as well as other key personnel, but there is one consistent theme among all of them: avoid information overload.

"We like to drip feed the game plan in so that retention understanding can be embedded and achieved," Hansen explains. "The complexities aren't that hard, it's more about making sure you're being thorough, clear and engaging with what you're trying to teach.

"There's certainly a plan A, B and C, but we might only let the players know Plan A, and then we'll instruct plans B and C throughout the game, as required. How much you pass on to the playing group is going to differentiate week-to-week. But once again, we don't want to overwhelm them with too much information."

Aussie Rules is a unique sport. Much of its appeal stems from its athletes' ability to showcase their range of individual skills and flair.

Players know that any game plan which is too rigid or complex could make them robotic, and as a result remove many of the sport's exciting elements. Therefore, it's critical to strike the right balance.

"As players, we probably don't want too much information," Boak tells ESPN. "The NFL, they have massive playbooks, but for us it's a little bit less. We try to keep it as simple as possible."

Most coaches agree with the less is more philosophy, only passing on the most necessary pieces of information to their players.

"As much as we want to teach a philosophy or game style, we also want them to play on instinct and natural ability," Hansen says. "You can't quarantine them into a certain style too much. You still want them to become predictable to their teammates, because if you know what your teammate is going to do before your opponent does, that's an advantage."

Prescott believes "we [as coaches] can't be too prescriptive with what we do. It's really important to not overload the players too much. It's a pretty simple game and us coaches can overcomplicate things at times."

What happens on game day?

In football, you can be diligent in preparation, know your opponent inside-out and religiously stick to your game plan, but there's no guarantee you won't find yourself five goals down inside 15 minutes.

As Hansen says, "part of coaching is being prepared for when things go wrong."

This is when coaches really earn their keep.

"All AFL clubs have different game plans that you can try and snap into to arrest an opposition's momentum," Prescott explains. "An example that you might refer to is in those stop-play situations, when the ball is in a 50-50. If you tend to be losing that stoppage or that 50-50 contest, you might put an extra number in defence.

"Also, if you're having problems with the opposition scoring heavily, there might be some time that you take with the ball [and] show a little bit more composure to try and take the ball away from the opposition."

If these, or any other changes need to be made during a quarter, "runners or people on the bench may hold up signs with different colours or numbers," Boak explains. It's a communication system every club has had to adopt since the AFL limited the use of runners.

But given it can often take up to a few minutes for a coaching change to make its way from the box, down to the boundary and to every player on the field, coaches often give senior players the freedom to make their own decisions on game day.

"With the interchange restrictions and the runner restrictions, your ability to get messages out there isn't great, so generally the coach backs our senior players in to make calls, because they are out there with the feel for the game," Hansen says. "Those guys are generally in your leadership group, understand the game well and are experienced campaigners. They're worth their weight in gold."

"That's where you hear of why Luke Hodge was so valuable in Brisbane, because he might have stopped a few blowouts happening there in those early days. He could see something happening on the field and correct it at that point in time, not waiting for the coaching group to get the message to a runner, who then gets out on the ground."

We all know there is constant game analysis taking place in the coach's box, but what actually happens up there? How are ideas shared? And how do coaching staff communicate?

"It can be pretty chaotic up there," Prescott jokes. "But we do our best to make sure we control the environment and communicate amongst each other.

"In our coach's box, we'll have someone who oversees or facilitates the coaches. We'll have regular check-ins, every five minutes, so each coach will have an opportunity to mention a couple of things in regards to what they're seeing and maybe how their area is going. That's a good way to just make sure we're not talking over each other and everyone's getting an opportunity to say something.

"Before we go onto the ground, so quarter time and three quarter time, in particularly, towards the end of the quarter we'll have a check-in and just make sure we're aligned with potentially any messages we think we might want to get across to the players you're talking to, whether collectively as a group or individually."

The art of communication

They say communication to a relationship is like oxygen to life ... without it, it dies.

The importance of communication in football, and all sports, should never be underestimated, either.

Whether it's the delivery of a game plan from coaching staff to a playing group or the on-field discussions which take place between players on game day, striking effective communication is critical.

Just like skills, fitness, teamwork and myriad other elements, communication will always be one of the crucial pieces of a premiership puzzle.