List managers, players, boards, HQ: How coaches juggle the whole-club puzzle

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 3 of our three-part series which delves into how coaches deal with input from different stakeholders - administration, players, fans and more.

Part 1 of this series, on formulating a game plan, has been published here. Part 2, which looks into communication, is here.

It's not just up to the coach on the field

Alastair Clarkson is renowned across the league as a master coach -- the best of the modern era in many respects -- and the prevailing thought is if you transplanted him from Hawthorn to any other club, it would become an immediate threat.

Perhaps that's true, but ultimately there is so much more that goes into a club's success than what happens on game day. One of the greatest challenges coaches like Clarkson face week in, week out is input from a number of different stakeholders; from fans, players and sports scientists, to club administrators, list managers and even the AFL itself.

It's almost unfair, then, that the buck often stops with senior coaches. But part of being a great coach is balancing the input coming from outside the coach's box, according to Hansen and Prescott.

Player input:

Hansen says one of the greatest freedoms given to players is the right to be "predictable to one another, but not the opposition," in that if coaches don't know where a player is going to go with the ball, the opposition won't know either.

"That allows the cohesion and chemistry to be created and the advantage to be gained on your behalf, but it's really hard for the opposition to defend you," he tells ESPN.

"For instance, at a stoppage, you might send a forward to the stoppage to outnumber the opposition, but you might not give him a prescribed position to stand at that stoppage. It can be quite scary from a coaching perspective, because you don't know where he's going to go. But if you don't know, the opposition isn't going to know.

"As long as he's communicating to his teammates where he's going to go at that point in time, and they're on the same page, you can still achieve the outcome of winning the stoppage. We give players scope to explore their strengths within the style we want to play. Organised chaos - 100 percent."

Even more input is given to players taking on their old clubs, which Prescott describes as "absolutely valuable".

"We've had some great examples of players that have played for previous clubs. They almost take control of the week. So delivering information to the coaching group, delivering information to the player groups, in regards to some of the intricacies of their game plan, but also delving into some of the opposition's players," he says.

"Whether that's their footy strengths or even some of their personal traits that you might potentially be able to exploit in some way. We really work collaboratively and with each other to try and get the best outcome we can."

Sports scientists and trainers:

Fitness staff, too, play a massive role in the coaching puzzle. They determine when a player can come onto the field, when they're to come off and even try to manage their overall game time down to the second.

It's a balance many commentators (and ex players) find particularly frustrating. "Why would they bring him off, he's just kicked a goal?" you often hear.

Prescott says it's a delicate balancing act - coaches are loathe to ignore the sports scientists, but there is the rare occasion science gets overruled.

"As a coaching group, we have the final say, so we'll potentially override a decision from say the sports science, within reason ... to leave a player on the ground if he's running hot, or, if you're getting late in the game, making sure the starting 18 on the field with a minute to go is the 18 we want," he says.

"But a lot of work is put in to know the thresholds of players, so the thresholds of certain players when they're high speed or high intensity running starts to drop down, and we can monitor that in training and in practice, that they need to have a quick two-minute spell, so they come on and are fresh again.

"Certainly we've got a profile on every athlete, in regards to when they're potentially flagging and they might need to come off. And then there's some athletes you might need to make a positional change, so you might move them out of the midfield and put them, say, forward, deep forward, where they can still be on the field and have an influence, but they have to do less running. A lot of work is put into that area of the game."

Opposition analysis

Coaching isn't just about your own game plan, either. One of the biggest variables week-to-week is the opposition on the park - and according to Boak, Prescott and Hansen, game styles can vary from team to team.

It's important then, for coaches to listen to the input of their opposition analyst. On any given round, they say about 30 to 40 percent of all focus may be on the opposition, instead of one's own game plan.

"As players, we'd probably focus 30 on the opposition and 70 percent on what we want to do. That's where it's really important - you can't be too focused on how the opposition play, if we're trying to stop them all the time it takes away our natural ability because all we're thinking about is stopping the opposition," Boak tells ESPN.

Prescott adds: "At the Suns we try to predominantly focus on what we are trying to achieve and then focus on the opposition.

"I think that will also have an effect on the different demographic of your list and how old you are. Probably at the Suns, at this stage, we've had a high turnover in personnel, too. Our list has changed dramatically. So where we prioritise is looking after our backyard at the moment just a little bit more and making sure we really refine and get better with what we're doing.

"We certainly analyse it and again you've probably got to be careful with how much you give of what the opposition do to looking after your backyard and getting your systems right. [Maybe it's] 60-40, 70-30 [percent] in relation to the balance (of your game plan vs. the opposition's game plan)."

Hansen says the amount of tape he watches of other teams isn't much - it's filtered down to him from specialised scouts and opposition analysts who pore through hours of vision.

"Our opposition analyst will do a ton of work on the opposition. He will filter that to the coaching group when he presents on what strength, weaknesses and opportunities that the team might be facing. Then from the information we then filter that again to the playing group so it's clear and concise," he says.

And how about list management?

Some clubs, like the Suns for example, may be hamstrung by the fact that not all players want to move so far away from their families. As they've learnt, the club can become a revolving door for those who complete their two-year rookie deal and then leave for greener pastures.

Prescott says it's a challenge to balance not only the limitations of list management, but also the philosophy and style of play coaches want to employ.

"Over the progression of time, that fit between your list management team, your recruiting team and then the philosophy of the senior coach and the coaching group is so important because if you're not aligned in your views, that's when you can run into some issues and problems," he says.

Hansen argues the relationship between a coach and a list manager is "critical" to forming the make-up of a successful team, pointing to the relatively shallow depth of talent that Aussie rules football has to work with compared with soccer, the NFL or other major codes.

"We in Australia have the population and the draft pool to be so specific around picking player X over player Y because he suits your game style a little bit better probably isn't there yet, especially in the early rounds of the draft," he tells ESPN, explaining that often, 'best available' is the way to draft over 'best fit', and that free agency is now the forum for picking up players that suit a coaching style.

"From my experience and speaking with our [list management] guys, I think when you rank your talent, that ranking is pretty solid as they're the best players, and I think you'll always pick the best players. From there you pick them in their best positions. I think the lower you go down in your draft board, then you can start to get specific about your needs, and their capabilities which would best support your style. And certainly there is a place for trade of free agent acquisitions around your style.

"That will certainly benefit you, because you're going to have a lot of evidence about what that player can do and how they can support how you play the game at your club. I think in the junior ranks, especially at 18, when they're so raw, you're probably just looking at talent rather than that position-specific or style-specific capacity at that age."

Boak is on the same page.

"It's a tricky one - you draft best players available ... certainly early in the draft and then you try to bring in players who fit into your game plan," he tells ESPN.

"You don't bring in players to then change a game plan, you have a set game plan and then adapt from that and bring in players who you think will help you win games of footy. Each coach would have different ideas as to what wins games of footy."

What about off the field? How does the administration fit in?

As Jake Michaels began to explore in his feature on communication between coaches, input can also come from clubs' front offices. With broadcast deals so vital to the game's finances, the league is looking for the most attractive football possible.

In a perfect world, every club would play attractive, free-flowing footy but some teams at the bottom of the ladder need to firstly stem the bleeding by focusing on defence. It's a delicate balance for a team such as Gold Coast, Prescott admits.

"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 tells ESPN.

"There is an element of yes you've always got to try and win games, ultimately it's a win-loss type situation we're in in this 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.

"I think that comes back to the alignment you've got at your football club and the alignment you've got 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.

"Again, 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.

"But certainly I can see more and more clubs making sure they're trying to be exciting, and I suppose the AFL to some degree have brought rules in to try and create a more free-flowing high scoring game, which allows certain individuals that you're bringing into your club to show their skill and what they're able to bring to the table with their talent."

Finding the balance

It's a tough caper, coaching. There are so many variables, and so much input, yet often, the buck stops with them. They are the face of success and defeat, but despite this, they're clear-eyed. Hansen sums it up best.

"It's a complex game. We can overcomplicate it at times," he said. "I think you're just trying to give the playing group a roadmap to success and you're trying to avoid the speed humps and roundabouts the opposition is putting in front of you.

"If you get everyone buying in, you can start to let individual brilliance come out, and when that is collectively seen, you start to see what is shown by the premiership teams and top four sides in the competition."