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Leadership: AFL Coaching has come a long way...

21 March 2017 By Will Brodie

Image credit: heraldsun.com.au
Image credit: heraldsun.com.au

These days, there’s fewer fire and brimstone speeches, more talk of delegation and empathy.

Nobody typifies this evolution to nuanced man-management more than Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley.

A driven perfectionist as a player and captain, Buckley still insists that working harder brings better results, but his take on how to do that has undergone a revolution.

Interviewed for the book Champions: Conversations with Great Players and Coaches of Australian Football, Buckley was frank about his initial leadership shortcomings.

“For the first half of my career, it was just about me. But in the second half, I realised how much more enjoyable it was to focus on others, and my leadership grew and my enjoyment grew.

“When I became Collingwood captain (in 1999), I demanded the best from myself and others — and it backfired. 

“…I came to understand everyone has their own way of doing things. Instead of trying to drive the group with my motivations, I tried to find out what theirs were.”

He says a coach must have a “genuine care” for people. “Football clubs are made up of different types of people with different attributes… and you need to find what makes each individual tick.”

Buckley genuinely cares. But even that is not enough. His team has missed the past three finals series and his job is on the line in 2017. 

Journalist Peter Ryan recently concluded that Buckley, while “respectful, inclusive, smart and down-to-earth” still wore people down with his obsessive nature. He texted players at home, interrupted the presentations of assistant coaches and could undo “hours and hours of good work” on his relationships with a remark following a defeat.

Ryan sees 2017 as the final test of Buckley’s attempts to balance “control and empowerment, care and demand, and fun and hard work”.

Buckley is aware of his challenge:

“As a doer... there are times when I have to remind myself I need to give space and trust.”

That comes with experience, and by leaning on his coaching panel. It comes by making things black and white for the players, to reduce indecision and miscommunication. It requires creating a forum for players to give and receive honest feedback. It means sometimes delivering “really strong” messages to players to help them grow and learn.

Buckley, once the poster child of old-fashioned striving, is now the exemplar of inclusion.

“Footy’s not all about kicks, marks and handballs, it’s about the connection between you and me and how much we support each other.

"Integrity and honesty are paramount. If that means falling short, so be it. I use to have that succeed at all costs mentally, which was so short-sighted - it's not winning at all."

Such attitudes confirm that leadership in the once hairy-chested world of elite footy is transformed.