• Pete Roberts

Hold Fire: Is The Game Over-Coached?

The global health crisis and subsequent shutdown of AFL football has been painful to watch. So many dedicated staff sent into limbo. Players left with uncertain futures. Coaches with no one to coach.

But equally painful is the misguided take from Matthew Lloyd about football being “over-coached”. Particularly when he takes aim at roles that aren’t even coaches in the first place.

For those who missed it:

"Not many positives come from this, but I think the players have been over-coached for far too long," he said on Channel Nine’s Footy Classified.
"I went through some team lists today, there's 11 coaches and I'll list out some of these roles: game intelligence manager, senior performance analyst, data coordinator, IT systems administrator, performance analyst."

There are so many things wrong with this statement that it’s hard to know where to start.

It’s important to mention that anyone losing their job or being placed on involuntary leave is a terrible situation, no matter your role, or whether you think there were too many people involved at Clubs in the first place. The pandemic has impacted many more than those in the football industry, but we will focus on footy for obvious reasons.

Lloyd might actually be on the right track when he suggests that football is over-coached. The spending cap was introduced off the back of wealthy clubs hiring several more assistant and development coaches than others.

But the whole argument is completely undone when he singles out a bunch of roles that aren’t even coaching roles to begin with.

A Game Intelligence Manager is probably the closest out of those he listed. Presumably responsible for a mix of opposition analysis, game trends, weekly strategy etc. Hardly a role that seems superfluous, even if clubs cut back on personnel in the future.

What about a Senior Performance Analyst? Although they are often closely linked with the coaching group (some clubs do it better than others), they aren’t really coaches at all. The “senior” part of the title might seem a little unnecessary on the surface, but it’s partly to reward those who have put in the work over several seasons. It gives analysts the smallest chance of career progression before a lot of them bump their head on the ceiling at AFL level.

Taking aim at a Data Co-ordinator is just silly. A lot of these people would be just starting out in the industry, and work across an entire football department. Hardly evidence that the game is over-coached.

An IT Systems Administrator? Pretty bloody important in any organisation one would think. Also nothing to do with coaching. Most of them would spend more time fixing printers and updating software than anything to do with team performance. A ridiculous role to single out.

Bear in mind that a lot of these performance analysis and data roles exist because coaches are so under-equipped when it comes to technology skills that they need a lot of help. It’s that simple.

Perhaps in this down time, some thought could be given to strengthening the coaching pathway so that past players and future coaches have enough computer and software skills to do their jobs. They don’t need to be masters (that’s what the analysts and IT crew are for) but they need enough of a base to be efficient so they can get back to coaching.

The sports technology roles are critical in how footy clubs function. They are the ones who set up the coaches box, produce elite level presentations for the playing group, co-ordinate the increasingly elaborate filming requirements of a training session and organise and interpret the endless data available to clubs, which we’ve already covered.

These roles let the coaches coach. To suggest they are evidence of the game being over-coached is a very long bow to draw.

If you really wanted to critically assess where a number of roles could be reduced (this is not suggesting it’s a good idea, but may need to happen in the current climate once footy returns), then shift the focus to the coaching roles, not the technical ones.

There are assistants to assistants, development coaches for all levels of footy, specialist coaches, Directors of Coaching. Why not mention them? Even Lloyd himself has happily embraced the side hustle of being a specialist goalkicking coach over the years. Careful what you wish for!

Another measurement Lloyd seems to have used to support his argument is this picture of the Essendon coaches box from a game last year.

"You look at Essendon's coaches box last year, look how many laptops there are, there's about 15 laptops in that coaches box, so you can't tell me this game hasn't been over-coached," he said.

Think there are too many computers in the box and way too much going on? You’re probably right.

But it’s important to understand how something like this comes about. Having spent 15 seasons in AFL coaches boxes, I’ve seen it all. And tried it all.

When you ask a coach if they need a computer in front of them for statistics, vision, rotations or anything else…the answer is always yes.

As a result, you get a lot of laptops that act like simple monitors – they display information on them that can help a coach when they need it, which isn’t all the time. When they are comfortable, it’s just a quick glance down to the screen then back to focusing on their area.

Could they ask someone for that information? Absolutely. But another aspect of a coaches box is to try and minimise discussions that don’t need to be had. The laptops help.

Other machines are used to replay vision from the four angles that are available in-game. This is critical to coaches, and really helps to focus a message to where it needs to go. Again, it’s a fair stretch to suggest this is over-coaching, especially since the continuous play and restrictions on runners make it hard to really influence much during quarters anyway.

Ultimately, the day we use "Number of Laptops" as an official statistic to measure the Over/Under on coaching, is the day we just need to take a rest for a while.

So let’s take a rest.

Stay safe everyone.