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What can you learn from successful AFL coaches?

The AFL has long had a revolving door of coaches. It picks up speed at times, and slows at others – a never-ending cycle of coaches being sacked, clubs being taken over by caretakers, and caretakers relinquishing control to new coaches. But among the chaos, there are a few who flourish.

Deakin coaching expert, Dr Fraser Carson who lectures in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science has found a large proportion of these coaches share something in common.

They started out in careers other than coaching – and in some cases, careers from outside the sports industry altogether. ‘Most of these coaches also have some form of higher education degree,’ Dr Carson says.

It appears there are solid benefits to cutting your teeth in diverse industries and having a vast range of life experience and qualifications. So what’s behind this?

A fresh perspective

‘Generally, coaches coming from a variety of backgrounds and experience bring that experience, self-assurance and a different world view to that role,’ Dr Carson says.

Some of the most successful coaches in Australia come from diverse career backgrounds, according to Dr Carson, where they’ve had the chance to learn and develop a broad range of skills:

  • Wayne Bennett, NRL head coach of the Sydney Rabbitohs, is a former police officer.
  • Bec Goddard, head coach of the Adelaide Football Club in the AFL Women’s competition between 2017 and 2018, is a police officer.
  • Ric Charlesworth, national coach of the Australian Women’s Hockey Team from 1993 to 2000, former high-performance consultant to the Fremantle Dockers and mentor coach to five Australian Institute of Sport coaches, was previously a politician.
  • Lisa Alexander, head coach of the Australian national netball team, is a former physical education and maths teacher.
  • Michael Cheika, coach of the Australian national rugby team, is a former fashion industry employee.

While these star coaches haven’t had straight trajectories to their coaching careers, they’ve used the experience they’ve learned along the way to differentiate themselves.

‘More focus needs to be placed on a coach’s ability to manage people,’ Dr Carson explains. ‘That’s why a successful coach needs to be open-minded and able to draw on vast experience.’

'Generally, coaches coming from a variety of backgrounds and experience bring that experience, self-assurance and a different world view to that role.'

Dr Fraser Carson,
School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

Enhanced transferable skills

Having a diverse education behind you enhances your transferable skills such as critical and creative thinking. These things set great coaches apart from the rest (just as they can in any industry).

Retired AFL player and coach, Ron Barassi, says great AFL coaches are those ‘who can sound sensible under pressure’, can make good decisions and communicate clearly.

These are skills that are learned and developed through higher education degrees – something many of Australia’s most successful coaches possess.

‘For example, Bec Goddard has a degree in journalism, Ric Charlesworth a degree in medicine and Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has a Bachelor of Sports Science and a Master of Business Administration, despite being a professional footballer since he was 19,’ Dr Carson says.

What can you take from this?

We often forget the value of bringing a fresh perspective to our own careers. In fact, it’s more common to experience imposter syndrome when bringing a unique set of skills and experience to a new job.

However, if you lean into your skillset and believe in your capabilities, you could offer something significant to your role. A vast background of experience helps you to view things in innovative ways. Take Martha Stewart’s career story for example: after majoring in history and architectural history in college while also studying art, economics and literature, she became a Wall Street stockbroker.

She writes on her website, ‘The job taught me so much about what it takes to build a real business, a real company — a meaningful and useful enterprise.’ She later used that knowledge to pursue an entrepreneurial bent to become an influential lifestyle personality.

Transferable skills are imperative in any career, and it’s likely the more you develop them, the further you’ll go.

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Dr Fraser Carson
Dr Fraser Carson

Lecturer in coaching, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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