Why coaching in the AFL is ‘not a very good job’

Footy ears pricked up earlier this week when Chris Scott described coaching as “not a very good job”. To recently departed AFL Coaches Association chief executive Mark Brayshaw, this was a familiar refrain.

“I had the job for six years. Unquestionably, the last 12 months were the most challenging for coaches,” Brayshaw said.

Geelong coach Chris Scott.Credit:Getty Images

Leigh Matthews coached successfully for 20 years at two clubs without losing heart or his mind. One of his proteges was Scott. “Chris is as balanced as anyone in terms of life and footy,” Matthews said. It leads him to wonder what has changed about the job.

One is the hyper scrutiny. “Every second person’s doing a podcast,” Matthews said. “Everyone thinks the coach is responsible. So you’ve got to think like that, too. But deep down, you know you can’t be responsible for everything. It’s stupid to think you are.”

Eade felt it. “There’s a lot more media coverage, and that has a flow-on effect,” he said. “Board members are influenced by it. Supporters are. Social media adds another dimension. If you can distance yourself, good, but it does affect your family, and if it affects your family, it affects you.”

Another 21st-century change is the expansion of coaching panels. When Matthews began at Collingwood, it was him and the reserves coach. Then the big money came. Until COVID’s body blow, clubs were splurging on coaches what they could not spend on players.

Leigh Matthews coaching Brisbane players in 2002. Credit:Allsport

“You’re not only coaching a team of players, you’re coaching a team of non-players,” Matthews said. “When you delegate, you lose control a little bit. You’re dependent on the people you delegate to playing their part.”

Inevitably, conflicts arise. “Sometimes, people get employed who you didn’t want,” Eade said. “It causes angst. You wonder who you can trust at a club. Coaches get paranoid. I could read the signs as I got older. You knew what was happening in the background. You knew what people meant when they said you had their total support.”

Eade said five coaches at a club were better than 10. “If you have too many coaches, you’ll always have someone in the background who thinks they can do a better job than you,” he said. “I know that.”

Eade and Matthews agree with each other – but not contemporary coaches – on the recent soft-cap squeeze. “It’s good for the game, I’ll tell you that,” Matthew said. “As a fan watching footy, the less coached it is, the better. The AFL’s used COVID, really, to do something they should have done a decade ago.”

Rodney Eade during his coaching days.Credit:Pat Scala

None of these contemplations necessarily applies to Scott. Industry people say clubs vary vastly in their approaches to welfare, and Geelong rate highly. “When did Geelong last sack a coach?” asked one, rhetorically.

But the stresses are universal, and the toll is long and growing. Eyebrows rose everywhere when Adelaide’s Don Pyke, widely regarded as able and level-headed, spoke of the deleterious effects of the job on his wellbeing when he bailed out in 2019.

Matthews notes a kind of 10-year itch, and wonders if Scott is feeling it. Matthews was pushed after 10 years at Collingwood, so he jumped after 10 at Brisbane. “The long-term coaches have that in the back of their minds: when is the right time?” he said. “They’re under a bit of self-pressure.”

Eade affirmed it. “There’s a lot of white noise,” he said, “but it’s more your self-pressure. It increases as you get older.”

Coaching is an easy job to over-think. Pre-season, Nick Riewoldt said he would never coach because the responsibility you took on was not commensurate with the control you exercised.

Matthews accepts this. “I’ve always thought it was 10 per cent planning, 90 per cent execution,” he said. “The coaches haven’t got a lot to do with the execution on match day. Everyone thinks the coach is in control of everything. But when the game starts, you go and sit in the stands. The players play.”

In that context, said Matthews, to ask if the job was enjoyable was the wrong question.

“ ‘Enjoy’ is not the word,” he said. “You’ve got to be stimulated and challenged. There’s enjoyment in playing because you do something good and there’s an adrenalin rush.

“As a coach, you only get that when you win a close game, or win a grand final. Otherwise, the siren goes, you walk down to the rooms and you’re thinking: what am I going to say to the team to start next week’s campaign. Coaching is not about enjoyment.”

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