How AFL coaches have learned to spin bad news



I keep waiting for news that a delegation of our AFL coaches are on their way to Sierra Leone to sort this Ebola crisis, or to Kiev to smooth over Ukraine-Kremlin relations.

It’s all this learning they’re doing – every time a footy team loses the coaches and players learn “a lot”, sometimes even “heaps”.

Brendan McCartney: Learning.

Brendan McCartney: learning. Photo: Getty

“We’re feeling pretty positive about the night,” Geelong coach Chris Scott said after his team’s 23-point loss to the Hawks in Round 22. “We’ll learn some things from tonight.”

Lessons may have been learned, but Scott and some of his Cats didn’t do their homework.

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Speaking after their 36-point loss to Hawthorn in Friday night’s qualifying final, Scott was again preaching the importance of education, although he looked like a man who was beginning to lose faith in the message.

“We learn something from every game, and I hope we do play them again, it’d be, be um, yeah… be handy to play them in a grand final again, I wouldn’t rule us out of having a chance in that game,” Scott said.

I’m a simple man and at its essence footy is still a simple game, isn’t it?

“I think every game you learn and we had our chances tonight, just not quite good enough in the end, but we’d love another crack at it.”

Jimmy Bartel, meanwhile, was covering books and sharpening pencils over the weekend in readiness for the school week ahead.

“Come in on Monday ready to learn and let’s take on whoever it might be,” Bartel said of Scott’s message after the game.

It’s difficult to garner exactly what will be on the syllabus for the Cats’ this week, perhaps a few intensive lectures from Eliminating Rubbish Second Halves 101.

Ross Lyon found his Fremantle side’s loss to Sydney very helpful. Not as helpful as a home preliminary final mind, but still useful.

“There is plenty of opportunity for us, we will learn a lot out of today’s game,” Lyon said.

What did Ross really learn on Saturday? That he was a couple of key talls short in the back half? That when he’s marching purposefully with his iPad he doesn’t like being slapped on the back?

Typically, the coaches dispatched to Africa or Eastern Europe should be from the bottom half of the ladder. Doctor Alan Richardson and Professor Paul Roos are a couple who’ve been on accelerated learning programs this year, and the latter has lodged an application for a research grant from the AFL.

It’s rare you hear a winning coach discussing how much they’ve learned. Clearly, the balm of four points means learning lessons is irrelevant. A two-point loss is full of nuggets, yet a two-point win is educationally moot.

Alastair Clarkson: not learning. Photo: Getty

Alastair Clarkson: not learning. Photo: Getty

There must be a margin cut-off on a ‘learnable loss’. Ten goals or more, coaches just cop it but less than 10 goals (yes, even 59 points), coaches will be clinging to the learning line like shipwreck survivors to flotsam.

I don’t learn anything when I watch footy. It reinforces how infantile I am, how the tone of my weekend can be shaped by whether a group of young, muscular men score more than another group of young, muscular men.

Media organisations have latched on to this theme in recent years – the papers and websites love to tell us what we’ll learn from the coming round, or game. Better yet, after the round is over they’ll tell us exactly what we have learned.

Really? I don’t learn anything when I watch footy. It reinforces how infantile I am, how the tone of my weekend can be shaped by whether a group of young, muscular men score more than another group of young, muscular men. If I want to learn I’ll enrol in a course or read a book, not watch the Eagles run around for two hours.

Maybe I’m not giving coaches and players enough credit – we hear all the time about how footy’s evolving, and it certainly moves a lot faster and looks a bit different to the game I fell in love with as a lad.

But I’m a simple man and at its essence footy is still a simple game, isn’t it? Surely there are finite things one can learn about the sport? Guts, heart, courage under fire and the ability to bomb it through on the run from 65 metres when stern questions are being asked of your side are un-learnable, aren’t they?

And that’s why some of us play elite footy, and others just watch in wonder.

Short jabs

Hame’s shame

Hamish McLachlan cops a bit of a battering – the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” barbs on social media have flown for some time. I’ve been a defender (because I find him less offensive than many other football callers out there) but hearing him rip Al Pacino’s monologue from Any Given Sunday during the third quarter of Sydney’s win over Fremantle at ANZ Stadium on Saturday tipped me over the edge. Den Cometti may be starting to border on the ridiculous, but at least the material is all his own.

“Inch by inch, play by play,” McLachlan throatily observed during a particularly fraught passage.

Mark Thompson takes a bow. Photo: Getty

Mark Thompson takes a bow. Photo: Getty

Basil Zempilas offered his own piece of the absurd when he compared Buddy Franklin’s freakish final quarter goals to The Shawshank Redemption – no matter how many times you see it, you’ve just got to watch again.

Around the nation, faces were palmed in anguish.

Bomber bows

It was with some sadness we observed the final post-match press conference of Bomber Thompson’s wonderfully entertaining cameo as Essendon coach.

Thompson said part of his role this year was to bring the fun back into proceedings for besieged Essendon players. Well, he did all that and more – making things infinitely more entertaining for press scribes and footy fans as well.

At the end of his presser, Thompson also made mention of Any Given Sunday, joking that he had wanted to drop a bombshell at his final conference – as Pacino’s character’s did – that he was off to coach another club. Thompson, brilliantly, couldn’t even remember the movie’s name.

“What a year … I was gonna have a big exit like that guy, that show, Any Given… you know that show? Al Pacino, you know that, uh, Any Given Mom… Any Given Sunday! ‘I’m takin’ over the…’” Thompson laughed as he got up from his chair.

He looked round at journos assembled, gave a “seeya later”, and was gone.

Bomber is available for sportsman’s nights and children’s parties.

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