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Clarko's lessons from abroad

Alastair Clarkson addresses his team at the 1/4 time break during the 2013 AFL round 05 match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at the MCG, Melbourne on April 28, 2013. (Photo: Andrew White)
Alastair Clarkson addresses his team at the 1/4 time break during the 2013 AFL round 05 match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at the MCG, Melbourne on April 28, 2013. (Photo: Andrew White)

Every week, a senior coach writes a column for AFL.com.au in partnership with the AFL Coaches Association. Alastair Clarkson examines what the coaches learn from their overseas trips each year.

OVER the past eight years, the coaches at Hawthorn have developed a great interest in observing the training methods of elite sportspeople around the world.

My travels at the end of last year took me to the west coast of the United States in late October, before flying across the southern US, Spain and the UK to visit the San Antonio Spurs (NBA), Philadelphia Eagles (NFL), FC Barcelona (Spain's La Liga) and Bolton Wanderers (formerly of the English Premier League).

We were fortunate to spend time with former tennis player Darren Cahill in Las Vegas, where he has been involved in the coaching of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, amongst others.

While the sport of tennis is very different to AFL, there are so many things to learn about an elite athlete’s physical and mental preparation to perform that is applicable to all sportspeople.

We were particularly surprised by Steffi as we watched her complete an on-court training session with her coach. She was preparing to play an exhibition game against Martina Navratilova and was eager to fine-tune her game. Darren invited us to observe her from the backcourt, standing no further than five metres from where she was hitting up.

We were astonished at how well she was hitting the ball, despite this being her first hit for some time due to injury. I was curious as to the secret of her success as an elite-level tennis player with 22 Grand Slam titles. Darren told me to watch her footwork and preparation before striking the ball. Small, soft, delicate steps set up her preparation to strike the ball. At 42, I’m certain she could still be a force in women’s tennis today.

We also spent time with Australian basketballer Joe Ingles, who is playing for FC Barcelona Regal in Europe.

‘Joey’ is an Olympic representative, a keen Hawks fan and also good mates with Jarryd Roughead. FC Barcelona Regal are the reigning Spanish championship holders with Joey and fellow Aussie Nate Jawai performing well in that competition.

A basketball season requires the athletes to sometimes play upward of four games a week in a season that stretches, in some instances, beyond 80 games. It is extraordinary how the players manage the heavy workload and travel schedule, and there are many lessons for our sport to learn.

No matter the sport, or whether it is a training session or game, our coaches benefit enormously from observing elite athletes going about their work. Many of the things we observe are transferrable to our players and we try to indoctrinate some of these observations into them.

One of the great delights coaches have is assisting a player in some small way to be the best he can be.

It has driven us to all points of the globe to keep observing methods that we could adopt or use to help our players. They enjoy learning some of the things from our travels and on some occasions, they have joined us on various trips we have made. We have fostered an environment at Hawthorn that constantly challenges the norm and seeks improvement consistently.

My first coaching trip abroad was to Manchester United when I was an assistant coach at Port Adelaide.  Through a close friend of mine, I was introduced to Rod Marsh who at that time was heading up the English Cricket Board's Academy based at Loughborough University in Nottinghamshire.  I spent some time with Rod and through his contacts, we traveled up through the midlands to visit Manchester United and observe their program in action.

Our country has a wealth of expertise in coaching across many sports, but AFL football is an indigenous game that has not been subjected to the extreme cultural, social and environmental factors that 'world' sports like soccer, hockey and basketball have experienced.  It was my desire to explore whether there was anything to learn that could challenge our thinking and progress our coaching and athletic performance.

The one club I have had a strong link with throughout my time at Hawthorn is Bolton Wanderers. Our link with Bolton was forged through their chairman, Phil Gartside, a frequent visitor to Australia on business.

The CEO of his business in Australia was a gentleman named Ed Sill, whose family are avid Hawthorn fans. Together, they attended many Hawthorn games at a time when our club was battling a bit through the middle part of the last decade. I was first introduced to Phil at the end of 2005 and he invited us to visit his club in the off-season. We have visited Bolton every year since that time and this link has greatly assisted both clubs.

There are many things that are unique to our great game, and that make it the most challenging and complex ball sport in the world. The size of the oval, the number of participants, the length of the match, the shape of the ball and the 360-degree tackling/contact component of our game all combine to make it so intriguing.  

To develop athletes who can participate in such a demanding game, our coaching and conditioning programs need to be at a high level. In my view, the preparation of our athletes across a pre-season program is more comprehensive than any other ball sport in the world.

Therefore, it stands to reason that our programs are very much at the cutting edge of physiological development given the four to five month preparation phase we have.  While we do not have the wealth of many international clubs whose facilities and resources are more plentiful, we do possess outstanding people and high quality methods that surpass many of the programs used in overseas sports.

As our sport grows, the reputation of our coaches and conditioning staffs will hopefully grow as well.