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Playing to Win about more than a premiership

Kate  Salemme  February 19, 2014 10:15 AM

Michael Gordon on "Playing to Win" Michael Gordon discusses his recent book, "Playing to Win"
AFL 2013 Toyota Grand Final - Best of Grand Final

Hawthorn's Cyril Rioli holds aloft the 2013 Premiership Cup during the 2013 Toyota Grand Final match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Fremantle Dockers at the MCG, Melbourne on September 28, 2013. (Photo: Greg Ford/AFL Media)

This is a five year story because it goes back to 2008 and the premiership that came a little bit before people expected and then what happened the following year. There were a swag of lessons learnt.

Who killed Osama bin Laden? It’s a question no one would ever expect to be posed to a group of footballers, let alone be the name of a chapter in a story about an AFL premiership win.

But in the book Playing to Win, the story of Hawthorn’s 2013 triumph, nothing is predictable.

Predictability is a weakness and Alastair Clarkson developed a way to ensure “predictable” and “Hawthorn” were two words never used in the same sentence.

Beginning in 2012, Clarkson together with his group of coaches developed a group of versatile players with the flexibility to play in different positions to be unpredictable to their opposition.

The story of how Hawthorn overcame a devastating Preliminary Final loss in 2011 and then the heartbreak of the 2012 Grand Final defeat to eventually achieve the ultimate success in 2013 is one of commitment and determination by the players, coaches and everyone involved with the Club.

It is an account of how Clarkson and his team became “hard enough and tough enough for long enough” by way of commitment and strategy.

The book pays close attention to the build-up to season 2013, including the highs and lows of earning premiership favouritism to the game that challenged the systems and culture in place in the inner sanctum, the Round 9 loss to Richmond.

The build-up is just as important as the year itself in setting the scene for how Hawthorn became the premier team in the AFL.

“Having the extra year really makes the story a lot richer,” author of Playing to Win, journalist Michael Gordon told hawthornfc.com.au

“The way they went about it after 2012 and the heartbreak of a preliminary final loss in 2011 and then how that followed on into 2013 and the things that were done differently was fascinating to observe.

“It certainly denied supporters and the Club because they had to wait another year but it’s certainly a much richer story for it.”

Gordon had granted access into the inner sanctum of Hawthorn in 2009, after the Club secured its tenth premiership in 2008 through to 2013.

He was given access to Clarkson’s pre-match addresses plus the different strategies used to ensure the players were tough enough both mentally and physically to achieve the game’s biggest prize.

Clarkson is unique in his strategies both on the field and off it and his passion for history and how it can shape the present makes fascinating reading.

There would rarely be a pre-match address delivered by the Hawthorn Coach that didn’t draw on a historical event to give the players’ perspective or used as an analogy for what is about to take place on the football field.

Before one game, Clarkson wrote on the whiteboard in the team meeting room “Who killed Osama bin Laden” and what followed was a brilliant analogy in which he demonstrated and instilled in his players a team-first attitude.

“They all play their role, do their job and then move onto the next task,” Gordon said of the metaphor.

“I think one of the lessons he (Clarkson) learned from ‘Yabby’ Jeans was that you need other (inspirations), you need to tell a story that will testify to the fact you can have all the best training in the world but to be switched on mentally, you need different sparks.

“Progressively, Alastair would look to different ways of trying to essentially sell the same message to the players that were quite innovative.”

Then there was the inspiration drawn from the Navy SEALs in 2012 to be selfless, be anonymous and totally team focused.

“The embrace of the Navy SEALS as a sort of narrative, a theme forged by adversity and do whatever it took, within the rules to be successful,” Gordon said.

“They adopted a swag of things from the Navy SEALs, starting from a training video that had them swimming under water for 50 metres.”

But following the disappointment of that season, however, there was a shift at Hawthorn heading into season 2013.

“As Sam Mitchell said, during a debrief on a game it’s hard to do it on a Navy SEALS prism,” Gordon said.

So, the players took ownership heading into season 2013 of the culture, behaviours and expectations of each and every player representing the Club.

“They worked out what their trademarks were going to be and a lot of them stemmed back from the Navy SEALs experience – team-first, selfless and to use the ‘Yabby’ Jeans phrase, ‘put your ego on the hook’ and totally commando,” Gordon said.

“They established their trademarks and then each game, they would measure each other against those.

“What was different was that the players took total ownership of it and that carried them forward.”

It is that culture instilled in each player that eventually took the Hawks on a journey to the 2013 finals series, hot favourites to make the Grand Final but with a familiar foe standing in their way.

The account and inside look of the thrilling Preliminary Final win over Geelong is brilliant but it is the pre-game address, the white line fever with which Clarkson had each of the 22 players buy into that provides greater understanding of how the Hawks turned a 20 point final quarter deficit into a five point victory.

There would be nothing standing in the way of Hawthorn and a Grand Final berth.

“In terms of surprise and emotional energy, the Preliminary Final against Geelong and the story of the white line is a must read,” Gordon said.

Success had come easily for a number of players including Jarryd Roughead (2004 draft) Lance Franklin (2004), Jordan Lewis (2004), Grant Birchall (2005) and Cyril Rioli (2007).

The group achieved the ultimate success in just their fourth seasons and Rioli in his first when they defeated Geelong in the 2008 Grand Final.

The five years following that triumph was, as Gordon says about “realising the fallibilities, responding to them and then looking for the way forward.”

Those players became the nucleus, the key players determined to again taste success along with Captain Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Josh Gibson and Brian Lake among others who would take Hawthorn to a premiership.

Gordon, the man given an access all areas pass into Hawthorn between 2009 and 2013 says the Club’s eleventh premiership is a five year story about acceptance, determination and innovation.

“It goes back to 2008 and the premiership that came a little bit before people expected and then what happened the following year. There were a swag of lessons learnt,” he said.

“The whole story is one you need to see in context.

“There’s the team story and then also the personal stories.”

 

Playing to Win features interviews with a number of different players, coaches and staff integral to the Club’s eleventh premiership.

Purchase your copy today in-store at HawksNest or online at www.hawksnestonline.com.au