Developing Elite Players

WA U16 team in action

By John Hancock
Assistant Coach
WA U16 AFL Academy

Each year literally hundreds of community junior football clubs across the country have a total reliance on volunteer coaches. In many instances that reliance extends to a parent who becomes the ‘reluctant winner’ of the position – often with little or no knowledge and experience in coaching at any level.

Yes – I was one of those “reluctant winners".

Thankfully there have been dramatic advances made in coach education and support over the past 15 years and the task is no longer as daunting as it once was. In fact more and more we are witnessing examples of individuals who have never played the game at the highest level who take their coaching from quite humble beginnings and reach a level that many never thought possible only a decade before.

Simon McPhee – Head coach of the Claremont Football Club, Trevor Williams – Head coach of Peel Thunder Football Club and now Damien McMahon – Head coach of the Perth Football Club are current living examples of coaches who have progressed through the system to become senior coaches in the West Australian Football League (WAFL).

So what about you? Are you the once “reluctant winner” who has grown to love the experience. Are you a coach who, although you only took up the role because you had a son in the game, has developed a real liking – even passion for the many joys that can be gained from the experience. If so I have no doubt you have also thought about “taking it to the next level”.

What is that “next level” and are there any pitfalls that you must be aware of as the once novice parent coach?

I have always considered myself a development coach and as such my passion and enjoyment for coaching sits within the youth (teenage) level of the talent pathway. Because of my experiences in this area I will focus on and relate the question of “what is the next level” to this phase of the talent pathway.

What do I need to succeed?

Being a true development coach is not rocket science. What it does require is a clear understanding of the fundamental ideology of what your role and responsibilities are as a development coach.

In my opinion there are several non-negotiable processes that development coaches must adopt:

  1. Develop and document a coaching philosophy that clearly defines you as a coach – never compromise that philosophy.  It defines you and what you stand for.
  2. Continue to seek further coach education.  Know your trade and stay aware of contemporary trends and methods.
  3. Understand that you do not own players. They are merely in your control for a short period.  You have the responsibility of passing them onto the next stage of the pathway better prepared than when they entered your program.
  4. Create a positive learning environment where players have a sense of ownership of the program.
  5. Leave your ego at the door.  Make no mistake; the players are the number one priority. Many a talented young player has been damaged by the negative impact of an egotistical coach. Don’t allow that to happen on ‘your watch’
  6. Never simply tell a player to ‘enjoy’ his football – it is you who has the responsibility for creating an environment that allows the player to enjoy the experience.
  7. ‘Winning’ is not a dirty word but trust me, I have never seen a development coach sacked for failing to win a premiership because his focus was on developing players for the next level. Find a balance where the player’s development in a team environment goes hand in hand and you may achieve the best of both worlds.
  8. Conduct regular reviews of your performance.  Seek constructive feedback and always strive to enhance your own performance.
  9. Engage a mentor.  They should be a person you can trust who is independent to your coaching program and can be used as a sounding board. They are the perfect source of constructive feedback on your performance and many other areas.

Take the time to document and then implement the skill set that you have already acquired as a result of your professional working life. With careful thought and by documenting your skill set you may well be amazed at how many relevant skills you already possess. You may find this process easier by breaking your skill set down into the following areas. I have included examples to assist you.

  • Ability to set common goals
  • Unite people to work toward common goals
  • Involve others in decision making
  • Empower others with clearly defined areas of responsibility
  • Communicate a clear understanding of accountabilities, standards and outcomes of both individuals and teams
  • Provide timely feedback on performance
  • Act with integrity and high standards of behaviour
Working with others:
  • Communication skills – facilitative questioning – learn it and use it
  • Being inclusive, not exclusive
  • Understanding the needs and priorities of others
  • Working co-operatively with others to achieve goals
  • Establishing and maintaining relevant internal and external networks
Achieving results:
  • Establishing and fostering a positive culture
  • Know your core business
  • Effectively assess a situation
  • Act decisively
  • Self driven and self motivated
  • Calm, able to operate effectively under pressure
Buyer be aware:

What about those ‘pitfalls’.  What are they?


There still remains within the industry an element of old school thinking (dinosaurs?) who believe that coaches must play the game at the highest level before they can truly coach elite players.

There is no doubt that those who have played the game at the highest level have gained invaluable experience and knowledge. But remember playing and coaching are very different skill sets. Contemporary knowledge and understanding of the game is essential but only one element of coaching.

A coach is in the people business and as such people management skills are equally vital. Your ability and skills in the areas of leadership, working with others and achieving results must be on a par with your football knowledge.

Patience and persistence is the key to pushing through old school thinkers.


People will question your motivation for coaching (especially if you have a child in the game) and rightly so. Do not assume they will readily identify your motivation. Ensure that you know your motivation for coaching, that it is genuine and conveyed to others in the appropriate forum at the appropriate time.


Do not be distracted by the politics of the industry and be cautious of coaches who do involve themselves heavily in the politics. They are very skilled at saying the ‘right thing to the right people at the right time’ but when you peel back the surface layers they have a very questionable work ethic, limited people skills and some times questionable reasons and motivations for taking up coaching or specific coaching positions.

Surround yourself with like minded people who are hands on workers and then empower them with defined roles and responsibilities. Don’t look for ‘yes men’. Your people should be capable of independent thought who will cover off on the what, where, why, when and how and therefore will raise concerns or fresh or alternative ideas.


Do not pigeonhole players into specific positions or areas of the ground. Development coaches look to up skill players in as many areas as the length of their program will realistically allow. Ultimately players will eventually be suited to one area more than others, however exposure to a variety of roles is an important aspect of their development.


Do not expect to become wealthy as a development coach. I had been coaching for 10 years before I received my first cent. Not only that but I could have purchased a BMW X5 with lost overtime opportunities.

I have enjoyed every minute of my coaching journey, be it with teams who have won premierships or teams who struggled to win a game. There are many fond memories.  Whether it be coaching the players who are now on an AFL list or those who struggled to win a kick. Australian football is the most dynamic and enjoyable game in the world but not nearly as enjoyable as the journey of a development coach.

“Reluctant no more”

John Hancock is an Assistant Coach with the WA U16 AFL Academy. This article was written as part of the requirements of the AFL High Performance Coaching Course.


Elite Talent Pathways – Walking a Tightrope

Elite Talent Pathways in all sports walk a tightrope and the demands and challenges faced under each program need to be carefully monitored and managed.

Andy Hayman (former Eastern Ranges under 18 Assistant Coach) explains that TAC Cup under-18 players need to balance school, work, school football, Vic Metro football, club football, logging hours to obtain a learner’s permit and gaining their licence, family and social life when we ask them to commit to a two-to-three day-a-week program modelled on the professional AFL environments.

Read the Walking a Tightrope article