Posted: March 18th, 2023
Successful vs. Effective Coaching: Essendon Football Club
Organisational leadership is inherently challenging. In any context, it is incumbent upon the individual in the leadership role to select the style of leadership best suited to his or her skill set and likewise the style best suited to the group or organisation in question. The dilemma driven by the need for such a selection underscores the discussion hereafter. Contextualized by the world of professional sports and by the responsibility of coaching, the following discussion aims to outline the distinctions between effective coaching and successful coaching. Using both personal experiences in the sport of rugby and the professional sporting example of James Hird, coach of the Essendon Football Club, the following discussion will consider five major distinctions between effective and successful coaching.
Before proceeding to a more rhetorical discussion on Hird’s role as a leader within his organisation, it is appropriate to provide some basic background on the context and coach. James Hird is in his third season as a head coach in the venerable Australian Football League (AFL), where the head coach is both a figure held up to accountability for the overarching performance of the team and is often an individual for whom much accountability must fall where engagement of the public is concerned. Before being named head coach of the Essendon Football Club in 2010, Hird spend the better part of the previous two decades serving as the organization’s leading player personality and face. Widely considered one of the great players to ever enter into the game, Hird was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2011. According to the write-up which accompanied his induction, Hird spent his entire career with the Essendon Football Club and is thusly often nicknamed Essendon’s favourite son. As Horan (2011) reported on the occasion of his induction, “a veteran of 253 games spread over 16 seasons, Hird won five club best and fairests, three Anzac medals, a Norm Smith medal and a Jim Stynes medal as well as playing in two premiership sides in 1993 and 2000. Picked at a lowly No.79 in the 1990 draft and the last of 52 players chosen on the Essendon senior list, Hird admitted coach Kevin Sheedy’s decision to keep him allowed him to live he’s dream.” (Horan, p. 1)
Hird’s experiences as an extra-ordinary player and league luminary, as well as his relationship with coach and mentor Kevin Sheedy, would help to forge a coach from the player. As the discussion here will demonstrate, Hird’s relative newness in the field makes him an interesting figure for examination, even if the sample size available to us remains relatively modest. In order to engage this topic, the discussion below will use the Essendon Football Club as a context and will examine its head coach James Hird as a primary subject and an exemplar of an effective coach. My personal experiences will be used in some instances as a counterpoint and a demonstration of successful coach.
Effective vs. Successful Coaching:
Person Centered v. Results Centered
One of the recurring notions in our research is that effective coaching is inherently a more interpersonal mode of leadership than is successful coaching. This is because the emphasis created by the coach in question will center less on the individual as a player than as a human being. According to the Sports Education and Leadership Program at UNLV (SELP), “successful leadership has been defined as the ability to get others to behave as the manager intends them to behave. The job may get done, and the coach’s needs may be satisfied, but the players’ needs are ignored. In effective leadership, the athletes perform in accordance with the coach’s intentions and, at the same time, find their own needs satisfied.” (Youth First, p. 1)
This denotes that successful coaching takes an ends-justify-the-means approach to utilizing player personnel. While this may potentially lead to positive outcomes on the field, it is often a poor way to manage morale, our research suggests. The example of James Hird is instructive on this point and reflects the humanist impulses of effective coaching. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Hird recognized a number of the attributes that helped him to succeed in the profession in spite of the decidedly modest level of fanfare that accompanied his initial entry into the sport. Hird would state in his induction speech that “I always thought that was all I wanted to do and a lot of hard work paid off. I had a lot of very good people around me who kept me positive and motivated and successful.” (Horan, p. 1) This attitude demonstrates the determination that the coach believes is required for a player to succeed in the league and, more importantly, that support from others is a critical aspect of finding and sustaining this determination. This has served as an essential part of Hird’s orientation as he has worked to gain a foothold as Essendon’s head coach.
Indeed, Hird’s players have publicly acknowledge the distinct ability of the coach to keep his charges motivated through stretches of mediocrity and struggle. According to the article by Ashton-Lawson, Bombers star player Jobe Watson stated his team’s commitment to the coach and the motivational skills that he has shown in keeping them afloat through difficulties. According to the article, “Essendon has been struggling this year, with a 65-point loss to Collingwood at the much-hyped Anzac Day match their fourth loss from five games. That prompted Essendon legend James Hird to plead to his former club to play some hard, attacking football. Hird wrote in today’s Herald Sun that the Bombers need to get back to their old style of football by improving on skills, motivation and courage. Watson said today that Essendon club legend Hird’s words are sure to inspire his struggling side. ‘you have to look into the mirror and see if you’re demonstrating the type of things that he’s talking about and I think that’d be motivation for a few players,’ Watson said.” (Ashton-Lawson, p. 1)
Perhaps more than any other source of evidence, the degree of commitment voluntarily demonstrated by his players is as telling of his preference for effective coaching. This also stands in stark divergence from my experiences as a youth rugby competitor. As I recall, my coach was motivated entirely by the notion of successful coaching, and therefore tended to distribute playing time with a heavy favouritism that often produced positive results on the field but left many lesser skilled players idle. As one consequence, many of these players felt a lowered morale and a sense of detachment from the team’s success. More troubling was the fact that so many of these lesser skilled players did not receive the attention and experience to gain significant ground.
As demonstrated above, goal-orientation will play a significant role in successful coaching. However, this goal-orientation will often be defined in a narrow and unilateral way. For instance, this goal may be strictly defined as the achievement of a winning record, a league championship or the longterm sustainability of competitiveness. Given however that in the context of sports none of these things is guaranteed nor can any of these things be sustained forever once attained, morale can be negatively impacted where no other ways of defining achievement exist. This is why effective coaching is often a preferred orientation.
According to Mallett (2005), “effective coaching is the achievement of goals that are shared by all stakeholders, and which are bounded by time and place (quality of players, available resources). Therefore Lyle (2002) proposes that, coaching effectiveness should be judged by evaluating instances of specific coaching performance;” (Mallett, p. 7) Here, two important distinctions of effective coaching are identified in the sharing of goals (as opposed to the service of a coach’s goal) and in the evaluation of isolated performances as a way of framing attainable goals. This is an approach demonstrated amply by Hird, who again demonstrates his tendency toward effective coaching strategies. For instance, Hird’s tremendous experience in the game has provided him with a unique capacity to help his players navigate the extremely frustrating waters of loss. According to an article by Estrop (2012), the Bombers have struggled in the late rounds of the season in both of Hird’s previous two seasons and have endured a slump for the third consecutive June month. However, Estrop points to the positive management that Hird has conjured from these events. Hird notes that ‘we want to rebound from last week after a disappointing loss,’ the Bombers have been quick to move on after last week, with the spirit among the group at a season-high according Hird. ‘We moved on pretty quickly as our boys have been very good most of the year,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave that game in isolation, learn what we need to learn out of it.'” (Estrop, p. 1) Finding ways such as this to place losses into context, rather than to blow them out of emotional proportion, is one of the key features of Hird’s effectiveness as a coach.
Again, this is a feature which I found differed significantly in my own experiences. Herein, our coach was frequently moved to considerable frustration and anger by individual losses and would even subject the team to lengthy critical tirades where specific players were singled out for mistakes. These post-game diatribes were often framed by the assessment that our poor performances on any given day might cause a whole’s season’s work to slip away. This assessment denotes a coach who defined his goals strictly based on tangible success as opposed to such markers as player improvements.
Process v. Results:
The distinction noted above speaks to another difference between successful and effective coaching, with the latter tending to emphasize process and the former, results. This means that successful coaching will gauge its satisfaction based on such results as victories, winning records and late round victories. Effective coaching, by contrast, will gauge this same satisfaction based on less immediately tangible factors such as a player’s technical improvement in a specific area; a series of practices in which the team appears to have made sustainable improvements in its chemistry; a sequence of matches where the team has lost but has taken away usable lessons. To this end, according to the Sports Education and Leadership Program at UNLV “success has to do only with getting the job done, whereas effectiveness adds to the concept of satisfaction on the part of those who do the job.” (Youth First, p. 2)
The focus on process as opposed to results is especially important for a team attempting to build toward success as is the case for James Hird’s Bombers. Even in the midst of his early run of victories with the team, Hird has emphasized the need for a winning attitude and a defiance of complacency as the chief recipes for advancement of the club. In many ways, this demonstrates that in the relatively young tenure of the coach, there remains a great deal left to prove if his coaching tenure is to be described as a success. However, his words in the lead-up to a match with a Greater Western Sydney club led by his former mentor in Sheedy, demonstrate that Hird’s orientation where attitude is concerned is an effective one. According to an article by the AAP (2012), in the lead up to their showdown the coach commented that “I can’t see why our guys would be complacent. We’re trying to do something, we’re trying to go somewhere. We’re not anywhere near there yet, and we haven’t been there for a long time,’ he said. ‘This club hasn’t won a final, hasn’t been competitive in the top end of the season for probably 12 or 11 years. You just can’t afford to be complacent. You can build a year and we’re trying to build that. Our guys understand that.'” (AAP, p. 1)
This type of attitude has been effective in stimulating the commitment and determination of his players, who have shown a willingness to mirror Hird’s drive and diligence in their drive to win. Indeed, this attitudinal change will have a big part to play in the ability of the club to ultimately get over the hump from competitive team to premiership contender, a feat which it has not achieved since Hird captained the team in 2000. This is to suggest that process must continue to define the team because the results seen as the primary imperative in success-driven coaching may not come for some time.
Manager v. Boss
Another area of difference between effective and successful coaching is the demeanor and orientation of the coach himself. To an extent, these mark the differences between a coach who functions as a manager as opposed to one who postures himself as a boss. For the latter, successful coaching is seen as sufficient warranting for an authoritarian posture when interacting with one’s players. Management is inherently more collectivist and calls for the navigation of player needs, personal desires, chemistry issues and a number of other factors shaping clubhouse culture. On this point, Mallett describes the effective coach as being defined as much by how he relates to the needs of his players as by how the team performs on the field. Mallett contends that a pre-condition of effective coaching is the capacity to “display care and interest in [the] ‘whole’ person,” a characteristic that will certainly distinguish the effectiveness with which the coach relates to his team. (Mallett, p. 9)
Hird has an excellent track record on this point. Among the management tactics at which Hird has proven most skilled, communication is a critical one. Communication within the context of sports is specialized because there are numerous different fronts on which this communication must occur in order for players to be managed effectively. For the top coach of a team such as Hird, communication will include balancing interaction internally with players, administratively with club owners or board members and publicly with fans and the media. Because player egos must be factored into this process of communication and because the role played by the public can often be instigated by poor or incomplete communication, our primary source denotes that “a controlled attitude towards communicating with a player that has just made a fundamental error is often quite difficult for a coach to manage but nevertheless communicating the error in a controlled manner is still very important so that the athlete keeps the faith and understands the belief a coach has in their athlete.” (Topic 12, p. 2)
In this area, Coach Hird made clear and effective demonstration of his willingness to toe the line with his players. Indeed, as the source above denotes, balance is essential for the coach attempting both to yield the best possible performance out of his players — as cited in the section above — and to put a team on the field that plays to the highest possible standards. The dilemma facing a coach in achieving this challenge was well-demonstrated most recently when Essendon’s Leroy Jetta was penalized for ‘staging,’ or over-acting from an opposing player’s contact in order to draw an undue penalty charge. The infraction resulted in the player’s official reprimand at the hands of the league. This prompted a two part response from Hird, simultaneously defending the quality of his player but acknowledging the importance of playing a clean, fair and honest game.
In an article by Walsh (2012), Hird would remark on the criticism levied against his player, asserting that “Leroy’s a ball player and he plays to the whistle, but sometimes habits creep into your game . . .’ Hird said his only advice to Jetta was to play the ball. ‘We have had a word about how we want him to play,’ Hird said. ‘That is to be strong at the ball and if you get a free kick, you get a free kick. I’ll let it go there.'” (Walsh, p. 1)
In this regard, the coach provided an important public endorsement for his player, an effective gesture in terms of engaging sports communication appropriately and a demonstration of the strategic management called for in the effective coach. Hird would also acknowledge that modest internal steps had been taken in the form of a direct discussion with the player. This direct discussion is a further demonstration of Hird’s sensitivity to the ego needs of his players. Essentially, while effective communication merely ensures that a message is being delivered and received clearly, successful communication is that in which the message is couched in a clear understanding of the impact that chosen modes of communication can have on recipients and subjects. By choosing to speak critically to Jetta in private and by defending him before the media and the league, Hird has demonstrated a critical understanding of the way that player needs and emotions must been managed through sport-contextualized communication. He also reinforces his commitment here to an effectiveness-based mode of communication.
Effectiveness without Success v. Success without Effectiveness
A final dimension of coaching due for discussion is the manner in which the two modes — successful and effective coaching — correlate. In many ways, the research tends to demonstrate that effective coaching does have the capacity to lead to success whereas successful coaching, as it is defined here, is unlikely to improve effectiveness. In other words, Mallett reports, “the effective coach is almost certainly competent, will acquire and display expertise and may in time be termed an expert, and in appropriate circumstances, may be successful.” (Mallett, p. 7) This denotes that effective coaching is designed to create the kinds of improvements in players, team and organization that might ultimately lead to desired success achievements. By contrast, successful coaching as a method focused entirely on the ends as opposed to the means might significantly impede the effectiveness of the individual as a coach.
In many ways, Hird’s management of his team’s losses demonstrates a coach whose present focus is effectiveness of mentorship, strategy and game-to-game improvement. It is, in fact, useful to view the coach’s grace under this pressure, with the unspoken promise that success is the intended outcome of day-to-day foci. Often, this will require the coach to accept a large share of accountability for miscarriages which have occurred on the field. Hird has proven himself equal to the task of this responsibility, taken accountability for recent performances which are consistent with a patter of late-seasons faltering. According to Hird’s press conference in the aftermath of a shocking defeat to the sub-part Melbourne club, Hird lamented that “we didn’t put in a team that underestimated them. We put in a team that everyone was fit, we didn’t rest players. The preparations wasn’t under-estimating them, but certainly the two and a half hours that we played, coached and did things didn’t work, so we’ll go away and look at why it didn’t work.” (Matthews, p. 1)
Such comments demonstrate that Hird has been decidedly effective as not just an honest evaluator of performance but also as the target absorbing any of the criticism which might come from said performance. The result is a great deal of success in insulating his players from external criticism and a simultaneous success in gaining their commitment and responsiveness to internal counseling. This is a demonstration of effectiveness without success. It is also, again, a point of contrast from my own experiences. Whereas the team ultimately did experience some success as a consistent and winning franchise, players suffered from morale issues and most did not remain involved with the sport long-term. Here, success actually precluded effective coaching of the team and its players on the whole.
Using Hird’s experiences as an evolving coach for Essendon, and my own experiences as a youth sporting participant, it is clear that the present discussion produces an endorsement of effective coaching vs. successful coaching. Most compelling among the reasons for endorsing this position are the humanistic and management-based principles defining effective coaching. Today, given the relative prominence and influence of professional athletes themselves, effective coaching seems a far more relevant mode of coaching and one likely to yield better long-term results for the organisation in question.
AAP. (2012). Essendon’s James Hird plays down Kevin Sheedy showdown. The Australian.
Ashton-Lawson, H. (2010). James Hird’s Words to Motivate Bombers: Jobe Watson. Herald Sun.
Clark, J. (2012). Essendon coach James Hird backs mid-year draft. Herald Sun.
Estrop, C.V. (2012). Essendon Coach James Hird Welcomes Test Against Sydney Swans. Couriermail.com.
Horan, M. (2011). Nathan Buckley and James Hird Among AFL Hall of Fame Stars. Herald Sun.
Mallett, C. (2005). Coaching Effectiveness. Sport & Recreation New Zealand.
Matthews, B. (2012). James Hird says shock loss to Melbourne a reality check. Herald Sun.
Nicholson, R. (2012). Bombers coach James Hird puts lid on after big win. Herald Sun.
Primary Source: BLS210. (?). Sports Administration 2. .
Youth First. (2000). Successful vs. Effective Leadership. Sports Education and Leadership Program at UNLV, 1(8).
Walsh, C. (2012). Hird Says Jetta Not Born for the Stage. The Australian.com.au.
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