As someone who grew up playing and following Australian Rules Football and then was fortunate enough to be involved in a professional capacity for a number of years, it is hard not to be enthralled by the Western Bulldogs journey over the last two seasons. On Saturday it could culminate in their first premiership since 1954.
Despite living overseas now, I try to keep tabs on the trends and themes being talked about in AFL coaching and with the amount of media coverage these days you can get a decent insight. As well as the action on the field, coaches body language in the box on match day, language used in post-match press conferences, various weekly interviews, video footage from training etc provide a reasonable feel for the coaching and culture.
Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge has intrigued me since early last season. The Bulldogs surprised a lot of people in 2015 with their dramatic rise up the ladder. This always gets me interested as these shifts tend not to happen by pure chance. They played with intensity and enthusiasm, were clean and accurate with their ball use and had an adaptive game style.
It was towards the end of the year that I read a most insightful story on Beveridge. Three things stood out:
- his work for AUSTRAC, an intelligence agency combating criminal money laundering
- a passion for surfboarding (fairly common) and skateboarding (wait…what!? now that’s interesting!)
- His passion for people and the ability to recognise his players are living a childhood dream - “I do see the young five-year-old kid in all our players who wanted to be an AFL player. Here is a part of them that is living their dream and I’m trying to help them continue on with it. They are obviously someone’s sons and as a father you have a responsibility to care for them and nurture them. And to be their friend, too.”
Now this last point aligns with the long-held belief that coaching is primarily about people and building relationships. But the first two hint at something else that is not quite so common.
I’ve been waiting to get my hands on the Neo-Generalist by Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen for a while now. Having succeeded in doing so this week I’ve managed to get stuck into the first few chapters where Richard and Kenneth lay out the thinking behind neo-generalism. Here is one snapshot…
“During an era still dominated by hyperspecialism and experts with ‘the one right answer’, the neo-generalist defies easy classification. They are tricksters who traverse multiple domains, living between categories and labels. They bring together diverse people, synthesising ideas and practice, addressing the big issues that confront us in order to shape a better future. They are curious, responsive, connective.”
Richard and Kenneth go on to introduce the “infinite loop” as depicted below. I’m having fun making sense of it and it feels like there could be more “aha” moments to come.
Now, I don’t know where Luke Beveridge sits on the loop, and in fact this is governed by context anyway. But what seems apparent is his diverse range of professional experiences (in and out of football), interests and ability to connect with people and tap into their specialist expertise.
“He doesn’t like the limelight. He was all about respect, listening to everyone about what they could bring and encouraging people to get the job done.”
- AUSTRAC colleague
I’ve been pondering for some time the merits of generalism in coaching. Perhaps it used to be abundant but has gradually been fading in the era of professional football and hyper-specialisation? Many coaches now will come through a system of full-time employment as a player, then move into assistant coaching and onto senior coach (some have transitioned almost directly from playing to senior coach and, perhaps unsurprisingly, struggled). The experience of “coaching your own team” in a lower league is held in higher regard now than it used to be. This is understandable given the vast differences in decision making and responsibilities a senior coach will be exposed to in comparison to assistant coaching.
Still, whilst obtaining expertise in any field requires significant time working in that field, could there be a complementary role for variation and diversity, achieved by coaching another sport, taking up a role in sport other than coaching, or moving away from sport altogether ala Beveridge and Adelaide coach Don Pyke?
Danny Kerry, who recently guided the GB womens hockey team to gold in Rio, previously lectured in Sociology. Still on hockey, perhaps the ultimate Neo-Generalist is former Australian mens and womens coach Ric Charlesworth, who also dabbled in medicine, politics, cricket and AFL.
Pep Guardiola’s “gap year” in between managing FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich is another possible model, enabling escape from the coaching “bubble” and fresh perspectives gained from connecting with unique people across different fields.
There is also the possiblity of a neo-generalist with no football experience being able to fill the role of senior coach, with their great learning capacity enabling them to pick up the technical nuances of the game with relative ease. I wonder if we will ever see that eventuate?
In any case, good luck to both Luke Beveridge and his Sydney counterpart John Longmire in this weeks Grand Final. Whilst there can be only one official winner on Saturday, both clubs have seemingly created outstanding environments for their players to thrive both on and off the field. That is excellence for me.
- The Neo-Generalist by Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen
- Luke Beveridge took time out of his coaching career to chase criminals
- Luke Beveridge is a new-age coach who gets the best out of his team in his own way