Mad as cut snakes – Coaches

In between posts, which is a significant chunk of time, my mind has wandered across many places and topics, all the while completing some intensive uni work. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a few social media posts about AFL players thanking their junior coaches. I think I saw a TV ad about it too, though I stand to be corrected. Then today on SEN they had a segment on ‘mad coaching moments’, where coaches of all levels do something bizarre or crazy. It got me thinking about the coaches that I’ve had over the journey. Three come to mind: for their skills, their methods, their madness, and their overriding love of the game. Those men are John Harley, Peter Nicholson and Russell Barnes.

From under 10’s through to 14’s we had Dads coach us at Livingston Oval, Vermont. They did a fine job at instilling understanding of the game, developing our skills and teamwork, and most importantly, fostering passion and enjoyment for playing footy. Going into u15’s, we had heard a few things about the coach who was to take over: John Harley. Through siblings and friends who had just finished under him, we learned that he was a hard taskmaster, ready to push us to new levels. I wasn’t a fan of training as it was so this was particularly scary news. We were a talented group, though most of the other teams had grown a lot faster and as a result we got bullied around a bit through 13’s and 14’s. Then we started springing up, and that pre-season Johnny took our running and strength work to a new level. He demanded high standards of effort and skill execution, and if it wasn’t up to scratch – including run throughs in the warm up at training – he would consign us to the dreaded fate of a sprint lap. They became the two most frightening words in the dictionary, and he would always say it calmly and quietly. You knew it was coming if we weren’t hitting targets, if someone wasn’t backing up or if a few were having a laugh. “Into the middle,” he would yell. Then he would look at you with these piercing eyes, sometimes talking, sometimes whispering, “Sprint lap.” I can’t recall any more than a handful of training sessions where Johnny needed to use multiple sprint laps to whip our mindset into shape.

Aside from conditioning, Johnny was very smart tactically, and introduced us to a brilliant 18 man zone. I thought it was pretty cool that we were able to implement AFL style tactics at that age, and he really excelled at explaining your role. I certainly always knew what he wanted from me, and it turned us into a wonderful team, culminating in a losing grand final in 15’s, and an 80 point odd victory in the big dance the next year. Johnny loved footy. I remember one day at the canteen pre game. It was pissing down, really bucketing, still two hours out from our game. Johnny had his coffee, and we walked up to the oval to watch some of the 14’s game before our pre game meeting. We had a bit of a chat about who we were playing, what I needed to do, before I noted how dreadful the weather was and went to go undercover. He looked at me, his weird little mini soul patch soaked in rain, and said with his Adelaide drawl – “Magnificent day for footy, Sammy.” He continued to stand in the rain, his only clothes for the next four to five hours getting drenched, his coffee steaming, and I thought he was the maddest man alive. You never wanted to let him down, though. As an aside, his brutal push up/sit up drill is still something I use to see how fit I am. You go 40 push ups, 40 situps, 30, 30 etc. down to 10, and then 5 push ups and the bastard would make us hold the last one, and then laugh as most of us crumbled and couldn’t hold it longer than 30 seconds. A sick man, a great man.

Peter Nicholson was a different kettle of fish to anyone I’ve ever met, then or since. ‘Nico’ was a VFA/VFL legend as a player, and a coaching legend of very high levels, too. Park Orchards were starting up a senior club, and I had a few mates down there and decided to join the journey. Nico was to be senior coach, and we had an extraordinarily young and inexperienced playing group. It was like GWS, but obviously without the high end talent, though some of the boys are coming through nicely now. I’d heard stories about him as runner for the 18’s team the year before, his passion for the game, his infamous yelling during the game and my personal favourite, the throw of the hat. We experienced that ten-fold during my two years there. He would come down and watch the two’s play, just as a spectator, and start cheering and yelling and haggling opposition players. When I was playing ressies, it would have a cyclonic effect on you – you’d feel proud that this coach is egging you on; you’d be scared that it would fire up your opponent to prove him wrong; sometimes you would just laugh. If you were playing ones, it was like the greatest show on earth – I would piss my myself. But you knew that was coming your way too, in a few hours.

Nico had a tough role, given his high end success, in coming down and bringing together young kids, talented players, older blokes, and some who had never kicked a footy before and trying to mould a club. He had so much footballing knowledge, but he had to taper it a bit when addressing the whole list of 50 because there was such a range of experience levels. I found that when I spoke to Nico one on one was when he was at his best – from wider perspectives of running patterns, and knowing where to go to get the ball – “I was the only prick in the VFA smart enough to use the wings for a decade!” – to little hints about body position to win contested ball. He was actually quite calm and reasoned when you were with just him, a far cry from what the fans and spectators would see on game day. I get the feeling he adopted this loud voice and mannerisms as method of taking the heat off of us, the young guys, on game day. He was helping this new club develop a voice, a presence, and for much of the first year it was a case of ‘fake it til you make it’.

One day against The Basin, we would’ve been losing by 100 odd points, and it was only my second or third game of seniors as a bundle of twigs 19 year old. We kicked a goal, probably our third of the day, and he just went nuts, high fiving, yelling, getting around the blokes on the bench, and then starts ripping into a bloke I was playing near – “Your goal number 8, your goal”. It was almost unbelievable, and I know it rubbed opposition teams the wrong way, but if you were a player of Nico’s, you always felt 100% supported, even when we were getting pantsed. He could give a ferocious spray, though he usually reserved it for the rooms. Sure enough, the club is working its way up now, and achieved some success built upon the mountain of work Nico put in during the early days. Funnily enough, he loved a sprint lap as much as Johnny did, though he called them 400s, and used them more as a fitness tool than punishment. They were still shit though.

Similarly to Nico, Russell ‘Barney’ Barnes achieved a lot of success with Ormond, as player and coach, in the Ammo’s (VAFA). He was by all accounts an amazing player, winning many premierships in the top division of the VAFA, and later coaching to premiership success at many clubs at the top level. He came all the way down to lowly Division 3, in real terms, division 6, and embarked on turning around the fortunes of Aquinas Old Collegians. The club really should have won a premiership during his tenure – a few prelim finals the best result. Barney was a genuine footy head. He loves the game so much, and often told us how much he loved it. Barney was an intense character, but very funny as well. He would come up with weird nicknames, and comment on all sorts of world issues and quite enjoyed the togetherness and camaraderie of training and playing as a big group of blokes on a mission.

His favourite motivational tool was telling us how great it was to win a premiership, to stand up there with your mates knowing you were the best of the division. At times you could feel his frustration when some of the guys didn’t have the same want, the same intensity to achieve this difficult feat. One of my favourite things about Barney was his instruction – if he brought you off, he would make it very clear what he needed you to do or change. In the few games I played that season, I had great clarity about the position I was playing in the team. Barney’s passion was all encompassing, and if you were a footballer in the eastern suburbs and were mates with someone playing at Aquinas, you could almost guarantee that Barney would have tried to call them and lure them down. His belief in creating a strong club with success may not have been realised in the form of a premiership, but he made a lasting impression on a number of players on what was required.

These three men were all outstanding coaches and people for different reasons. Reflecting on the chance I had to spend time and be coached by them is a little humbling, particularly when you see the calibre of teams and players that Nico and Barney were involved with at very high senior levels. John, Peter and Russell don’t just leave impressions on you as footballers, but also as people. I am sure there are thousands of other coaches who have this impact across many sports. They are good people, and should be given all the accolades possible for the time and effort they put into us a sportspeople, whatever the level.

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