25 March 2015



Daniel Gallan

Whether you're liking, sharing, or retweeting, the exchange of information is simply a click away. By sharing knowledge we progress our own understanding of the world around us. It's how we grow and develop ideas. For some though, making cognitive progress requires a little more than a social media interaction. For coaches in the Australian Football League (AFL), developing their game has required some out of the box thinking.

Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) explores how and why human civilisations evolved differently across the globe. He points out that throughout history, certain groups of people travelled across oceans and continents to dominate and decimate other groups of people.

Geographic location was the primary factor for this as disproportionate technical advancements were directly related to where civilisations came from. Apart from climate, the development of farming, and exposure to diseases passed on from livestock, what the conquering and colonising forces had as an advantage was their exposure to new information. Knowledge sharing was encouraged by comparative ease of travel.

Conversely, communities isolated by large bodies of water or terrain that proved difficult to traverse developed in isolation. When Europeans first encountered the inhabitants of small Pacific Islands and Australia, they found indigenous people using tools and technologies similar to Stone Age tools found elsewhere.

Although we now live in an age of knowledge sharing unparalleled in human history, one small tribe living in Australia still remains relatively isolated from the rest of the world. This tribe is the Australian Football League (AFL).

“Our sport is certainly extremely unique and we think it’s a great game. We can’t compare it to anything else,” says Ron Watt, Manager of Professional Development for the AFL Coaches Association. “Because we don’t have another sport to measure ourselves against, we have to reach out and learn from other sports. We’ve had to be creative in the way we develop our knowledge.”

Watt has been with the Coaches Association for just over a year and has encouraged all head coaches in the AFL to learn from other sports. The way basketball players keep possession, the way field hockey teams spread the ball across the pitch, the way rugby players tackle; these have all been noted and improved the development of the sport.

The AFL’s isolation has necessitated their need to challenge the way they coach their game, but this is something that not all sports practitioners have been forced to do. Watt explains how last year while visiting the USA, he met with a National Football League (NFL) coach. Watt asked him how he learns from other sporting codes; he responded that he simply doesn’t. The obstinate coach asked why he should learn from other sports when there is a perfectly good football academy just one state over.

It seems a stubborn response but one that is not uncommon. According to Kenneth Husted and Snejina Michailova in their paper Diagnosing and Fighting Knowledge-Sharing Hostility (2002), there is often a strong desire to develop one’s own ideas and reject outside knowledge. In a previous article, Paddy Upton, head coach of the Sydney Thunder cricket team in Australia's Big Bash league, touched on the notion that coaches are determined to be seen as all-knowing technical gurus.

A head coach is an isolated and volatile job with a very short shelf life. Getting sacked is a strong possibility in any code and it is understandable that a coach would be reluctant to share ideas as well as allow others to share theirs. It seems folly not to accept help but how many of you have felt the pressures and expectations that come with being a head coach of a franchise or club?

“It’s a lonely job as a head coach,” says Watt. “It’s his head on the block but communication is key. Understanding that there is always something new to learn is what makes a top coach. We encourage our coaches to meet regularly and learn from each other and other sports. We’re not threatened because our sport is so different.”

 Josh Waker takes a mark for the Geelong Cats in the Victorian Football League (VFL). Marking is one of the most difficult and sport specific skills in Australian rules football.  Image supplied by  Arj Giese

Josh Waker takes a mark for the Geelong Cats in the Victorian Football League (VFL). Marking is one of the most difficult and sport specific skills in Australian rules football. Image supplied by  Arj Giese

This security has allowed Watt and the AFL to learn from other sports and has created a willingness to share knowledge. Research in knowledge sharing has shown that the desire to create a two way avenue is vital.

When former New Zealand All Blacks coach Laurie Mains called code-hopping Sonny Bill Williams a “mercenary” for swapping union for league, it seemed to come from a personal place. In an interview with News24, the former coach lamented the fact that the New Zealand rugby hierarchy were “content to let Williams flit from one code to another at will.” Of course Mains wanted the best players available representing the code he loves, but his anger seemed to be directed at the opposing code (rugby league) more than the ineptness of his code (rugby union).

Cricket Australia had no such qualms hiring American Mike Young as their fielding coach in 2000. Young’s sporting background was in baseball prior to John Buchanan appointing him. In the early parts of the new millennium, Australia’s fielding improved dramatically under Young’s tutelage. The way players positioned their body when throwing and catching the ball was adapted using the knowledge he had acquired through baseball. He combined the existing philosophies that the cricketers had with his established techniques to create a succesful hybrid of fielding.

One such example involved a simple alteration. Young noted that when walking in with the bowler, fielders were taking around ten steps before the ball reached the batsman. Over a five day test match that adds up to a lot of steps. Thanks to Young and his knowledge from another sport, Australian cricketers were saving energy by only taking three steps.

The baseball-cricket relationship has now developed into a new initiative called Switch Hit 20. Julien Fountain, a former English county cricketer crossed codes to represent Great Britain as a pitcher. Having experience in both sports, Fountain’s Switch Hit 20 is a program that seeks to take baseball players who have failed to make it to the major leagues and turn them into a competitive American 20/20 cricket team. Fountain argues that the athletic ability and skills required in both sports are very similar. With a bit of coaching to refine those skills, a sporting cross-over for athletes is achievable.

There is no set rule when it comes to knowledge sharing. Australian Sevens Rugby has recently encouraged code-hoppers to join their ranks in a quest to assemble the best possible squad for Rio 2016. As Watt states, “It comes down to the individuals.” However, each individual in his or her own sport will always prioritise their own interests. In other words, for a coach or manager, knowledge sharing must be a means to an end rather than a romantic ideal of exchanging ideas. 

In a study done by Halil Bisgin published in the International Journal of Sport Studies titled Examination of Knowledge Sharing Levels of Physical Education and Sports Teachers According to Various Variables (2014), knowledge sharing is best encouraged in informal environments where knowledge can be exchanged voluntarily. Knowledge sharing differentiates form knowledge transfer because of the engagement it offers. Knowledge sharing allows both parties to come away from the exchange enriched. In conversation with Upton, I asked him how any coach could tell Sachin Tendulker how to play a cricket shot. He responded, “You don’t tell him, you ask him.”

Watt speaks of the AFL Coaches Association’s willingness to exchange ideas with pride. His sport has benefited from learning from other sports but the profits of knowledge sharing works both ways. Watt tells me how rugby league and union coaches have implemented kicking tactics borrowed from the AFL. The way AFL players protect the ball when jumping to catch it has also been replicated in both rugby codes. The dimensions of the field used for Australian rules are unique to any high intensity ball sport and therefore so is the way players are conditioned and managed. Many young Australians are being used as punters in college football as the technique they have grown up with and perfected is completely different and often more efficient when compared to their American contemporaries.  

New information is just a click away on any phone, tablet or desktop. Coaches and scouts can access data and player analysis around the globe with a simple flight or call at any time. The pressures of winning have increased just as the margins for error have decreased. With coaches striving to find that special something that separates their team from the rest, perhaps the answer lies in another sport.