Support for AFL coaches under the spotlight as stress takes its toll during coronavirus-hit season

Financially, physically and psychologically there has not been an AFL season like the one experienced in 2020.

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic required quick thinking on the part of administrators, an acceptance from the fans that their weekly footy fix would be predominantly virtual, and remarkable flexibility from the players and coaches.

Particularly the coaches.

In any ordinary season — despite best-laid plans — players may not gel, teams may be hit by injury, tactics may be outsmarted by others with more luck or experience.

In an extraordinary season, like the 2020 edition played in a COVID-19 bubble, the layers of stress coaches endure increases exponentially.

AFL Coaches Association chief executive Mark Brayshaw said most of the AFL coaches “found it very difficult to get any of their own time”.

“In many cases, the families weren’t with them and in some instances, there were 70 or 80 days of absence,” Brayshaw told The Ticket.

Some deal with the mental stress of isolation better than others.

Brayshaw said the clubs were all staffed with medical professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists, who were involved in weekly feedback sessions.

“The resources are there but some of the stories I’ve heard are that it is very difficult,” he said.

“Particularly those coaches from Victoria, where their lockdown conditions were a challenge and homeschooling for partners with little kids wasn’t easy.”

The bubble was one thing, worrying about families at home was another.

Take North Melbourne head coach Rhyce Shaw as an example.

The Kangaroos confirmed on Friday Shaw was taking an indefinite break from the AFL after “he asked for some time and space away from football”.

At 38, Shaw is young enough to still play, yet old enough to be in his first full year as a senior coach.

Five North Melbourne AFL players walk off the ground, as one shakes hands with their coach on the Gold Coast.
Shaw and his players had to cope with playing away from their home base for several months.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

Learning on the job while being publicly scrutinised each week is challenging enough.

On top of that, having a young family in Melbourne’s lockdown and managing a squad of players in a bubble is a high-pressured existence with no obvious release valve.

Add to that the Kangaroos recorded three wins from 18 matches and the bubble starts to resemble a house of mirrors — everywhere you look there are reminders.

“Certainly, all the coaches are acutely aware of the ebb and flow of the season and the consequences of performance, but nothing would have prepared Rhyce Shaw for this year, or any of the first-year coaches,” Brayshaw said.

“I’m not surprised that if you have a look at the ones that are doing well this season the teams are led by, in the main almost without exception, very, very experienced coaches.”

Coaches need mentors

As football departments are scaled back and coaching support staff cut, senior coaches are going to have to handle more pressure with fewer resources in the future.

COVID-19 saw broadcast deals renegotiated downwards. Football budgets may be reduced by a third. From next season, coaches will have to handle more responsibility and pressure.

Psychologist Jenny Williams has worked closely with AFL coaches and players, but she also brings insights from her own athletic career to the professional roles she has served.

Williams was a member of the 1986 world championship-winning Australian lacrosse team, before going on to captain the side.

She said coach mentors would become vital in the future.

“It’s going to come down to who can actually handle stress, who is a very good people manager and who’s done that before, or at least has someone who can mentor them to actually take the pressure off them sometimes and actually say ‘It’s OK’,” she said.

Williams said 50 years ago, when her father Fos coached Australian rules in South Australia, coaching was more or less a one-man-band.

“It was semi-professional … often the elite coaches were also elite managers outside — in a business level — so they had skills that crossed over quite well,” she said.

“It’s old tribal wisdom, like in a sport like mine — lacrosse — the American Indian chiefs would actually help the braves make the right decisions with what they were doing.

“One person can’t be everything, especially if they’re new to the job. They will definitely need help.”

Neil Criag walks off the field after speaking to the Adelaide Crows in 2011.
Former AFL coach Neil Craig is working in a mentoring role with the English national rugby union team.(AAP: Ben MacMahon)

Brayshaw agreed coaches needed a strong support network.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said.

“Most of the coaches who’ve been in it for a while have got somebody who’s a sounding-board.

“I spoke to (former Crows coach) Neil Craig who’s a wonderful, experienced AFL coach, who’s doing that for Eddie Jones in — believe it or not — English rugby and he describes that role as one of a ‘critical friend’.

“He said if he’d have had that when he was coaching at Adelaide he would have been much better.”

The AFL Coaches Association and the AFL Players’ Association will compile data at season’s end to help inform strategies for 2021.

“Feedback so far would suggest that the season has taken both a physical and mental toll on players unlike previous years,” a Players’ Association spokesperson told The Ticket.

“Despite the season being five rounds shorter, on average, clubs have used the same number of listed players as previous years and three clubs have played at least 40 of their listed players in the senior team, which hasn’t happened since 2016.”