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Hot Gospel: Can a coach have a 'teacher's pet'?

Ken Hinkley  May 1, 2013 7:00 AM

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Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley

[Mark Thompson] loved the blokes who were the real strong characters in the team and were real hard, tough players. That was the sort of player he was, so he related to them for that reason
Every week, a senior coach will write an exclusive column for AFL.com.au in partnership with the AFL Coaches Association.
 
THE PLAYERS at every AFL club come from a vast range of backgrounds. It really is a great mix. Some of them, of course, come from far-flung places like Ireland and Canada. 

From our point of view at Port Adelaide, we think we've got a great mix. We have born and bred South Australians, we've got Western Australians and Victorians, and we've got kids like Jake Neade, who is from the tiny town of Elliott, which is halfway between Alice Springs and Darwin and has a population of just 600.
 
So you've got a lot of things to consider when it comes to managing them. But that's going to happen in just about any environment where you've got 44 young men coming together. 

They're always going to have come from different backgrounds, have different personalities and behave a little differently at times.
 
But can you have a 'teacher's pet'?
 
To begin to answer that question, I'll start with some of my experiences as a player and as an assistant coach. 

At Geelong I played under the great Malcolm Blight, and 'Blighty' certainly seemed to get on with some players better than others. 

I think if you asked the blokes that I played with, they would say I was one of Blighty's favourites. So I'm happy that he did have a couple of what you might call 'teacher's pets'.
 
Blighty had some big challenges when it came to handling the players because he had a list with all sorts of characters on it. 

He had genial boys from the bush like Billy Brownless and Paul Couch; then he had enigmatic, mercurial players like Gary Ablett snr.
 
But Blighty had his own way of dealing with those things. He had a great way of making people feel like they belonged, and that wasn't just for me it was for every player, I reckon.
 
I worked as an assistant coach under Blighty at St Kilda, but he didn't get much time there to develop favourites, as we were all given the boot less than a year into our jobs.
 
It was back at Geelong, working under Mark Thompson, where my coaching journey really took off. 

I'm sure the boys who played under 'Bomber' at Geelong would say that he loved blokes like 'Sando' (Brenton Sanderson) and Tommy Harley and 'Linga' (Cameron Ling). 

He loved the blokes who were the real strong characters in the team and were real hard, tough players. That was the sort of player he was, so he related to them for that reason.
 
Prior to getting the job as senior coach at Port Adelaide, I worked under Guy McKenna up on the Gold Coast. 

'Bluey' has been there with many of the boys since the club started out in the under-18 competition, then went into the VFL. 

So he's got some strong connections with blokes like Zac Smith and Charlie Dixon and those boys that have been on the journey with him. 

It's completely understandable that he has a little bit of a soft spot for them. He certainly doesn't favour them when it comes to picking the team, but he has a soft spot for them.
 
I think that in footy these days people think particular players are the 'teacher's pet', but in reality these assumptions are not particularly accurate. 

When I was a player we pretty much all did the same training and received the same messages from the coaches. 

But these days the players all have individual training programs and very individual interactions with the coaches, the medical staff and the sports science people. I suppose this adds to some players appearing to be 'teacher's pets' because they seem to get looked after a little bit more than others.
 
But it's more because we manage them physically more than ever, and we're aware of all their strengths and what they're capable of. 

We know that certain players are not going to react the same, and give you their best efforts, if you treat them all the same on the training track and at different times during the week.
 
At times this can lead to comments like, "Oh, he's one of the coach's favourites, so he doesn't have to train." But that simply isn't right. 

That player will be doing the things that give him the best chance of being ready to play.
 
Since I started at Port Adelaide, I've certainly developed a soft spot for our youngest players, but that's because you spend a lot of time with them early on. 

You have to look after them a bit and make sure they're happy and comfortable in their new environment. Young fellas like Ollie Wines and Jake Neade and Sam Colquhoun are in that category.
 
But for me it's a great time because I'm finding out a lot about all the players. I've got a new captain in Travis Boak, a new vice-captain in Brad Ebert and I've got this big full-forward in Schulzy (Jay Schulz) that I like. So I like them all. 

Right now it would be wrong of me to say anything different. They're all my 'teacher's pets', as I have no reasons to feel differently about any of them.
 
So, to answer the question posed back at the start, coaches will always feel closer to some players than others. But this is not a problem. As long as everyone's in it together when it comes to match day, then things will always be fine.