Each week, a senior coach will write an exclusive column for AFL.com.au in partnership with the AFL Coaches Association. This week, Brisbane Lions coach Michael Voss writes about the complications and challenges presented by coaching his former teammates.
COACHING guys you played alongside is a real balancing act.
I've done some things well, some things not-so-well, and I'm still learning along the way.
When I took over as the Lions coach for the 2009 season, I'd only been out of the game as a player for a couple of years myself. Many blokes I'd played alongside I was now coaching – Simon Black, Jonathan Brown and Luke Power most notably. There was also Ash McGrath, Daniel Bradshaw, Jamie Charman and Jared Brennan among a few others.
The first thing to do was to involve them and get an understanding about the group. It'd be easy to distance yourself and create a coach-player barrier, but those players are an incredibly valuable commodity for a coach.
While I was confident that the guys would understand what I stood for, there was almost an immediate realisation that my relationship with them was about to change. Browny's wedding was just after I got appointed and the boys were having a great time. It was a terrific wedding. The boys started to wind up a bit and I realised at that moment, things will change. I thought 'I can't be here anymore, I've got to leave'. That was different because normally I didn’t mind joining in a little.
In that moment, even in my first two months as coach, I realised 'this is now different, I can't do that and I don't like seeing it'.
The social hangouts with guys like Blacky and Browny were not going to happen on the same level. It's unfortunate but necessary. It's not the same sort of mateship, not the knock-about larrikinism part at least.
Aside from discussing the future of players as their careers come to a close, one of the toughest things is dealing with them on a day-to-day basis and keeping them as equals in the group. While I had no issue as captain doing this, it hit me between the eyes that the dynamics and their standing within the group had now changed.
I had to be careful to respect this while treating them as equals.
In a group forum, they have to be prepared to accept feedback in front of their peers. Even though they're doing a 9/10 job, sometimes you have to refer to that 1/10 to show the others you're serious and everyone's equal. From a relationship perspective, they have to know that special treatment is not on the books. It's a balancing act, because these guys have also got plenty right, so using them as a benchmark in preparation and performance, was an absolute must.
You've got to stand behind what you believe in and that's where I've learned my biggest lesson.
My mantra was to be up front and honest with them. It should be for everyone, but especially this group – whether that's good news or bad news. The experience with what happened with Daniel Bradshaw cost me not only a player, but a friendship.
Being up front was the thing I came in with and I dodged it on that occasion. I swore to myself that under no circumstances would I ever dodge that again.
I had to come to grips with that and as a coach I learned a really significant lesson in that instance. I can handle if they don't agree with what I think, but at least I've been up front and told them, and in the long run it is hopefully respected.
There have been some others in between but Luke Power presented a different scenario of retirement in 2011.
Luke is an incredible person, he's ridiculously nice and his impact on our club was significant. The conversation, though hard to approach, was not difficult to discuss. In reality it could have gone either way really. He was 31 and might have thought he had a year left and you could argue for or against it, but if we were to go forward, it was important to speak to him what we thought of his form and our current landscape so a clear decision could be made, with hopefully an empathetic approach.
There's no right way of doing it because everyone will have an opinion on how it should be done. You've just got to back what you stand for and it was not going to be compromised.
Blacky and Browny will be afforded the same discussion - whenever that time comes.
Chatting to any player that his career might be over via trade, delisting or retirement is hard enough but when you have a premiership with these guys, it makes it even harder.
The clock is ticking for my other former teammates, McGrath, Brown and Black. Each has brought something significant to this club. They have believed in something bigger than themselves and enjoyed outstanding careers with our club.
When the time comes that the door is closed, it’s easy to think how good it would be not to be the person who has that discussion, but in reality, I wouldn’t want them to have that chat with anyone else.
Blacky is just enjoying playing at the moment, while Browny will, I’m sure, walk in one day and say 'right I'm ready to go' or 'nah, that’s it mate. I'm hanging them up'. Needless to say I don't think anyone will enjoy that moment.
But that's the most you can do – be up front, treat them as equals in the group, and use their knowledge and experience as a crucial link to the group.