With Collingwood legend Nathan Buckley

SUMMARY: It is so common that nearly all of us who have coached for a while have seen one or two kids come through junior football who have that x-factor. Those who can take the big mark, carry the ball through the lines or kick the freakish goal. Some of us have let that kid develop naturally, while others have chosen a safety or team first approach and tried to reign in the flair of the player for the betterment of the team. But which is the right path to take when dealing with this type of young player? We asked Collingwood assistant coach and AFL legend Nathan Buckley for his views. Here’s what he told us.


Nathan Buckley - Colling Great

Brownlow Medalist and Collingwood great Nathan Buckley

Picture it. A young player has just arrived in your team. He’s skilful and can ignite your team with some of the flashy things he does. But sometimes his flair gets in the way and instead of doing the team things; he goes for that high flying mark or tries for the goal of the year when there are better team options available.

What do you do? Encourage the flair knowing that it can inject life into your team? Or rein it in and encourage more team oriented play at the expense of that player’s creativity?

My search for the answer to this question took me to Adelaide for the AFL Coaches Conference where I was lucky enough to speak with Collingwood legend Nathan Buckley.

Nathan’s unique standing in our game means he needs no introduction. He is a Brownlow Medal winner, 6 times Collingwood Best & Fairest winner, 6-time All-Australian and Norm Smith medallist, as well as a Magarey Medal and Jack Oatley medal winner in the SANFL.

Before taking on the job of assistant coach with Collingwood, Nathan had been working with a number of up-and-coming kids at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.

So I was extremely interested in his views on coaching young players with flair.

Here’s the advice he gave us for our Coach AFL subscribers.

# 1 – Encourage Flair, But Within Team Rules

I started by asking Nathan the big question most coaches face with young players: Do you promote the flair aspect within kids or do you rein it in?

Well according to Buckley, it should most definitely be promoted, but only within the context of your team rules and game-plan.

According to Buckley, “You want kids to enjoy their football and have the opportunity to show off in some respects, the certain skills of the game they have got. You want to be confident in them when they go out to play, that you get the players to utilise those skills within the game plan.”

Team rules (or disciplines) apply to all players in your side – regardless of who they are. Your young players need to understand this and only utilize their unique skills within those rules.

Individual players could however be given unique instructions to harness their distinct talents. A player such as Buddy Franklin for example, may be instructed to shoot for goal when out wide on 50m, where other players would normally be instructed to centre the ball to the hot spot.

# 2 – Improve The Player’s Decision-Making Abilities

Sometimes, backing yourself as a player to go for that big mark or shoot for that improbable goal can be the right decision in the context of a game situation. Other times, it can be the wrong decision.

According to Buckley, coaches should also work on a player’s decision-making so they know when to go for the big play versus when to play the percentages.

Decision making is about exposing the young player to different game-based situations at training. Knowing when to kick short or long… where to run… picking the best option when under pressure… These decisions are best developed through game based scenario drills.

Most coaches base these drills in different areas of the ground. For example, a coach may design a stoppage drill in the defensive 50m area so his players can practice how to defend and bring the ball out.

As Buckley told us, “It is important to ensure the player plays to the circumstances of the game. Some players are certainly capable of pulling this off more often than not. You may as the coach, give some players a hand in developing that flair and help them make better decisions, and maybe you have to reign a few others in. It’s a definite balancing act in the art of coaching.”

# 3 – Work On Their 1%’ers

I asked Buckley whether a young player’s ability to do something special can improve his chances of being drafted compared to a similar type of player who does not possess the same x-factor.

Nathan emphasized that while that x-factor certainly attracts attention, it’s the hard things a player does that matter most, particularly when being considered by an AFL team.

As Nathan explained, “A great is example of that is Dale Thomas at Collingwood. He kicked a bag of goals in the TAC Cup Grand Final and played exceptionally well before being drafted. He does a lot of flashy things, but I hope and believe that he was selected on the hard things he did around kicking the goals.”

“He has great discipline, great team orientation and whilst he looks like he plays with a lot of flair, and he does, he also backs that up with a lot of grunt and team actions. From that, he gained a lot of respect from the playing group and a lot of trust from the coaches.”

In this context, players should be expected to do the basic 1% things all coaches expect. The gut running, blocking, tackling, chasing, smothers, spoils, doing the team things such as sharing the ball with a player in a better position.

They should also be able to know and play to their role within the team structure.

And finally, they need to work hard when they don’t have the ball. Statistics indicate a good player only has the ball about 4-5 minutes in a 100 minute game of footy. So what he does when he doesn’t have the ball is vitally important.

# 4 – Reward Performance

When players don’t perform to your game plan, it usually comes down to one of two factors – a) they don’t have the ability, or b) they don’t have the motivation. So far we’ve focused on improving a player’s decision making abilities and hard work to compliment their flair.

But Nathan also feels it’s important to address a player’s motivation as well, particularly when it comes to the 1%’ers.

In Nathan’s own words, “I would encourage coaches to find a way to harness a player’s flair and natural instincts. You do not want to put a lid on it as that may inhibit the player from finding that extra 10% in performance which is crucial if you want to succeed at the top level or wins games of footy. It is also vital to encourage and reward them for the harder aspects of the game. Be careful what you coach and ensure you balance it up with your own philosophies as coach and the way you want your team to play.”

Attitude is the big thing and I am sure that at the AFL level, players would just be expected to show up with the correct one.

But for players outside that arena, praising in public can be an effective way to reinforce performance. On the other opposite end, you can also highlight examples of things that went wrong because a player didn’t follow the team structure.


Players with flair are incredibly important for our great game. It gives spectators a reason to go to games, even when their teams are losing. It can help turn a game around and bring out that extra 10% of effort from your players when that magical play happens. And most importantly for us coaches, it gives our teams’ an important edge over our competition on match days.

So rather than try to eliminate a player’s flair, we coaches should instead try to nurture, mould and complimenting it by improving their decision making through game-sense drills, creating a structure for them to operate in through team rules and instructions, and developing and rewarding their 1%’ers.

This not only allows your team to harness a particular player’s unique skills, you will also be helping them to become better players in the future as well.

Two things stood out about Nathan Buckley when we interviewed him. Firstly, he was clearly an astute coaching mind who seemed to have an intimate knowledge of virtually every aspect of our great game – large or small. Collingwood will certainly be in good hands when he eventually takes over the reins from Mick Malthouse as senior coach.

The second thing that stood was that Nathan truly is a genuinely nice guy in real-life. For all his remarkable achievements in football, he had no egos, no hang-ups and no agendas when we spoke with him. He was friendly, helpful and a real pleasure to speak with. What’s more, he has a genuine passion to help grassroots coaches succeed.

Whether you a fan of Collingwood or not, Nathan Buckley is proof that nice guys can finish first and we wish him the best for the season. Thanks Bucks!
Title photo by Mike Hauser via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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