SUMMARY: Aside from the usual running and conditioning programs teams execute during the pre-season, how else can coaches prepare their teams for success in the lead up to a season? We asked the great Gary Ayres how he prepared Port Melbourne for the 2011 season — when they became the first club since 1918 to become undefeated VFL/VFA Premiers — and what he’s doing this year to back it up. His insights will no doubt serve as a blueprint for many grassroots coaches chasing similar success in the upcoming season.
In 2011, Port Melbourne completed a perfect season in the VFL, winning all eighteen home-and-away games and three finals matches, culminating in a 56-point win against Williamstown in the Grand Final. It was the first perfect season in the VFA/VFL first division since 1918.
The achievement is even more remarkable when you consider that Port is one of only two VFL clubs not aligned with an AFL club (the other non-aligned club is Frankston). This means Port’s team of part-time amateur footballers were up against better equipped VFL teams, filled mostly with full-time professional AFL footballers … yet Port were still able to defy the odds and beat them all.
So how did their coach, the highly regarded Gary Ayres, create a culture of success after arriving at Port in 2008? And how is he mentally preparing his players for the up-coming season after winning a Premiership last year?
We were lucky enough to ask Gary himself. And I am sure his insights will be extremely helpful to all coaches, regardless of where your team may be right now.
About Gary Ayres
As a player, Gary was regarded as one of the best power defenders of his era.
He played 269 games at Hawthorn between 1978 and 1993, booting 70 goals and was a key part of Hawthorn’s golden era (1983 to 1991), when the club played in a staggering 8 grand finals over 9 seasons, winning 5 premierships in 1983, 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1991.
He won the Norm Smith Medal twice in 1986 and 1988 — one of only two players in the history of the AFL to do so. He also captained the Hawks in his final two years from 1992–1993, as well as Victoria against Tasmania in the 1989 State of Origin contest.
After retiring, Gary turned his hand to coaching where he has since forged a successful career as a respected AFL coach. This career includes:
- Assistant coach to Malcolm Blight at Geelong in 1994.
- Senior coach at Geelong between 1995 to 1999, where Gary took the Cats to the grand final in his first year before eventually losing to Carlton,
- Senior coach at the Adelaide Crows between 2000 and 2004, and
- Assistant coach to Kevin Sheedy at Essendon between 2006 and 2007.
Gary eventually took the senior coaching position at Port Melbourne in 2008 where he remains today.
Gary took the club to a grand final in his first year at the club (after finishing 7th the previous year). Since then, the club finished 3rd, in 2009 and 6th in 2010, before finally going through the 2011 season as undefeated Premiers.
Early Influences at Hawthorn
Even though Gary has worked with some of the greatest coaching minds our game has produced, it became clear – at least in the context of this article –Gary’s playing experiences at Hawthorn during their golden era have perhaps influenced his coaching philosophies most.
As Gary told us, “There was a lot of healthy respect for everybody, administration, presidents and CEOs who were all very well liked in the golden era of Hawthorn. I think that if you can buy into that, then you’ll do anything for the football club, hence the reason why the club was actually able to play in 8 grand finals in 9 years which is a super effort.”
As you read the strategies and philosophies in this article, I am sure that you, like me, will see many parallels between what Gary has been able to put in place at Port Melbourne and what he no doubt experienced at Hawthorn during their golden era.
Create a Shared Vision
When Gary first arrived at Port Melbourne in 2008, one of the first things he and the club did was create the shared vision of winning a Premiership. This vision served to motivate and focus everyone at the club towards a single aspirational goal, rather than potentially having everyone working towards different goals and travelling down different paths.
As Gary explained, “People can look at what you do in one year and when you become successful, but it’s really about a lot of things you do. In the case of the Port Melbourne Football Club, it didn’t just happen last year.”
“For us, it was about a 4 year dream. It involved recruiting, it involved players getting experience, players understanding what the nuances of our game are, the structures, the stoppages, the style of play, being as fit as you possibly can be and making the sacrifices.”
As Bruce Lee once said, a warrior is simply “an ordinary person with laser-like focus.”
While Port’s vision was to eventually win a Premiership, Port didn’t enter their 2011 Premiership season with this end goal in mind. Instead, they broke down their Premiership goal into a series of smaller goals which they aimed for instead. This is something they will no doubt do again in 2012.
1. Games Won
To start with, Port actually starts each season with the end goal of simply making the top 4. They break this down again into two smaller milestone goals – the first goal is to simply win enough games to make the finals, then once they achieve this they move on to the next goal of winning enough games to make the 4.
This strategy is something Gary initially picked up from Allen Jeans.
“Back in the old days at Hawthorn, Allen Jeans always used to drum in to us that if you finished first – because back in those days it was a final five – you only had to win one game and you were straight through to the grand final.”
“Of course the finals system is different at the VFL level now. So today we are talking about finishing in the top 4 because that gives us the double chance, rather than just falling over the line and potentially getting bundled out the first week of the finals.”
“So that’s our goal, to win enough games to make the finals, and then the top four. And that should never change, regardless of whether you were successful the previous year or not.”
2. Performance Goals
Gary and his playing group break down their “finals” goal even further by setting themselves a number of on-field goals for them to achieve during the season.
In Port’s case, they set themselves 3 simple goals:
- To be the Number 1 defensive side in the competition,
- To be Number 1 in the forward line , and
- To be Number 1 at stoppages.
Of course, research shows the eventual Premiers are almost always top 4 in these three statistical areas. So it makes sense that Port set themselves these goals and focus their training and structures around achieving them.
This strategy not only provides a roadmap to achieving their vision, but lets them measure their progress along the way.
Team Values and Behaviours
Of course, goal setting only gets you so far. In order to achieve any goal, you need to adopt the proper actions and behaviours required to achieving them.
Naturally, these behaviours are driven by your set beliefs or values. For example, if you believed as a player that training wasn’t important, you probably wouldn’t make the effort at training and consequently, would be less likely to improve your performance and achieve your goals.
This is why at a professional level, teams often sit down and develop a set of core values and behaviours for players to follow. This is something that Gary has gone through in great detail during his time in the AFL; however Gary also admits they have had to simplify this at Port Melbourne.
“We use values to a degree, but only to a smaller scale because we find it difficult to get our players together enough to probably immerse them in that kind of thing.”
While Port’s values and team rules are special to them, Gary shared at least three values that all teams should adopt if they want success. They are:
- Always train to the highest standard,
- Always make your competitive effort the same, regardless of the scoreboard, and
- Always represent your club to the best of you ability.
“To start with, it’s about the way you train. I think the standard in which you train has got to be a core value.
You should also pride yourself on being a very strong competitive unit so I think that is another very strong core value you should have. Your performances should always be the same regardless of whether you are ten goals in front or ten goals behind.
“It’s also about the way in which you represent your club. This is something that has been indoctrinated into the culture of our football club, in the last 4 years especially, and it’s why we have been able to succeed as a standalone model.”
Involving Your Leaders
In the business world, research has shown that organizations often fail to achieve goals when they are set from the top down. This is partly because managers often lack crucial information and are out of touch with staff challenges when they set the goals, and partly because staff members don’t own the goals and are therefore less committed to achieving them.
The same often occurs in the sporting world, which is why at Port (as is the case at virtually all AFL and state league clubs), the leadership group drives the agenda – not the coach. They set the team goals, they set the values and team rules, and they drive the team behaviours.
Naturally, Gary and his coaching group mentor the players during the process and while they no doubt influence their decisions, the leaders are the ones who are ultimately responsible for developing and taking ownership of the plan.
“The players are the ones who have to drive it. They have to do it in a communication point of view. They have to adopt in from an action point of view. At the end of the day, it’s about the players buying into it. It’s about the players putting it together. Whereas if it is coach driven, I don’t think you would get be as strong an investment in it from the players.”
This strategy has been a key part of why Port have been so successful in recent years.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve had a group that’s been able to set the agenda for some four years now because they are very, very smart footballers, they are very good leaders and they want to have success. That was a big part of the push and the drive to become eventual Premiers in season 2011 because it was very much player driven.”
Interestingly, while leadership groups have become popular in sporting teams over the past few years, we suspect Gary first learned the importance of working with team leaders while playing under the great Allen Jeans.
As Gary mentioned during our interview, “Allen Jeans was a terrific man manager. He was able to identify the individual groups within the football club. Once he identified the so called leaders in those groups, he had a very good rapport with that individual then his message would be filtered out to the other members of those groups.”
1. Buddy System
So how does a leadership group get the rest of the playing group on board with their plan? How do they educate them on the behaviours and actions required to achieve their goals?
Well according to Gary, it starts with the leaders selling the vision and living the values. But aside from this, Port have also had enormous success with what Gary calls “the buddy system”.
Here, a senior player adopts two lesser experienced players and is given responsibility to mentor them throughout the season. They show the younger players how to train, offer advice to them from a structural point of view, and ultimately show them how to behave in order for the team to achieve success.
But that’s not all. The senior players also make an effort to get to know the younger players outside of football as well. In Gary’s words, “Whether it’s coffee away from the club, or on the phone after training or inviting them around for tea. By spending time together, our less-experienced players are able to understand why the older players are the way they are, where they are at, what they’ve done for the football club and what the football club expects from these individuals.”
Port have used this strategy with great success to create a winning culture throughout their list.
But what should you do if a player doesn’t conform to team rules and live up to team expectations? While most grassroot coaches may take it upon themselves to hand out any discipline, Port actually empower their leadership group with this responsibility instead.
As Gary told us, “[In this case] the leadership group has to take that particular individual aside and be able to advise, guide and tell them in the terms that they would potentially like to be spoken to, to get that person on board.
“The players are the ones who actually administer any disciplinary action. It’s not so much coming from the coach. It would come from the coach if the breach was very serious, but I am very pleased to say that in my 4 years that has never been the case.”
So when is the best time to get your leadership group on board and set the agenda?
In Port Melbourne’s case, they do it during the post Christmas period of their pre-season (January).
“At the AFL level you can put your list together by early December, whereas in VFL level, the list doesn’t have to be finalized until early March. So we’re looking at getting the nucleus together next week (early January). I’ll then hand it over to the leadership group and they will set the agenda from there.”
But what about amateur clubs?
“I would say it would be very similar for amateur teams in that they would do it once they get this side of Christmas (January) because they know they need to put things in place in relation to their goals, they know they have to put things in place in relation to their structures and I am talking about their forward line set up, their kick ins, their stoppages and their style of play.”
Involving The Rest Of The Club
If team goals and behaviours are driven by the leadership group, what can the coaches, support staff and administration do to contribute?
According to Gary, it’s about living the vision and values as much as the players.
“You can’t be saying one thing as a coach, and then doing the total opposite as a club. We’ve got to make sure we’re living that just as much as the players because there has to be consistency right through the whole vision, or the whole theme or the whole message. If you put it out there and not living it yourself, then the players see through that very quickly.
“It’s got to start at the top. Any organization has good leadership at the top and that filters down. You can’t have one particular group, such as your playing group and your support staff group doing what they do and then you don’t get any directional leadership from the administration point of view or a board. It has to be as one.”
The “Warm and Fuzzies”
This leads us to the final part of Port’s blueprint – creating an environment where players, coaches, administrators and support staff all love each other and their club. Gary referred to this as the “warm and fuzzies”.
“The most successful organizations are normally the closest organizations. That’s because when you love a place, you want to make it better and are prepared to invest yourself in it to make that happen. It is about having respect and being able to say, well if I don’t think what is going on is appropriate then we can actually have a say in the matter. I know that may seem a bit “warm and fuzzy”, but it’s only like that because you want to see the environment get better.”
It appears this belief is also something Gary first learned at Hawthorn.
“There was a lot of healthy respect for everybody, administration, presidents and CEOs who were all very well liked in the golden era of Hawthorn. I think that if you can buy into that, then you’ll do anything for the football club, hence the reason why the club was actually able to play in 8 grand finals in 9 years which is a super effort.”
For this reason, Port have made a significant effort to foster positive relationships within the club and create a family-like environment.
They have done this through the establishment of a player ‘social committee’, tasked with the responsibility of organising regular club functions. These social functions are not just run for the players to form social bonds, but for everyone associated with the club.
“We’ve had a 1920’s theme night, we’ve had a rock n roll night, we’ve had pie nights. For us, it’s just about enjoying each other’s company. I guess some teams probably wouldn’t have much of an idea about who the partners of their team-mates are or if they have children. I know it may sound silly but it’s about getting to know the individual.”
Of course, when the players love the coach, they are also more likely to play for him.
“Once you are able to get their respect. Once they are out there playing for the coach, it makes the job a hell of a lot easier, whereas if the coach doesn’t have the rapport with the players of the connection, then I think you will see things splinter and fracture.”
As the Spartans of Ancient Rome found, soldiers are more willing to sacrifice and die in battle for a loved one than for a stranger, which is why they made a strong effort to create close bonds between their soldiers. It’s no surprise then that Port and the great Hawthorn teams of the past have had great success with that same “Spartan-like culture” at their clubs.
Individuals don’t win Premierships – teams do. And a team of players united, can never be defeated.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the secret behind Hawthorn’s success during their golden era was that they had a united group of core players who at some point in time, sat down and set themselves the goal of winning a Premiership. This group, under the expert guidance of master coach Allen Jeans, then did whatever it took to reach that goal and just as importantly, taught players around them how to do the same.
As a result, they become the most successful side of the modern era.
It’s no surprise then that when Port Melbourne made this same commitment, their team of part-time players were able to annihilate their richer, better equipped AFL counter-parts, winning the 2011 VFL Premiership undefeated.
Gary’s influence on the group may obvious but of course, if you ask the great man himself, he was just lucky to have a group of players prepared to make the sacrifices for the club to succeed. According to him, the credit belongs to the players and not him… which says as much about the amazing playing group at Port as it does about the man himself. Good luck for 2012!
Title photo by Flying Cloud via: freeforcommercialuse.org.