Editor Choice, Sports

Tackling Tough Times

By: Shane Flanagan • 4 years ago •

Shane Flanagan

I played as a local junior in the St George area and made my debut with the Dragons in 1987, at age 18. I ended up playing over 100 games in my 10-year career with Western Suburbs from 1989-92, then with Parramatta from 1992-96.

I

had a knee injury in my last year of contract with Parramatta which resulted in a knee reconstruction. At the time, it meant 12 months out of the game and there was the possibility I would retire at the end of my contract, so the club encouraged me into coaching their lower grades – which is how my coaching career kicked off. Mick Cronin and Ron Massey were the coach and assistant coach there and thought I’d do a good job. They foresaw something in me that I didn’t, which has turned into a career path.

My first taste of dealing with adversity was coping with an early and unexpected retirement, and going from player to coach with a year left on my contract. I had get my head around coaching young men and dealing with the expectations of family, which meant I had to learn a lot very quickly. I was lucky to have had some great coaches as a player who I learned a lot from, and then Brian Smith, the Head Coach at Parramatta, introduced me to structure, organisation, training plans and formulating a junior development program. He was keen on the long-term development of an athletic program for 16-18 year olds, and perhaps in that he was a little before his time.

Back then, Parramatta were always in the top 3 or 4 with their junior representative teams. The first year I coached, I coached players who have since moved on to bigger things –Jamie Lyon, Nathan Hindmarsh, Luke Burt. When I look back, it’s been a long journey and a very enjoyable one. We won a couple of competitions in that first year and I really caught the coaching bug. I stayed 7 years, winning a few competitions and always making semi-finals. Through this I made it to coaching reserve grade – one step below NRL.

From there I moved to the Sydney Roosters in 2004, coaching the U20s under Ricky Stuart. We won the competition undefeated, which was the first time any team at any grade had done so for quite a while. I now see those young players still succeeding and playing NRL at the top level. While we certainly had some good players in the team, we had others who really grew from the quality of the players around them, and the whole team built belief in their abilities. Even when behind, they found a way to win, and it became infectious. The club itself was more high profile and had great expectations of players, so it was again a new learning environment compared to Parramatta.

Shane Flanagan 5“Players struggle to perform on the field when the off-field issues affect their training and mental state.”

2005/06 I became Assistant Coach to Ricky Stuart and experienced a couple of NRL Grand Finals, then moved with him to the Cronulla Sharks in 2006. When he finished up in 2010, I took over as Head Coach. It wasn’t a smooth transition, as the Sharks were going through a few issues with finances, nor did they have a CEO at that stage. There was a lot of unsettlement from an administration point of view. The uncertainty over the club direction and future affected the on-field performances, and we were lacking some player quality due to that lack of financial strength and stability. Players also struggle to perform on the field when the off-field issues affect their training and mental state. It was a tough time, although to their credit, they fought hard and never gave in, especially considering we played against clubs who were spending millions off-field in high performance staff and facilities.

In 2013, money started coming back into the club which secured our financial position for many years. The team made the semi-finals and were very competitive, despite being knocked out against Melbourne Storm. 2013 was also the year that we had to deal with the NRL year-long investigation into the club’s 2011 supplements program. The players had a real resolve about them, despite there being times throughout that season where they were under serious stress and we had concerns about their mental health and wellbeing away from the ground. There was a lot of speculation about suspension going on, but for me the players were never at fault. They were put in that position and the way they handled it was a credit to themselves and their families.

Shane Flanagan 2We didn’t have a CEO at that stage and the management was in chaos, so I was doing everything from signing players to club management, which although I was willing to do at the time, in the end it came back to bite me. Someone had to be made accountable for the club’s actions and I was the one at the top of the tree. I’m sure there were some untruths told in the whole saga, but I felt my role was to protect and look after the players. The way I did that was by using my suspension year to re-focus on the players and the club. I knew I was returning for the following season and beyond as the club had purposely re-signed me for a further 3 years just prior.

I had some dark days and was very disappointed that I couldn’t help the players on the field in 2014 – it was a horrendous year for both the club and players – but I had to stay strong and support them from afar. It was a long 12 months, but I think I’m a better person for it and I believe that governance and accountability are things you need to do as a coach these days. I had a lot of support from the club and we were all united through that period. We understood how the situation had happened and learned from that. If I hadn’t had that club security, it would have been a lot tougher.

In that year, I was still involved in rugby league and went to all my son’s games, which I wouldn’t have been able to do with Head Coach commitments. I spent time with family, had time to reflect and did some study and courses to keep me busy and learn more about business management. But I was counting the months and days down, that’s for sure! It’s a year we’d rather forget.

On return, it was an interesting period as I had to assess the damage from the 2014 season: coming last for the season, media attention, injuries, attitudes, emotions, physical and mental scars. I had to set a plan for our recovery. Some players were bitter and angry from suspension, so we had to deal with that. We had to build confidence, mateship and trust back in place quickly for the 2015 season. To the club’s credit, they spent money in the right areas, brought in high performance staff, and invested in quality to create positive change.

We have an attitude of ‘team first’ on and off the field and try to implement this in our thought processes and actions.

We’re having another great season, with all the players in good shape as well as the club. Currently sitting 2 nd , we’re now the club I knew we could be. Last year we came from last the to make the semi-finals, and were only knocked out by the Cowboys who went on to win the Grand Final. Not many clubs have done that in the modern era and it was a great testament to the club and its playing staff. It’s a huge achievement and massive improvement from the scars of the previous year. Teams that get the wooden spoon usually have 3-4 years of hard work before making finals.

Shane Flanagan 3Now, being out on the field between games teaching skills, drills and game plans is the easy part. It’s the negotiations, the behavioural issues, looking at contracts, player managers, recruitment and retention, sponsors, media commitments and so on – that’s the hardest part in this modern era of coaching. You have to stay focused on what’s important, manage the playing group, and somehow keep football as the priority. Every year gets bigger and bigger, and over time coaches have had to learn to be the boss with the multitude of staff as well as a coach to the players. You learn all the time, and I’m still learning today.

It’s important that everyone understands what we’re trying to achieve, that the whole team gets on board and paddles the same way. We have an attitude of ‘team first’ on and off the field and try to implement this in our thought processes and actions. The more they do that, the better we get. We have 160 contracted players over 16, and obviously there are going to be dramas with that many young men in the club. But as long as everyone understands what we’re trying to achieve, there are less disruptions, less dramas. Our governance and compliance is now also top notch.

Shane Flanagan 4Everyone, in life, experiences some adversity that makes you stronger. Of course, I would have preferred not to have gone through that suspension time – it’s tough on yourself and your family. My mother also passed away during that period, and I wish she had been able to see the success that followed. You definitely become stronger and learn to assess situations rather than jumping in. I certainly value other people’s opinions more. I had to accept that I needed to change and open my eyes, to look outside the square. On-field I was fine, it was the off-field responsibilities that you need to be accountable for. At some point, I’m responsible for the actions of all my players and staff.

My motto has always been that people who work hard get results. I’ve tried to instil that in my players, and to be honest and trust each other. Knowing I was a good person and having the motivation to prove others wrong helped me through that period. The players pick up on that trust and genuine belief, which helps us create a club that’s a family, not just a business or a job. We believe that building this culture means better people and better footballers. If we can make a better learning and training environment, we can get closer to achieving our goals.

KEY TIP TALK TO PEOPLE AND GIVE THEM YOUR TIME.

You’ve got massive responsibilities, so you should be understanding what they are and accepting them. You need to ask questions: what are the club expectations? What do the players expect? These need to be open discussions and clear on team standards and what you’re trying to achieve as a group. The harder you work at it, the better you’ll be.

Shane Flanagan

Shane Flanagan has been Head Coach of the NRL Cronulla Sharks since 2010. His A grade rugby career spanned over 100 games until a knee injury forced him into retirement and coaching. He is one of the top coaches in NRL, and has coached at Parramatta, the Sydney Roosters and the Cronulla Sharks in various positions.

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