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Olympic Edition, Sports Creating a World Class Team

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By: Alen Stajcic •  4 years ago •  

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MY FOOTBALL CAREER STARTED AS A JUNIOR REPRESENTATIVE IN STATE TEAMS AND THE AUSTRALIAN SCHOOLBOYS TEAM BEFORE MOVING INTO THE NATIONAL PREMIER LEAGUE LEVEL IN NSW (ONE LEVEL BELOW A-LEAGUE). UNFORTUNATELY, WITH TWO KNEE RECONSTRUCTIONS EARLY ON IN MY PLAYING CAREER AT 21 AND 24, I DIDN’T REACH THE HEIGHTS I WANTED TO AS A PLAYER. I LOVE THE SPORT AND AM VERY PASSIONATE ABOUT IT, SO COACHING PROVIDED ANOTHER AVENUE FOR ME TO PURSUE IT AT AN ELITE LEVEL. DURING MY KNEE RECONSTRUCTIONS, I TOOK UP THE OPPORTUNITY TO COMPLETE MY COACHING BADGES UP TO LEVEL 3.

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nce I started coaching, I really felt it was something that I wanted to pursue. During that time, I was finishing my Bachelor in Education (PE) at university, and once I started teaching, I took on coaching in the school system with both NSW schoolboys and schoolgirls teams. I also had a part-time role with the Football NSW elite boys zone program and was actively coaching full-time by the time I was 24. The elite program was a precursor for those kids being selected for the NSW state team. Some of those ended up playing A-league, which is very rewarding to see.

BUILDING THE BEST STARTS AT STATE LEVEL

I had high objectives and goals to improve the game of football in Australia. I felt there were a lot of holes in the coaching and football structures, and had ideas about how we could create positive change. When the NSWIS Head Coach role came up in 2002 for the Women’s team, I’d already had a lot of contact with quite a few of the players through coaching the schoolgirl teams. From this exposure, I was reasonably aware of elements in women’s football, where it was at and what we could do better.

As a male player, especially back then, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to learn about the women’s side of the game, but I was fortunate, with coaching the schoolgirls teams, to have an advantage. I always took the approach that I coach them as footballers, regardless of whether they were boys or girls. The individual differences and unique personalities make such a difference that I find labelling ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ is too simplistic. The art of coaching is dealing with differing personalities within each group.

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NSWIS was always focused on elite international performance and always pushed its programs to be world class. From the outset, this was something that I strived for. A lot of the things within football, let alone women’s football, weren’t run at a level where the objective was to become world class. The players were only training twice a week, there wasn’t much infrastructure or support around them; all areas we could improve in both on and off the field.

At the time, NSW only had two players in the national squad (Matildas), which I felt was a very low figure, given a state as big as this with the highest participation rate. To me, it showed that we weren’t doing things right in the development of these players. My initial goal was to try to get as many NSW players up to speed as possible to boost our representation in the Matildas. By the end of the 12 years that I worked on the program, we had around 150 players who went on to play for either the Matildas or Young Matildas. Of these, about 30 played for Australia in senior International football. Not only did they become players on the team, but key players.

I was lucky that the CEO and 2IC at NSWIS were both very supportive of change. That kind of leadership in an organisation allows you to challenge the status-quo in order to make positive change. Changes included putting our girls, as a collective, into a boys’ competition where they were challenged week-in, week-out. We played 30 matches a year against elite level boys. We had extra training, extra support around nutrition, psychology and career development. Over that period, we saw the development of the W-League, which was also well supported by the Institute. Looking at this Matildas team, they’re all players who benefitted from the support structures that were built over that period.

THE PLAYER IS THE CENTREPIECE

There’s been lots of challenges along the way. Being such a young coach, communicating up the hierarchy wasn’t one of my strengths. Over time, I learned how to negotiate better, and how to do the things that will benefit the players the most. The players have always been the starting point for me, working out how I can get the best out of them. That includes looking at the environment, both playing and training, and getting the resources to make sure each player becomes the best they can be. Sometimes that’s difficult with people in organisation who haven’t had to deal with footballers or with sports.

For example, once, we had a budget of $1,000 to buy footballs for a national league women’s team. I said, “The players are most important. I want a good ball, so let’s buy [for example] 10 at $100 each.” The accountant, who’d never kicked a ball in his life, said, “But we can buy 50 balls at $20 each.” But we didn’t want the plastic balls; we needed the good balls that we can train and play with in preparation for international football. So while the accountant bought the plastic balls, I went out and found more money to buy the ones we needed!

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This is an example of how we really need to put the players at the centrepiece of our development programs and structures, and make sure we do everything we possibly can to give each individual every opportunity to be their best. Sometimes it can be difficult when people in positions of power have never played sport or football, however you always want a balance of people who have and haven’t played sport in such an organisation for different perspectives. This is where your feedback and presentations skills are important, and your lines of communication to explain what the objectives are. You have to have clear objectives and a vision of how you’re going to achieve them, and once you have that, you need to bring other people along for the ride. This includes people who are higher up in the organisation, as well as players, parents, managers and other staff. That way, all decisions can be based around those key objectives and vision.

WHAT IT TAKES TO BE WORLD CLASS

In 2013, Football Federation Australia invited me to be the Interim Assistant Technical Director to Han Berger, which was a great experience. I also helped develop the national curriculum with Kelly Cross. A year later, Hesterine de Reus was dismissed from the Head Coach job with the Matildas and I applied for the interim position. The rest is history.

To create a competitive, world class team, we had to run national team camps in the middle of the W-League season, which had never really been done before, due to our qualifiers being so close to the end of the W-League. The club and coach support for our qualification campaigns for the World Cup and Olympics was fantastic and helped us achieve what we did.

To take our team to world class level, one thing we did was show the team some factual evidence of where we had been. A good part of leadership is showing a group where they should be and taking them there. I gave them some goals and objectives of what we needed to achieve, and detailed what the journey would be to get there. I saw some areas we could improve in the team culture off the field, and on our style of play on the field. We went about changing this, and the players really bought into the process.

We plateaued at a world ranking of 9/10/11th for the last few years, but we had a new vision to become one of the top 3 in the world and in medal contention. So we looked at changing the behaviours within the team, off the field, and playing style on the field. I’ve evolved my vision and philosophy on the game and how it should be played, especially by Australian teams, which I’ve implemented with this team.

The training camps and preparation camps we had prior to the World Cup meant the team was virtually full-time for 5 months prior to the tournament. We did a similar thing prior to the Olympic qualifiers. The first 5-month period was a building block for creating those team values and solidifying our playing style. Once the W-league finished, we had another 4-5 weeks together full-time, building on that foundation and evolving our style.

We also brought in world class Australian athletes to talk to the group, preparing them for the realities of the Olympics – the distractions, how to cope, their careers and preparations needed. We’ve heard from Lydia Lassila, Steve Monaghetti, Natalie Cook and Brendan Joyce (coach of the Opals). There’s so much to be learnt from athletes cross-codes. It’s tremendous to have that kind of spirit amongst the Australian athletes with their world of knowledge.

THE FINAL RIO GAMEPLAN

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It’s been 12 years since we qualified a women’s football team for the Olympics. The qualification was achieved through the Asian Confederation, which is an extremely tough tournament including Japan and Korea. Qualifying was both a relief and thrilling. I know that this group of players is capable of anything and is still a young team that is still maturing and evolving. The best football of this team is ahead of us.

Our goal is to win a medal. Everything in preparation revolves around the team being ready to go to the Games, to compete against the top teams in the world and be genuine contenders to win a medal. We’re leaving fairly early, to arrive a month before our first match. We will use that time to spend together as a team before we get to our first match against Canada. Canada won the bronze medal in London 2012, are ranked 9th in the world, and are a tough, strong team with a bit of X factor. They should have a lot of confidence coming into this Olympic Games. Afterwards, we play Germany who have been in the top 2 in the world for the last 10 years, along with America. It’s a challenging draw, but there’s no reason why we can’t win through to the quarter finals.

Our goal is to win a medal.

TOP TIP

Be open-minded and embrace things that are out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to get stuck and become a bit stale. In terms of education, coaching courses, learn from other coaches, other athletes, even other countries. Embrace as many different elements as you can and implement what fits with your team to improve. Increase your skills, knowledge and awareness at every opportunity you can.

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