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Business, Olympic Edition Team Culture: The key to success

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By: Greg McFadden •  4 years ago •  

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I FIRST STARTED PLAYING AT AGE 13 WITH BALMAIN BEFORE MOVING TO CRONULLA AT 17. I PLAYED 1ST GRADE FROM 1982 TO 2002 WITH THE CRONULLA TEAM, WINNING 5 NATIONAL LEAGUE TITLES AND RUNNER UP IN ANOTHER 4. AT ONE POINT, WE WON 10 SYDNEY 1ST GRADE COMPETITIONS IN A ROW. WITH THE NATIONAL TEAM, I PLAYED AS A DRIVER AND OCCASIONAL CENTRE BACK.

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hile I was playing first grade, I started coaching the lower grades at Cronulla. I was at the AIS with the Australian Men’s team and had aspirations to go to the Olympics as a player when Charles Turner, our head coach, asked me if I wanted to do the ASC Scholarship Coaching program. I wasn’t sure what this involved and thought that this might be the end of my water polo career, but Charles allowed me to do both – train with the team and do the coaching course concurrently.

In 1992 I was selected for the Barcelona Olympics, so Charles put me on as an Assistant Coach at the AIS while I was still playing. I remained in the team until 1996 and also as an Assistant Coach at the AIS, but unfortunately we didn’t qualify for the Atlanta Olympics. I decided to retire from international water polo and started concentrating on my coaching career. I became the NSW Intensive Training Centre (ITC) Coach in 1996, which led to me being NSWIS Head Coach.

In 2001 I then became the AIS Head Coach of the junior men’s program. This program produced a lot of players who have gone on to play for Australia with some of them becoming dual or triple Olympians such as Rhys Howden (Australian captain), Richie Campbell (Australian vice-captain) & Pietro Figlioli to name a few. We took some chances on some of these young kids who we believed would have the potential to become good players and we were able to fine tune their basic skills while also getting them to train at a high intensity equal to what junior players were doing in Europe. They were also exposed to the highest level of competition at a young age by playing in the Australian National League, which also helped fast track, their development. The program ended at the end of 2005, which is a pity as if we had continued this program we would have produced more good players, which could have contributed to possibly greater senior men’s team results.

While in charge of this program I was asked to assist with the women’s national team at the end of 2003, and then became head coach in 2005.

AN INTENSIVE PREPARATION PERIOD

At the start of each Olympic cycle, we consider which players are likely to keep playing and who can help us achieve our best result at the next Olympics. Obviously we’re focusing on doing the best we can, which is to win a gold medal. We believe we have the capability to do this, so over this period we’re trying to work out the best combinations, who has the mental toughness and the physical capabilities to give us our best chance of achieving this.

We don’t spend a lot of time together as a team in the first 3 years because a lot of the athletes are either full-time students or working. Our international season is May through to August, and at the end of each season is a World Championship/World Cup/Olympics. We also have World League competition each year that helps prepare you for these major competitions. We get together as a team for perhaps short camps 4 -7 days throughout the year and in the International season for about 4-6 weeks, which also takes in the major event for that year. Over this time, we’re experimenting with different player combinations, rather than progressing through each competition with the one team. This makes continuity and cohesiveness difficult at times.

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By comparison, the Americans and Europeans are virtually together right through from May to the major competition in August, so they’re working together constantly. The USA have a great competitive culture as it is built into their high school and college systems as they are fighting for scholarships and are training 6 days a week twice a day at a young age. Australia is obviously a big country, so logistically it is difficult for us to have a centralised program similar to the USA or Europe.

When you compare us to countries like America, Australia does very well. In California alone, they have a greater population then Australia and 250 high schools with 50m swimming pools and water polo programs. All these athletes are fighting for scholarships at the 62 universities nation-wide who have full-time water polo programs. Their students even have their training times scheduled around university times to make it easier for them.

In the Olympic year, we ramp it up and come together as full-time athletes as much as possible. This allows us to work on the systems and combinations we want to use and create the continuality and cohesiveness that we struggle with over the first 3 years of the Olympic cycle. It also allows the coaching and support staff to become a lot closer over this period. We find this 10-month intensive preparation keeps our top players wanting to play at the elite level, while also allowing us to develop our next tier and younger athletes throughout the Olympic cycle. Australia tends to lose more players then any other country after each Olympics as the girls want to finish their studying or are looking to start a career.

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TEAM DEVELOPMENT

For the previous 4 years, we’ve been working closely with a sports psychiatrist, and over the last year with a clinical psychiatrist. That’s been an area where we’ve really improved over these last 8 months – building the team culture and making sure everyone in the team is comfortable to speak up. We want the girls to get into a situation where if they see something wrong, they say it straight away, rather than letting it build up until it affects their decision-making in the heat of battle. We’re trying to get the girls out of the culture of keeping this internally and we’ve made some huge inroads.

Part of this is due to building relationships and having critical conversations with each other, athletes and coaching staff. In the past, the players have been hesitant to say what they actually feel, thinking in the back of their minds that they might get dropped. All we want is the best for the team, and we’re there to try to help them become the best they can be.

CAN WE BE THE BEST IN THE WORLD?

We believe we are on track for Rio, but we knew going to the USA to compete in May was always going to be a huge challenge. The USA is the top team in the world and it was good to get a reality check now rather than get to Rio and find out we were a little off the mark.

We have now just returned from China and the World League Finals, where 7 of the 8 teams going to the Olympics competed. We finished 3rd in the World League Finals, losing to Spain in the semi-final 10-8, and have come away knowing what we need to improve over the final months to make sure we are at our best. Since returning, we have finalised our 13 players for Rio. The three players who have missed selection have shown what our great team culture by agreeing to keep on training to help the selected team prepare.

We’ve got aspirations of being the best at Rio, and I believe we can do it, but it’s not going to be an easy task.

I think we’ve been one of the best teams in the world over the last 12 years. We’ve got aspirations of being the best at Rio, and I believe we can do it, but it’s not going to be an easy task. The Americans are an extremely good team, and all the top European teams will be there, plus China. In the women’s competition, there are probably 7 teams who can win medals out of the 8 teams competing. It’s a fairly even playing field but the USA are definitely the favourites. If we play our best, I believe we can beat all of these teams. At the last 2 Olympic Games, we have only lost 2 games of water polo all up, both times losing to the USA in the semi-finals, one of which was in overtime.

WHAT NEXT?

This is my 12th year coaching the women’s team, and I spend 4-5 months of the year away from home in a non-Olympic year, and 8-9 months away in an Olympic year. I have two children, so it’s a major sacrifice to be away, missing out on their development and achievements, or watching them play sport. They’re growing up quickly and you don’t get that time back. As a coach, that time is part of the sacrifices you have to make for the team to be successful.

After each Olympics, we sit back and evaluate what’s next. I talk with my wife and family about what they want me to do. If we’re not successful in Rio, I don’t believe that I will be in charge of the women’s team. I’d probably look at stepping down and give someone else the opportunity. If we are successful… I don’t know either! 4 or 8 years ago, I would have definitely said, “I want to keep on coaching” because I am passionate about our sport and Australia being successful. However, there are a lot of other factors that need to be taken into account.

MY TOP TIPS

1A lot of coaches try to be other people, or try to copy other coaches’ styles. I think what you’ve got to do is take the good from the coaches you’ve experienced and try to incorporate that into your program, but stay true to yourself. I’m very passionate at times, and the girls understand where that passion is coming from. It’s something that you can’t fake; it’s natural. You need to be yourself as much as possible.

2

When you’re young, you can make the mistake of thinking that you’ve got all the answers. But as you get older and more experienced, you realise that you’re still learning and there are many great people out there who can help you. You can never stop learning. The more you talk to coaches from all different sports, not just your own, the better experience you gain as a coach and the more you can incorporate the good messages or examples into your program.

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