The US college visit that stole new Giants captain's coaching heart

GREATER Western Sydney AFLW captain and NEAFL development coach Alicia Eva recently returned from a study tour to the United States after being awarded the inaugural AFL Coaches Association & Lucky Chicken Eggs Coaching Pathway Scholarship. 

In this edited extract, Eva reflects on her learnings from the tour that took her across the US. 

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The 2019 season has been a big one for me, going from a NAB AFLW playing season, to my first year working within an AFL coaching system as development coach for the Giants' NEAFL side.

Although it has come and gone and I’m now already back into AFLW pre-season ahead of the 2020 season, it would be remiss of me to not stop and take stock of what has been a year full of learnings, new mentors and new experiences.

At the beginning of the season, I was lucky enough to be awarded the inaugural AFL Coaches Association & Lucky Chicken Eggs Coaching Pathway Scholarship, an initiative of the AFLCA to further develop aspiring coaches still playing in the AFLW competition.

The scholarship provided me with three major experiences: a position in the "Next Coach" Program (aimed at upskilling AFL players exiting the system and moving into coaching roles) in season 2020, 12 months of mentoring by premiership player and coach and current Essendon head coach John Worsfold and a fully funded place in a study tour to the United States.

This was immediately followed by the commencement of my Level 3 accreditation and then a 15-hour flight to Los Angeles to begin my study tour. The timing of this tour could not have been more perfect to consolidate my learnings from the year gone by. It affirmed that there are things that I am doing well from a coaching perspective, but it also prompted thoughts around how I could do things better. 

The travelling party included coaches from both the AFL and the NRL. The Australian Football contingent included Geelong AFLW assistant coach Natalie Wood, Adelaide development coach Paul Thomas, and long time North Melbourne assistant coach Darren Crocker. 

The eight-day tour was spent mostly across two major cities; Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the agenda in LA, we visited Loyola Marymount University (LMU), University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department (who we were extremely grateful to meet with given the wildfires in LA city during our stay). 

While in LA, we also met with a number of high-performance managers, directors and coaches; namely Michelle De Highden (Gymnastics Australia national elite coach manager), Cameron Kiosoglous (Australian Olympic rower and now US national team rowing coach), Mike Dunlap (LMU’s men's basketball coach and former NBA coach) and last but certainly not least, US Olympic teams' high performance director John Crawley.

In San Francisco, the pace slowed a little from the bustling LA highways, but the learning opportunities certainly did not. Here, we visited St. Mary’s University (the small but famous college stomping grounds of Aussie basketball stars Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova) and Stanford University. Of all the colleges we visited, it was Stanford that stole my coaching heart. 

It was because they were incredibly generous with their time, sharing their knowledge and opening up their doors to make our two days there the most insightful and enjoyable.

The recurring themes we discussed across the study tour could be split into three general categories.  Firstly, culture and the ideal team environment, which included conversations around the ideas of "talent v character", athlete entitlement and the importance of relationship building to ensure effective team system. The second theme was centred around the technical aspects of coaching, from meticulous training plans, avenues for player feedback, learning environments and the actual on field component of drills and teaching technique. 

The third theme that was most apparent across all organisations we visited and individuals we spoke to was that of leadership and communication. Two very broad terms with ranging ideas as to what constitutes the best form of both, however very clear that the successful functioning of any team is dependent upon them. 

Our visit to the LA County Fire Department Air Operations Base was perhaps the best example of this. Here, we were hosted by the Assistant Chief Derek Alkonis, who spoke about the importance of clear lines of communication and the necessity for all neighbouring units in his field to be communicating on the same wavelength (not just metaphorically, but literally in regards to radio networks) in order to succeed. He explained the chain of command in relation to leadership and decision making under pressure and again he reiterated the importance of training for pressured situations, so they are prepared to face them when they do happen. 

It affirmed to me that we as an AFL industry already get a lot right (and even do things better) when it comes to coaching elite athletes, utilising the most up-to-date technology and providing them with am amazing platform from which they can launch. 

It re-affirmed to me what I already knew: that relationships and clear communication is key to success, but also opened my eyes up to new ways of building and perfecting both. 

This ultimately leads to the biggest takeaway for me personally, which was something Mike Dunlap said: "a perfectionist needs to sit in their misery a bit, you can’t just go and be great". 

As a young coach balancing a playing and coaching career simultaneously, 2019 has been a year of wanting to do everything perfectly, which at times has been to my own detriment. 

What I have learned is that a good coach is someone who is a good planner, a good communicator, can create the right environment for success and put together a list of the right people. I don’t need to be all of that yet.

To use Mike’s words again, I simply just need to "focus on running the race and not winning it". Where that takes me, time will tell, but like this US trip has shown me, I will learn a lot along the way.