Delegate and lighten up: Footy coaches offer the solution for Langer

Earlier this year, after Australia’s Test series defeat to India, Justin Langer spent several months more or less embedded in the program of the West Coast Eagles.

His predecessor for Australia, Darren Lehmann, had been an ambassador for the Adelaide Crows and was known to spend the odd game in Don Pyke’s coaches box. But as an Eagles board director, Langer is the most “footyfied” coach in the history of Australian cricket.

Justin Langer needs to find a new way to operate with Australia’s cricketers.Credit:Getty Images

Langer makes no secret of his closeness to the Eagles coach Adam Simpson, and the fact they talk almost every day. Other mentors include Paul Roos and David Parkin. Langer is also in a regular coaching support group that includes Pyke, John Worsfold, Ben Rutten, and the NRL coach Trent Robinson.

This is all to say that Langer should be clued into the trends and patterns of football coaching in the past decade or more. One, however, has been conspicuously missing from the current ugly spectacle of a player and staff mutiny against Langer and his offsiders Gavin Dovey and Ben Oliver, after two years of less dramatic or public requests for change.

Recent history is littered with cases in which a traditionally overbearing senior coach has been compelled to pull back, give his players and staff some more authority, and endeavour to lighten up a little. In a case where Langer and the Australian team are now publicly resolved to get through the next six months together, it appears the most logical case study for the famously voracious Langer to read about.

He could start with none other than Parkin, who made among the first revolutionary steps toward such things after his talent-laden Carlton side crashed out of the 1994 finals amid widespread talk that younger teams had passed them by.

A post-season review saw the introduction of a psychologist, Anthony Stewart, who not only helped the articulate Parkin to create more rhetorical space for his team, but also facilitated greater input from the senior players in a way that meant they were not fearful of retribution. The outcome was a team that, Parkin is happy to say, more or less coached and picked itself through a year that reaped the Blues a 20-win regular season and the club’s most recent premiership.

The Carlton case study and Parkin’s retelling of it gave rise to widespread player-driven “leadership group”, a concept taken up with particular enthusiasm by Roos when he helped fashion the premiership-winning Sydney Swans in 2005. By 2016, as pressure around the game intensified and social media took hold, Richmond evolved further.

Damien Hardwick, frustrated by his team’s failure to meet expectations, berated the Tigers ever more fiercely across a season that went from bad to worse. At the end of the year, at the same time the club warded off an attempted spill of the board, Hardwick was counselled to change his ways. Tellingly, he was aided by the recruitment of perhaps football’s best “people person”, Neil Balme, as head of football.

Hardwick’s changes included allowing more delegation to his assistant coaches, emphasising the strengths of his players rather than fretting over their weaknesses, consenting to “freedom within a framework” regarding game plans, and emphasising the celebration of good things, the connection between people, and comfort in being vulnerable.

Most of all, Hardwick let players into the softer side known to his family and friends. These alterations did not ensure success, but they made Richmond a far more pleasant place in which to work. A trio of premierships followed.

Collingwood underwent a similar change for 2018, with briefer if no less dramatic results. Nathan Buckley, an unrelenting perfectionist, was pushed in a more forgiving and open direction. The Magpies went within a kick of winning the 2018 grand final to Langer’s Eagles.

Justin Langer with Eagles star Nic Naitanui.Credit:Getty Images

If Buckley’s makeover was only able to last for a season or two, it at least showed what is possible for a short period with a clear goal in mind. In the case of Langer, a Twenty20 World Cup, a one-off Test against Afghanistan and a home Ashes series loom as a challenge of similar duration to a football season.

The difficulties, of course, are in the abundant scar tissue from such a long, painful and public saga around the coach needing to change. There’s also the fact that in cricket, the role of the coach is far more hotly debated than it ever is in football: many still feel that the captain, whether that be Tim Paine or Aaron Finch, should be the ultimate authority, given much more expansive on-field responsibilities. Add to this the increasing autonomy of cricketers, given their status as virtual sole traders with plentiful Twenty20 franchises to choose from outside a more regimented national duty.

And then there is Langer himself. How capable he is of change to his actions as well as his words. And how he will respond to changes around him, whether the arrival of new assistants in Michael Di Venuto and Jeff Vaughan, or possible changes to other personnel such as Dovey and Oliver.

On a recent podcast with yet another name from football, Luke Darcy, Langer was asked how he views the importance of collaboration. His chosen anecdote was revealing: “I had lunch with Sir Alex Ferguson … one of the things he said, he’s a bit old school, he said ‘never cede control to the players, because someone has to make the decision, someone has to be the boss’.”

Langer, then, has the job ahead of him to cede enough control to allow the Australian team to breathe. Rather than preaching from the book of Ferguson, he will need to pivot to something like the philosophy that Hardwick channelled: “In command, out of control.”

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