Mastermind

Hawthorn football coach Alastair Clarkson has fulfilled some grand ambitions, with four premierships in the AFL. But the former teacher and scholar is not about to rest on his laurels. By Ashley Browne.

Alastair Clarkson
Alastair Clarkson

Wednesdays are different around the corridors of the Hawthorn Football Club.

It is the mandated day off for the players, the assistant coaches and the support staff. It means the gym is empty and the ‘doof-doof’ music favoured by the players is switched off. As one Hawthorn staff member noted, “it’s a great day to get some work done”. But one person  who  is always there on Wednesdays is Alastair Clarkson. The AFL coaching mastermind has just completed his 12th season as coach of the Hawks, and at age 48, already has four premierships to his name, including three consecutive titles from 2013–15. He is in good company with other icons  of  the game who have four flags – including Ron Barassi, Tom Hafey, Kevin Sheedy, David Parkin and Leigh Matthews.

On this particular Wednesday, Clarkson cuts a relaxed figure. He’s ditched the usual brown-and-gold tracksuit with the various sponsorship logos for a smart jumper and a pair of jeans. It’s his day to get across other areas of the club, to meet with the chief executive and other senior managers  in  areas such as marketing, events, brand and merchandise. Clarkson speaks their language. In the days when footballers held day jobs, Clarkson earned a teaching degree, and for most of his 134-game playing career – first with North Melbourne and then with Melbourne – he worked  as  a phys-ed teacher at Wesley College.

He enjoyed teaching and it was in his blood – his mother was a teacher in Kaniva, the tiny western Victorian town where he grew up – but he was feeling unfulfilled towards the end of his playing career. “I just didn’t have the athleticism to compete in the manner I liked, or  should  be able to. “I couldn’t run fast, didn’t have endurance, didn’t have the height and I didn’t have the strength,” he explains. “I had the mindset and the application, but that wasn’t going to make me into the player that I needed to be.”

Clarkson knew he wanted to make a career out of sport, but initially in administration. He applied to study for a Bachelor of Commerce, but was told that because he already held his teaching degree, he should instead consider a Master of Business Administration. “I hadn’t even done a basic  business  degree, but they believed I had the capabilities of being able to do it and it was great advice,” he says. Clarkson spent 1995 and 1996 juggling the last two years of his playing career with full-time MBA studies at Monash University. “It was a really valuable two years,  but it  was a big decision to give up a $50,000-a-year job to spend $20,000 on the MBA,” he says. “I leant on my wife a fair bit and I was fortunate that I was able to do it while I had footy to complement me in terms of bringing in some income.”

He threw himself into his studies. Knocking the whole thing over in two years helped as well, noting that MBA can also stand for ‘Marriage Breakup Association’ because of the number of 30 to 50-year-olds who juggle the course over a number of years with young families and demanding jobs.  Clarkson  remembers his undergraduate studies as being similar to secondary school. “There was no collusion. It was about your intelligence, and you had to demonstrate your capacity and what you had learned.” The MBA was different. “Once you get to advanced education, it’s  about  working together in groups to find a solution. It’s not about the intellect of one individual, but how we can work together. “That’s how community works, how society works, how business works and how sporting organisations work. That’s what I remember most about  the  course,” he says.
Hawthorn also sent Clarkson to Harvard Business School a few years ago for a two-week intensive management course. “It wasn’t about the case studies as much as your thought processes. My observation of a particular case study might be different to yours,” he says. Clarkson has  kept  his notes from his MBA and other studies along the way, but it is the mix of his studying and teaching experiences that shapes his philosophy as a coach and a manager. “I was dealing with little things in classrooms, little crisis management stuff that included my own behaviours  and  moods. What I might have accepted from my students one day because I was in a good mood, might have pissed me off the next.”

Alastair Clarkson
Alastair Clarkson juggled the rigours playing football and studying for an MBA at Monash.

Clarkson is known in football for his fiery temperament, and vision of him punching a hole in the wall of the MCG coaches’ box gets a run on TV every now and again. Which explains why, for the most important – and visible – two-and-a-half hours of his working week, Clarkson takes what  appears  to be a slightly hands-off role. Watch TV vision of Clarkson in the Hawthorn coach’s box each week and you will see he only communicates with his players between quarters. Otherwise, he talks to his assistant coaches (or line coaches as they are known in the business) and they  communicate  the key messages back to the interchange bench.

“Part of it is me, my emotions and how invested I am in the game,” he admits, while acknowledging what a uniquely difficult game AFL football is to play, with the largest playing field of any football code and the myriad skills and decisions players are expected to master. “There’s  part  of me that has to remember there will be mistakes, and if I respond straight down the telephone through a mouthpiece to a player or a runner or someone on the bench who can then deliver that message, sometimes there’s too much emotion attached to that.”

He explains that by having an intermediary deliver the message, “the emotional connection to it can be diluted and the message can be delivered in a different fashion, which is why we have adopted that strategy”. He handles training drills the same way. Clarkson estimates he can count “on  one  hand” the number of times he personally takes a training drill. “Once again that comes down to delegation and trust in your people,” he says.

It wasn’t always like that. Hawthorn was a cultural mess when he took over in 2005, with a playing list notable for its overpaid underachievers. It was the perfect club for the restless but ambitious Clarkson to join after graduating through the coaching ranks at state league clubs in Melbourne  and  Adelaide, and then at Port Adelaide, where he was an assistant coach for two years, walking out of the club in the middle of a finals series once he was appointed to Hawthorn. It was the final stop of a journey Clarkson surprised even himself by taking after completing the MBA. “Caryn  thought  I was mad,” he says with a laugh, as he recounts telling his wife that after all the struggles to get the MBA, he wanted to coach instead.

“It [the MBA] is about working in groups to find a solution. It’s not about the intellect of one individual, but how we can work together."

Clarkson micro-managed everything at the start, but 10 years on, he’s established systems and structures that allow him to watch and observe at training. “Mates of mine will come to watch training and say that I don’t do much,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s the  power  of observation. I can sit back and watch and observe, and whether that’s coaches or players. I will often critique things from watching training, and I have found that to be enormously powerful rather than worrying about how many bibs we need, how many players we need, how many  balls  we need, how many cones we need and where they’re set up on the ground.” Utilising a revolutionary ‘cluster’ game plan, Clarkson’s upstart Hawks won the 2008 premiership in a major upset over Geelong, which had lost just one match all season.

But the Hawks changed little the following year and crashed to ninth place on the ladder. The sober lesson out of that for the Hawks was that they must never stand still. Clarkson’s relentless quest for knowledge has seen him travel extensively every off-season to glean whatever he can from the  great  sporting minds and organisations in Europe and particularly the US. Professional development is a buzzword at Hawthorn not just for Clarkson, but all the coaches and management team. “Those who are having success are all about innovation, optimisation and efficiency and really  investing  in their people,” he says. “There’s no full stop on that. You have to keep evolving and challenging yourself." Not even for a minute is Clarkson ever content. The lessons of 2009 burn deep at Hawthorn and pretty much govern the way he and the football club like  to operate.  Geelong and St Kilda zoomed past the Hawks that year, and it took Hawthorn’s players and coaches, considered among the best in the AFL, four long seasons before they won the premiership again, after near misses the previous two years.

“Our most significant learnings have come on the back of that. Even when we have success we are still challenging ourselves, and you soon lose any arrogance and complacency,” he adds, before turning to the age-old question in a sport where one winner is crowned on the last Saturday in the  season,  yet within 48 hours, the slate is wiped clean and the battle for the next premiership begins again in earnest. “If we sit still for even one minute we’re going to be passed by,” he declares. “So how do we modify ourselves to make us get even better?" It is football’s  million-dollar  question. And there are none better qualified in Australia’s national game, be it in the classroom or the coach’s box, to seek answers than Alastair Clarkson.