Innovation in Coaching – “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”

Posted on Nov 13 2017

At the recent Australian Institute of Sport “World Class to World Best” conference, four-time Hawthorn Football Club premiership coach Alistair Clarkson spoke about the importance of innovation and the willingness of any organisation to “explore”.

“The desire and willingness to explore is embedded in our players and staff,” he said. Clarkson also touched on the challenge of “stepping back from the here and now to learn and explore”.

At the same conference, America’s Cup winning skipper for Emirates Team New Zealand Glen Ashby spoke about the importance of “agility” in the high-performance team environment. “The ever-changing environment requires agility at all levels of the organisation,” he said. Ashby also spoke about the “need to be bold in your appetite for risk” in pushing the boundaries to find the smallest competitive advantage.

Two successful coaches and high-performance system leaders, Clarkson and Ashby are both recognised in their sports as great innovators and being “ahead of the curve” in exploring and making change. Whether it be the introduction of the “rolling zone” to lead Hawthorn to the 2008 AFL Premiership, or the idea of changing from traditional grinders to cycling to drive Team New Zealand to the 35th America’s Cup, the concept of innovation underpins the success and reputation of both leaders.

Innovation is not restricted to strategy and technology. In basketball terms, it can include training methods, equipment, skill development and performance analysis.

In the last five years, there has been significant change in the way many teams play and teach the game. The advent of the “small ball” era, coupled with the significant investment in analytics has impacted the sport at all levels.

Winning always leads to imitation. The sustained success of the San Antonio Spurs has seen thousands of coaches globally seek to emulate the brilliance of Gregg Popovich and even the talent evaluation systems of RC Buford. The Golden State Warriors are the team that everyone loves to watch and again, coaches continue to clamour for the “splits” action and the “position-less basketball” created by Messrs Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant. But as respected Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti said; imitation is a short runway; eventually you’ll need to go wheels up.”

Innovation is about unique, it is about chance and it is about exploration. In coaching terms, it is high risk and there are no guarantees for high reward. Most of the great innovations in sport have attracted significant opposition, even criticism.

It is that criticism or push back that often limits the courage of any coach to step outside the norm to try new things or push the boundaries of exploration. In such a dynamic sport such as basketball, the opportunity for innovation is significant.

From skill development, to teaching concept, strategy, strength and conditioning and technology, there is ample scope for exploring new ideas or even just the way in which we look at things.

In a game dominated at times by imitation, the ability to identify and explore new ideas has the potential to create competitive advantage by those brave enough to step into the “abyss of new.”

So how do we start the process of being innovators and exploring new ideas? Answers can be found in other sports, such as the example of the “rolling zone” or cyclists driving an America’s Cup win.

Basketball coaches have always been enthusiastic about learning and gleaning ideas from other coaching leaders from around the globe. Since the 1960’s, Australian coaches have travelled to the United States and Europe to watch and learn from the best hoops members.

This growth mind-set has been hugely beneficial and allowed our coaches to ensure we are adopting the latest coaching strategies and “best practice” in the areas of player, concept and competitive development.

But there are other learnings to be had from counterparts in other sports, both domestically and overseas. Clarkson spoke of the great learnings gleaned from European soccer clubs and NBA teams as he embarked on the journey of exploration early in his coaching career.

While not all coaches have the budget to gain access to Manchester United or the San Antonio Spurs, there are plenty of sporting clubs and opportunities readily available at the professional and semi-professional level in Australia that would be open to sharing if approached.

Every coach is time poor and resources are always at a premium. But the starting point may be as simple as asking the simple question…

“When was the last time, you did something for the first time?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *