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“The biggest challenge is that we don’t know who we’re going to pick up until the night,” says Marcus Wagner, Performance & Strategy Manager at Collingwood Football Club in the Australian Football League [AFL].
“We’ve got to have coverage of a vast number of players. It’s just getting as much information as we possibly can so that we can make the best decisions for the club.”
In the 2018 AFL Draft, the Melbourne-based Collingwood filled key positions on its list through the acquisition of teenagers Isaac Quaynor, Will Kelly and Atu Bosenavulagi, all from the Oakleigh Chargers, an Under-18s team based in the state of Victoria.
Beyond footballing talent, the young trio embody the characteristics that Wagner and Collingwood seek. He tells the Leaders Performance Institute: “We look at social and moral character, which is hard to ascertain without immersing a player fully in your system but our Performance Psychologist carries out a range of tests as we try to paint a picture of that player’s character because, if they are to be draftable, then there can be no compromise on character.”
Wagner is speaking a matter of weeks after the draft concluded and Collingwood finalised its list for 2019. It is an ideal time to delve into Collingwood’s onboarding practices for young athletes, which can begin two to three years before they are picked and will continue ostensibly through the player’s first four years at the club.
It is an early December morning and Wagner is set to attend a review of the Pies’ player engagement strategy later in the day. “We need to discuss this now while it’s fresh in our minds,” he explains. Ideal timing all around, then.
The futures market
At Collingwood, the recruitment team is divided into two departments, pro-scouting and recruiting: Pro-Scout Manager Shane Joules oversees all AFL Listed players from rival clubs, while the Talent ID Managers, Dominic Milesi and Adam Shepard, focus on underage talent in their draft year. Matthew Rendell looks at the players at least two years before they become draft-eligible. National Recruiting Manager Derek Hine overseas the draftable talent, while the List Management and Recruiting team is headed up by Ned Guy.
“We’d be looking at underage talent from Under-15 level onwards,” says Wagner. “An AFL recruiting team has got to have a really in-depth understanding of what the future market looks like for talent. We’ve got to have a good understanding of what the draft pool looks like two years in advance. It’s quite advanced and we have teams dedicated to the futures market so they can provide their recommendations when live trading comes into play. We anticipate Clubs will have the capacity to trade two years into the future in the near future.”
Collingwood will begin to make overtures within the rigid guidelines set down by the league for how and when a football club can approach a prospect. “These kids are in school and you don’t want to put too much pressure on them,” explains Wagner, who also highlights that Australian football is not too different to other elite sporting environments when one considers the entourages that that build around precocious athletes. “Some will also have managers or agents and you have to be sure to channel your communication through them.”
The club, however, has a firm idea of what it is looking for in a young player that extends beyond their talent and physiological make-up. Wagner returns to the theme of character: “They might have all the physical and football talent in the world but if they’re not going to integrate into our program or be good teammates or give of themselves and make our whole culture more complete then they’re going to start dropping down the draft order; and there is a threshold we will not cross on character.”
A two-way induction process
For Collingwood, first impressions are everything when it comes to draftees. Wagner says: “After the first day they’re going to call or text their friends who have been drafted by other teams and ask about their day – and we want to be at the forefront.
“Players these days are more than happy to share their experiences, good or bad. That’s why the induction process is so important. If we’re doing something right and another team isn’t and they’re on the phone to each other it will start spreading through the industry and get back to their former teammates who will be coming through the draft the following year. Parents can also become your biggest advocates.
“We want players to want to be drafted by Collingwood because the last thing you want is a player to be drafted to our club and not want to be there.”
On an individual level, expectations can differ from first round draft pick to those who were picked up later – “some guys later down the draft order are just excited to be drafted” – but Collingwood tries to pull out all the stops to reduce any anxiety the young player may be feeling about joining a senior list.
“Those first 48 hours are about trying to remove any barriers and enable them to relax because they’re going to have a million things going on in their heads and it can be a tough period for them.”
At the point of drafting a player, the recruitment team will pass them over to the player engagement team – not that the two operate independently. “Our player engagement and recruitment teams are talking all the way through the months leading up to the draft to ascertain who might be coming to the club; but the big challenge is that we don’t know who we’re going to get.”
As soon as a pick is announced, the Collingwood player engagement team, led by Head of Player Engagement Chris Dixon, will spring into action. “They have to be on their toes and if that player is being drafted from Melbourne or the state of Victoria, we want to be in front of their families within 45 minutes of their names being announced.
“If they’re drafted in the first round their family and support team are usually in the stadium, so that’s much easier. But as the draft rolls on we’ll have player engagement guys ready to roll to wherever they have to get to be in front of the family as soon as possible. If it’s an interstate player we’ll fly immediately to where they are to pick them up and bring them back to the club.”
At that point, the wider Collingwood community – players, coaches and staff – becomes pivotal. “The day after the draft we bring all the families together with some key personnel from the football department for a really casual lunch. We bring some of our leadership group to that lunch; we bring some of the families from players who were drafted the year before so they can share their experiences, which I think is really important.”
Then, on the first Monday morning, a locally-based draftee can expect a knock on the door from a senior player. “If they’re from Victoria we’ll have one of our players pick them up on Monday morning so that they don’t have to worry about driving or traffic; again, this is about making it as easy as possible and enabling them to relax.
“Then, during their first two days at the club we take them out of the program and that’s about introducing them to key people around the football department to try and create that safe environment as soon as possible so that the players can start being themselves and feel comfortable in that environment and start showing what we drafted them for: their football and physical traits as well as their character.”
The induction process has been refined over time to reduce any sense of the player suffering an information overload. “We found with some players, if you go at them too hard with information or introductions, they shut down; I think that’s only natural. The balance between information versus just letting them be in those first few days is a constant challenge for us and a hard one to get right. The player is buzzing so much – what are they actually taking in? Their transfer of information may be nothing at all.
“What we’ve done is create handbooks and digitise information and then send it to them after their first day so they can go and reflect on some of the information they received during the day without having to worry about remembering it all at the time.”
Naturally, Collingwood have taken into account that the player being drafted in 2018 is a different entity from that being drafted even ten years earlier. “Ten years ago, players would come in thinking they were bottom of the pecking order, they’ll work hard, and gradually make their way through the system,” observes Wagner. “They felt they felt they were going to get pushed fairly hard by the playing group and the coaches but nowadays the players coming in ask a lot more questions; they want to know a lot more ‘why’; they’re much more comfortable and confident. It’s exposure to the media and to the game, which builds a pseudo confidence in them. We’ve got to come prepared with some really simple explanations of why we do things a certain way.
“We get more questions coming back from players these days whereas before it was more ‘this is what you’re doing and you’ll toe the line’ and push them straight into training, whereas now it’s more about a two-day induction that tries to get them settled and established and feeling at home as soon as possible.”
‘Your time will come quicker than you think’
Beyond those first 48 hours, Collingwood’s approach with its draftees is geared towards demonstrating why the club picked them up in the first place. Wagner says: “While we’re picking them on traits they’ve shown at underage level, they haven’t shown those traits at AFL level, so what we do is spend a lot of time outlining their strengths. We’ve got really strong roles within our team so we marry up their football traits and their physical traits to specific roles within the team. It shows them why we picked them, they can see their role coming into play and it’s all about developing their understanding of that role and developing their strengths.”
Wagner makes it clear that if they are good enough to play then they are certainly old enough. “Birth certificates do not come into consideration at match committee – if they’re right to play they’ll play. That’s the beauty of draftees; while they’re young and they’re on the same selection level as everyone on the list, so our message to them is don’t waste a single moment while you’re here because your time will come quicker than you think.”
Collingwood also has an Academy, led by Academy Manager Tarkyn Lockyer, whose role is essential in a draftee’s first four years at the club. “Our academy coaching team looks different to what you might see in Europe because the players are already on our list. Our Academy Manager looks after players in the first four years of their AFL careers and we’ve got academy coaches that look to develop the players’ traits and game knowledge so they have a real focus on these young players.
“That’s not stopping them building relationships with senior coaches. We keep it pretty organic and we don’t want it too structured because we’ve got a vast array of coaches from different backgrounds and they’ll gravitate to where they feel comfortable.”
A player’s progress is continually tracked. “Hopefully they’re being the best version of themselves but we know how the environment influences how you behave. This morning we had a presentation from a sports psychologist on each of the draftees in terms of their character, learning styles, previous positions; we’ll use that as a marker for what we see in the next months. Hopefully our assessment is right but, at the same time, there will be shifts because it’s a much more ruthless, demanding position now that you’re a professional athlete. At least we’ve got a marker now so we can see any shifts from what we predicted with our recruiting team.”
Wagner, however, is keen to highlight the human aspect. “If they come in their first two weeks and they’re a bit apprehensive or shy but, in six months’ time they’re really coming out of their shell and expressing themselves or who they are then we know we’ve succeeded and it comes down to us making sure that we pick and bring the right people to the organisation because we don’t want them to be anything but the best version of themselves.”
Collingwood continually aims to improve its induction programme with draftees. “Today we have a player engagement steering committee meeting set up by our Head of Player Engagement, attended by people from across the football department. That will be our first review of our induction; what worked, what didn’t work; we’ll reflect back on 12 months ago and the changes we made and whether they were successful or not. We’ll also project forward and make notes on what we can do better for the 2019 draft. Our committee meets once every couple of months because it’s an ongoing agenda for us.
“My job is to make sure the information is flying from player engagement to recruitment, to the coaching staff, to the S&C team; to make sure that we’re all on the same page with not only who we’ve brought in but constantly reviewing and analysing how we go about things better next time around.”
It will have a profound impact on those draftees’ first impressions and if Wagner and Collingwood have done their homework it will be a largely positive experience.