Tim Edwards sits in on a Ben and Shane Walker (coaching guru brothers who mentor the Queensland Rugby League’s Ipswitch Jets) video analysis session with their players and tries to figure out just what makes them so different from other coaches.
Ben and Shane Walker coach the Ipswich Jets in the Intrust Super Cup, Queensland’s rugby league competition. The former NRL star brothers took over the coaching reigns in 2011 and since then the cellar dwelling club has not only become competitive, but it took out the Queensland Championship in 2015! It’s not just that this ‘low-budget’ footy team doesn’t look like a typical bunch of rugby league players that surprises observers, but that under the guidance of their two young coaches they don’t play like it either. The Walkers have developed a reputation for being unconventional. I wanted to find out what it was that made their understanding of how a sport should be understood and taught special. They were kind enough to give me some of their time before training a few weeks back. This is what I discovered.
I asked Ben and Shane Walker what are the biggest mistakes sports coaches make in their work. Their response was that most coaches follow the rules! Coaches tend to look at whatever teams have been doing the best in recent years and try to teach their own players to copy that style of play. In other words, many coaches believe that there are rules about how a game should be played and most are slaves to following those rules. What coaches should understand, according to the Walkers, is that coaching by the book rarely works.
The Walkers think that the current obsession in rugby league with gaining metres on one-out hit-ups is an example of how counterproductive rule-following can be. They argue that very few teams have the player personnel to be able to make that strategy work consistently. The Walkers openly admit that while their own group of Jets may not look like a conventional team (some are short and chubby and others seemingly much too skinny to be able to play heavy body-contact sport), the group is successful through bringing its own unique sets of skills to the game and using individual players’ skills in ways that constantly challenge their more conventional opponents.
Having a conversation with Ben and Shane Walker is a little odd. They both listen carefully to what you have to say or ask, responding alternately or, at times, one speaking for the other. At times you forget whether it is Ben or Shane speaking because you get the feeling that, while they have different skills and bring slightly different things to the team, they have a unique trust in one another. My sense is that good listening skills, a thoughtful approach and unwavering faith in what the other person brings to the coaching relationship, is close to the heart of what makes the pair so successful as coaches!
Ben and Shane both realised a long time ago that slavishly following rules is no way to understand and teach sport. While the conventional wisdom about how a game should be taught and played might work for some teams, given that every team has many individuals with different skill sets, it is unlikely that the ‘one size fits all’ approach can work for everyone. Ben and Shane are both sports-mad and have been watching many sports since they were young. Both confess that they have always studied different sports and come up with their own ideas about different ways that sports can be played and coached. They both enjoy watching professional netball. If there are any netball coaches who are looking for ideas on new ways the game can be played, the Walkers have been thinking about netball for a long time and are willing to offer their thoughts! The same with soccer. They are so convinced that games can be played in different ways to the conventional wisdom about what works that they believe they could coach their rugby league team to win a local soccer competition without any of their players ever having played the game. This does not strike me as arrogance and bluster from a pair of successful coaches, but rather, Ben and Shane have over time developed a deep conviction that the best way to get the most out of a group of athletes with a diverse set of skills is to honour their differences and to seek the rewards that come from embracing different ways of doing things. In other words, there are no rules! Wise coaches shouldn’t try to emulate what seems to be a mandatory approach if their team could do it differently and, perhaps, better.
At the heart of the Walker approach is something that we don’t often hear about in sport – forgiveness. Given the style of game that Ben and Shane expect their players to take to the field they know that individuals will make mistakes and, that sometimes, these mistakes may cost the team. The players understand that they can trust their coaches to forgive them for these mistakes. “We haven’t dropped a player in six years,” explain the Walkers. There are many aspects to the culture generated by the Walker style of coaching, but an important one is that no player should be fearful when going onto the field. Jets players are not afraid to try complex, difficult and unusual plays, they are not anxious about making mistakes and they are not fearful about being axed from the team. Confidence and trust are at the core of the coaching philosophy. “We expect our players to try things. We expect our players to constantly challenge their opponents. We expect our players to not follow the rules about how the game ‘should be played’. As such, we also expect them to make mistakes and we have no problem with that!”
While ideas such as being different, trusting, having confidence and expecting forgiveness may sound radical as professional rugby league coaching strategies, the Walkers’ views are less radical than they may at first seem. If you ask either of the coaches what the foundation building blocks for their approach is they will both tell you “work hard, compete hard and develop skills”. They both agree that if a player is not willing to commit themselves to this approach then they cannot play for the Jets. On the other hand, if they do commit to these ideals they will become a trusted, essential member of the Jets community. They learnt this approach from their greatest and most trusted mentor, their father, Gary Walker. You only have to look at Gary now to see that he still lives his life (many years after retiring from professional football) driven by the work/compete/develop skills mantra.
Despite these elements being core to the club’s success both coaches acknowledge that while Gary’s ideas may be the foundation, they merrily build on top of this foundation with a range of complex, unusual and exciting ball playing that opposes convention and applauds risk-taking. The Walkers make the point that despite their approach to the game being a high risk one, their players work very hard at developing complex skills and experimenting with complex and difficult plays and tasks, helping to minimise the risks. While our games and approach to games may look loose, unprepared or disorganised, the opposite is actually true. “We practise doing unusual things in complex situations and this minimises the risks,” argue the boys. “But if things occasionally go wrong we are happy to live with the outcome.”
Ben and Shane regard their short kick-off as a great example of this. Jets’ kickers practise a high, spinning, kick-off that, when kicked into a breeze, covers the required 10-metre distance, but then floats back towards their own players before bouncing. While this seems like a high-risk strategy the kickers work for many hours at training to get the kicking technique just right and the team practise recovering the awkward kick. The fact that they win the ball seven out of ten times seems like good luck… but they practise very hard to make this strategy work.
Our practices must look very strange to outsiders, say the coaches. The ball and players move forwards, backwards and sideways in a seemingly haphazard manner. We play lots of small field games (with inbuilt unusual scenarios) designed to challenge our players to come up with unconventional solutions. Sometimes our players lose ground or drop the ball in challenging situations, but more often they do things that put constant pressure on their opponents. With the players we have and the budgets we work with, we could not be as successful if we played the game by the same rules as our opponents.
The Jets play fearlessly, because their coaches trust them. Ben and Shane told me that it is not unusual for new players to come to the club with special and unusual skills that previous coaches would not allow them to use. We celebrate when this happens and encourage the players to work hard on the special skill and to work with us to integrate the special skill into the other unique elements of the team’s play book. Our team is pretty much a compilation of special skills of individuals, who have faith in what they have to offer, and have faith in the team as a whole.