Hi Alan, thanks for your time! You are almost a year into your tenure as GB Lions Head coach, can you tell us about your experience so far?
It’s been incredible, a whirlwind. On one hand I can’t believe it’s been a year, on the other I can’t believe I’ve only been doing it for a year. Going to Miami was a massive learning curve, so many highs and lows, but so much was gained for moving forward.
What do you think was your biggest challenge coming into the role?
I think one of the biggest challenges was changing the perception of the GB Lions flag football squad as a whole. There was a bit of a feeling from the community that it was very closed off, and as a result, possibly a lot of talented players were not trying out. We’ve done quite a lot on that front, putting out a GB survey gave me some thoughts form the community. I was keen immediately to set up a development pool. It’s something that worked incredibly well at the Chieftains when I ran it and could see no reason it wouldn’t work for the GB Lions. Thanks to backing from BAFA, we’ve been able to set up the GB Silver Lions and it’s great to have that talent pool there for development, learning the scheme and having players ready to step up when GB Lions either retire or get injured. Other top countries in Europe have a similar setup so we should be able to arrange matches against their development teams also. Another thing I’ve been keen to do is get out there more, get around the country and scout out teams, which is why I have scouting dates for every conference this year and I believe I should see every BAFA registered flag football team in 2017.
Can you tell us what have been your highlights & lowlights so far?
The high so far has been the success of the Silver Lions, seeing those guys progress and do so well in Ireland really has given great hope for the future. The low so far was losing to Italy and Canada in consecutive matches, each by a score. These are matches we should be winning, hearing the comment from a player that “welcome to GB, it’s the way it always goes”, is absolutely my low. We’re going through a big culture change under my coaching staff and the days of accepting that we’re going to miss out against these team narrowly isn’t going to be acceptable anymore. I’ve been feeling the culture change at training and we are definitely getting stronger as a squad. I will never hear one of my players having that defeatist attitude after a game again.
What has been your hardest decision or moment as GB Coach?
There are constantly tough decisions in the role but there are a couple that stand out. Firstly, the decision to drop Fraser Thomson from the GB Lions squad down to the Silver squad. Fraser is a lad who has played for GB in the past and a player who has given me exceptional performances with the Chieftains when I was the HC there. He has one of the best football brains I’ve ever worked with but the reality was there were stronger players. Despite my personal thoughts and experiences with Fraser, they need to be put aside. Hopefully with time in the Silver squad, Fraser will work towards regaining a spot in the future, it’s on him to improve though. The other tough moments I’m not going to go in to detail with are individual ones but I’ll explain the situation I find the toughest. At IFAF tournaments you can only dress 12 players each day of the tournament, however we take 15 to tournaments, in case of injury etc. Telling players that they won’t be dressing for the following days games is tough, I don’t reckon it will ever get easier. In fact I’m willing to bet the moment I find that decision easy, I’ll have either picked a player that shouldn’t be there, or I’ve stopped caring. It’s so tough, these athletes give up their time and money to go to the tournaments, they’ve given up weekends for camps and then they take time off their work to play in these events. Regardless of the reason, telling a player they won’t be dressing is the toughest part of the job.
You’ve just had your first trial in your second season, where over 70 players registered! Can you tell us what the day consisted of and how did you feel the day went?
The day consisted of some combine trials, followed by a group of fundamental drills. Tackling, angled tackling, route running and catching, blitzing, coverage etc. Then we scrimmage. We split the talent pool into 5 squads and then rotate them round. The day went well, it was relatively smooth compared to last year in my opinion. I’m much better prepared as it wasn’t my first rodeo and I could utilise some of the existing GB squad to assist with running the drills.
I must say compared to last year the talent was better. The worst players trying out were far better than the worst players from last year. However there were fewer elite players, and a lot more mediocre players. I appreciate how that sounds, however it’s the brutal reality. I feel like the gap is big because there aren’t enough strong flag coaches throughout the country. I’m working on a plan that we can hopefully bridge the gap a bit and improve the fundamentals across the league. The other reason for fewer elite players standing out is largely because we have a squad in place now and I’m not going to have over a dozen elite players trying out for me for the first time. However the players that did stand out have got the coaches and I pretty excited for the future of GB.
There were some scouting Combine tests, including the 40 yard dash among others. How do these drills factor into your selection?
For me the testing we do shows speed, change of direction speed and in the case of the 10 x3 0 yard sprints, fitness. I would never eliminate a player from contention solely based on these, however they can also make sure we don’t miss someone talented. I had actually suggested removing them from the process until I was advised we might have missed out in the past on players like Josh Allen without them, and I may have missed out on Jeff Bond without them also. So they have a place in the process and I’ll always keep them now.
Some players may be deemed very talented but not athletic, how difficult does that make selection?
The selection is difficult regardless, the times give me more evidence to make my decision. In the case of Fraser Thomson, his brain allows him to be a little slower than others. So on one hand it should make the speed less of an issue, but when you see the athletes at the worlds being in the right place will help, but you really need to be able to keep up. The time trials in the particular case of Fraser have identified what he needs to work on and as a young man he can utilise exercises, improved diet etc. to improve his speed. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I found it an incredibly difficult decision.
How much work goes into the trials?
A lot of work goes in to it, however the more we do it the easier it will be. You have to get the venue booked, then the event announced and you need to keep publicising it as you don’t want anyone to miss out. Then a full 5 hour script has to be put together, which then requires coaches. Thankfully this year as I’ve mentioned it was a touch easier as I could utilise existing squad members. The feedback is the tough bit, trying to put together meaningful feedback for every single player is really challenging. Sometimes there’s no nice way to put it and you’ve just got to be brutally honest. Personally I book the day off work after the trials to go through all the notes, discuss everyone with the other coaches put together feedback for each player. Mike Scott my manager vets it all to make sure no one is missed and I’ve not left anything helpful out of feedback. Then it gets sent out to all the individuals. It does take up a lot of time, but as long as I find one special player each time we do it, I’m happy.
For those that may not have been able to attend the trials, are there other opportunities to showcase themselves such as game tape for example?
As I’ve mentioned already I’ve planned to attend game days in every conference this year so I’ll be travelling the country hopefully trying to uncover a hidden gem, or at least some potential in a player who may not have considered it. With the introduction of Super 5s I now also have 4 regional coaches who can give me feedback from their sessions and camps. Regarding game tape I’m delighted to watch this, but for anyone reading this thinking, I’ll send him a highlight reel of my best plays, don’t.
Let me explain, players will send me the plays they want me to see, so sending me your best ten plays means nothing to me. What about the 150 you don’t want me to see? What’s in them? So if you want me to take a look at you, send me a link to a full game you’ve played in and I’ll watch the full thing, I genuinely will. I love flag football so it’s no bother to watch the footage. I’ll be able to make a more complete assessment. Anyone who sends me highlights will get the same stock response of, “looking good in these plays, but I’d need you to come to a trial”.
Having now been involved in the game for over a decade and also experiencing the world Championships, what are your thoughts on the current level of the GB squad and league in general?
The squad is strong, and getting stronger. We’re in a good place. I’ve been focussing on addressing the areas I see as the biggest concerns. This year we’re planning to get more training sessions together as a team and we’ll be ready for the Euros. As the league is growing in England however I’m worried about one main thing; coaching. There are clubs who have had a lot of players go through them without developing a great deal. There are also clubs who just seem to stagnate at the bottom of their division year in year out without progressing. This needs to change. I’m working on something to try and help fix that but it’s merely a concept at the moment so not going to go in to detail. But the bottom line is, we at GB have a responsibility to ensure the resources are there to help coaches, especially with new teams entering the league. I’m hoping the development of Super 5s will help with this, the Chieftains have helped a lot in Scotland I’m hoping over time we can replicate that in the other conferences. We’ve got the right people in place so I’m confident it will.
While GB should be proud of their past achievements, they have been finishing around the middle in these large tournaments. What are some of the biggest obstacles preventing Team GB from taking the next step and how do you plan to overcome them?
The biggest obstacle in the past has been the view that it’s a closed off squad, which meant the best talent wasn’t going. Also a lack of a development pool to dip in to meant that when they faced injuries to major contributors, they had no one to step up. Gary Elliott just before the Euros in Madrid is a perfect example of that. The other thing is belief that we can start to take over teams we see as bogey teams. The change in mentality and personnel in certain positions is definitely helping with that, also the realisation that they are having to continually improve to keep their spot as there a group of young and hungry players in the Silver squad working hard to challenge them.
Last of all, what are your plans and goals for 2017?
Our aims for 2017 largely depend on the field in our half of IFAF’s Euros. However, for the squad we need to continue to train and develop. We need to be aiming to be a top 3 squad in Europe.
Away from results, I want to set up a GB coaching course so we can hopefully share some of the decades of experience our coaching staff have with the larger community. We also want to continue to strengthen the Super 5s programme and start to set up some friendlies for our Silver Lions squad.
Thanks to Alan for taking the time to speak to use and we will catch up with him hopefully again as the build up to the Euros continues.