The first victory of the Greater Western Sydney Giants in their game against the Gold Coast Suns was a wonderful thing to watch and celebrate. I got in at the ground floor with the Giants and am fascinated by their development as a team and a concept. As a team, we can see that the philosophy behind their recruiting, marketing and coaching strategy is different in some respect from that of the Suns. While both have in common the cavalcade of young talent, there are key differences. That’s because the Giants are being run like a school that features Project Based Learning at its core.
At Giants High, Kevin Sheedy is the school principal. He has the overview, the strategy and comes up with concepts like the Building Australia game against Collingwood, the biggest working class club. He is also good at thinking of the bigger picture, as well as public relations, as appearances like this demonstrate.
His Deputy / Assistant Principal – Mark Williams, seems to be more of a leader who is focused on the day to day running of the club and knows how the machinery of a school / club should work. Excellent at training but not so good, though, on the public relations side, as this report succinctly summarises.
The Welfare Co-ordinator, Adam Lambert, who is dedicated to ensuring that the players are happy and looked after – a job he performs with his wife, Mel. This is one of the more obvious school parallels, because the players are being taught how to cook and other living skills, as most have come straight from living at home. Home is for the players an American college style single player “compound”, which makes it easier for the education to occur. The Lamberts have, unlike most high schools, a set of resources that schools would kill for – apartments in Breakfast Point, previously considered a retreat for retired wealthy empty nesters and singles.
The Science Co-ordinator, John Quinn has been dedicated to developing the bodies of the players, so they play to their optimum physical shape and endurance. The physical transformation of Israel Folau has been the most remarkable, with his loss of muscle mass and gaining of muscle that will help with endurance, not power. Attending the Inside the Giant session last year and hearing just what the Science faculty are doing with the players was the most fascinating part of the session. If you look at the backs of the players, you can notice the equipment they have strapped to them, giving the science faculty their statistics to be analysed during the following week.
The player recruitment co-ordinators – Graeme “Gubby” Allen and Stephen Silvagni, at least in the first part, have based their strategy around the school model as well. Instead of recruiting already developed superstars like Gary Ablett Jr, the Giants obtained either still developing footballers like Tom Scully or old, retired stagers like James MacDonald and Chad Cornes and make them Assistant Coaches – the equivalent of subject co-ordinators. These midfield, defensive and forward coaches are running with the team, showing them how things are done, but will also take time out from the game in order to see how the players are developing.
The coaching model thus far seems to be following the idea that students need scaffolds in order to learn – there is a set model to follow before players can adapt it to their own abilities. This is why they seem to be sticking to the old Sydney Swans coaching manual – keep possession, tackle as much as you can, kick around the flanks, get the ball from stoppages. This leaves less room open for mistakes, but will also make success harder to achieve from the lack of flair and individuality. The hope would be, though, that once the players gain confidence, they do gain the confidence to kick the ball down the corridor one day and show other individual acts of skill, like Stephen Coniglio yesterday.
The development of player skill through off the field reflection is where the learning is more akin to Project Based Learning. As I learnt from the Inside the Giant session, in the following week the players will be preparing their own videos – on their supplied MacBook Pros – about their performance and will have to analyse it and seek feedback from both teachers and peers. The best players will learn how to both stay within the game plan but add their own flair when it is necessary. Last year they were also asked to research the games played by their favourite players from other clubs and present videos based on their research. I don’t know if that is continuing – but is should, as a part of their learning.
That isn’t the whole picture, though. Like a number of independent schools, there is a marketing co-ordinator as well. For the Giants, this is a more crucial position than one in an independent school. The Giants have to be a sustainable organisation that funds itself, unlike a school, which is guaranteed government money in perpetuity. In a symbolic move, the Giants recruited the former global brands manager for the Wiggles as their co-ordinator. This kind of lateral thinking has meant that the Giants aren’t being promoted in the same way as a traditional club – that it’s all about the football. Apart from anything else, its target market doesn’t know a lot about AFL or even the idea of being a football club member, willing to commit to attending three games or more. Instead, it’s been about the colour, the song and the image. Orange is an increasingly popular colour right now – it is for the 10s what teal was for the 1990s. The team mascot, G Man, is therefore not a surprise – more for the kids than for the adults.
For teachers, as well as the wider population, the Giants experiment should continue to be interesting. We haven’t seen such a marriage between contemporary education theory and sport – and possibly won’t again, considering that this is the AFL’s last team and that so many players are this young. Let’s also hope that we will see many more performances of this: