Off the Half Back Flank

Bob Murphy is an Australian Rules Footballer who plays with Footscray in the AFL. He writes a very thoughtful column in The Age, not always on football, because he is s very thoughtful guy. I’ve had the pleasure of having a kick of the footy with him with the bunch of guys I run around with on a weekend trying to capture past glories. He’s also a great footballer.

So, you are thinking, what has Australian Rules Football (Footy) got to do with disaster management?  A lot, I think, and not because I love the game (and I need to thank Bob for getting me to think about this).  Footy is a very unpredictable sport. There is a lot of uncertainty in the game. Sudden events can change the course of a game, an injury to a key player, a spectacular mark, a poor umpiring decision (always against you) or a smother on the goal line. The shape of the ball makes it by nature unpredictable, once it is out of your grasp. It forces you to make quick decisions, do I attack the ball, or hang back and see which way it is going. The endurance needed to see out a game of heavy bodily contact is phenomenal. There are times when on a heavy track at the bottom of a pack, you can’t see a way out of heavy traffic. An opening arises. Or you get slammed by the weight of bodies. Teams carry their supporters hopes and desires. The best leaders are not always their superstar, but the people who are thoughtful, inclusive can inspire, and importantly communicate See where I am going. Unpredictable. Uncertain. Decision Making. Endurance. Leadership. Looks a lot like what we deal with in disasters.

So this gets me to Bob’s column today. He wrote about football strategy. Having Strategic Development in my title, I was of course interested (although I am interested in whatever Bob  writes), so I leaned in a bit closer. He was talking about how strategy, process and structure have come into the game, and how the football purists (whoever they are) hate it, feeling it stifles the game.

‘A lot of instinct players found themselves in an uncomfortable state of flux. No longer were they harnessing their inner child and chasing the ball with unbridled freedom, but instead they wandered around in circles with their minds racing. ”Where should I be now?” For players energised by the unpredictability of the game, suddenly football began to look like the Sunday cryptic crossword.”

It got me thinking. A lot of people in disaster management are instinct people. We want to get out and just do. Haven’t got time to plan, haven’t got time to fill out a form, there are people to be saved, you know. I learnt a lesson from a great longstanding colleague, Sally McKay, who amongst her distinguished recovery career, managed the community recovery for the East Gippsland Floods. When her team was finally employed, rather than sending them out to “do” (which they wanted to do), she held them back and said we have to think and plan. It was important to be clear about what they were going to do, when and how, and who would do it. 1-2 days out of a couple of years of recovery was a small price to pay. Back to Bob

“I think the key that ultimately opens the door for most footballers is that this process is not the football bogyman at all. In fact, if adhered to, these structures will let you return to the battle cry that made you a good player to begin with: ”JUST LET ME PLAY!”

In simple terms, all of these set plays and crosses on the whiteboard are just a place to start. With the right amount of teaching and practice, getting to these spots just becomes part of the routine, part of the rhythm of a game.

For the best players, it gives them a freedom, too. A starting point. To be in the spot your team needs you to be in can give a player a sense of inner confidence.”

Processes and structures gave me the confidence to take on co-facilitating a bereavement support group for 3 years after the bushfires. Lack of processes and structures after the Bali Bombings meant we were making it up on the run. Sometimes we got it right (instinctively) sometime s not, and I certainly did not feel at all confident during that early period.

So in the same way we need the processes and structures in disaster management to make sure that we realise our potential. We, of course need to be careful that we don’t over process and over structure (I have a blog post in train on my Jazz Theory of disaster management)

Our routines and rhythms should become second nature, so that we can then deal with the surprise packages that disasters always throw us. Training and practise, and thinking about set plays (If I do this, then you do that), and of course planning and strategy. Too many people have said to me over the years “I don’t have time to plan, I’m too busy, there are people in need, you know”.  A simple planning exercise is not an all day, expensive, facilitated affair. What’s happened?, what’s going to happen next?, what does this mean?, What’s available?, Who’s going to do it?, When’s it going to happen. Are there any X factors? Run through these questions in your mind, it doesn’t take long, the time it takes to make a coffee or walk around the block. If your team’s not functioning well, change the structures.

I’m going to leave the last words to Bob:

“It’s still a game of instinct. Watching Scott Pendlebury up close last week reinforced this for me. He is an instinctive player who has an appreciation of the routine of setting up properly. All of the very best players do.”

PS for my international readers, this might be helpful

PPS I’m not going to get into a debate on the relative merits of footbal codes

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4 thoughts on “Off the Half Back Flank

  1. JFR, I think you would be proud of me and happy that your language is getting out there… Being a football non-believer, after reading your ‘Gong’ post I asked around to find out what a half back flanker was and was informed that it was ‘an underappreciated but crucial position that had to be able move between attack and defence’. While I still don’t know if that’s right, it makes sense to me from a recovery perspective.

    So I then quoted you at a disaster recovery conference that I was speaking at last week (prefacing the comment with the confession that I knew nothing about football). It got some laughs and a round of applause for some of the recovery workers there, though I’m still not sure if they were laughing with me or at me…

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  2. Pingback: Fever | Sastrugi

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