Greg McFadden: No watering down coach's approach

Womens Waterpolo in action
Author:  Australian Sports Commission
Issue: Volume 29 Number 3

A team can learn as much from their losses as from their wins, according to Australian women’s water polo coach Greg McFadden as he speaks to Sports Coach shortly after the team’s silver medal effort at the World Championships in Melbourne.

The Australians were defeated by the highly fancied Americans, 6–5 after a very successful tournament. McFadden sees the result not so much as a loss but a learning experience.  ‘Even going in the Americans were, in my eyes, still the team to beat.  We didn’t play the US at the World Cup last year as they got knocked out in the semis.  I don’t believe you’re the best until you’ve beaten everyone and we hadn’t been tested against them in a major competition for two years,’ he says.

‘Afterwards I told the girls to go up and hold their heads high and to be proud of their achievement as it wasn’t every day you win a silver medal.  In a month or two we’ll exchange emails, we’ll talk, we’ll sit down with individual players and we’ll analyse how the game went.  After reflection we know that we will take a lot more out of that game than the Americans will.’
When the former Olympic representative took over the reins of the Australian women’s team in 2005 he took on a squad that had only five women remaining from the Athens Olympics campaign and none from the side that won gold at the Sydney Olympics.  The squad had an average age of 22 and most had little international experience.

McFadden’s first goal was to increase the depth of the squad.  He has done so by changing up the team from tournament to tournament.  He says it has created an atmosphere of competition both within and around the team.  ‘At every training session everyone’s trying to get better.  The girls are challenging for their positions and this means we’re going to have options in all positions.’

McFadden draws on his own international experience when preparing his players for tournaments. He was an Australian Institute of Sport water polo player who represented Australia at the Olympics.  It was while he was with the AIS that he began coaching second, third and occasionally first grade matches back with his home club, Cronulla. His AIS coach Charles Turner saw coaching potential in McFadden and nominated him for an AIS coaching scholarship.  McFadden jokes that it was ‘probably because I wasn’t good enough as a player’ but then adds seriously that it was more likely because he had stepped up and taken on responsibility for club coaching.

After completing his two-year scholarship, Turner took McFadden on as an assistant coach and he combined his coaching and playing until retiring in 1996. He then moved to Sydney to become the NSW Institute of Sport’s Head Coach, coaching both men’s and women’s squads.  He moved back to Canberra in 2001 to take on the junior men’s development program, was assistant women’s coach in 2004 and won the role of national women’s coach in 2005.

It was when he became responsible for the women’s program at the NSW Institute that McFadden says he discovered he needed to be in a ‘different head space’ when coaching women.  ‘It’s been my experience that women are happy to impress you.  Men think they know it all. One thing that I do have to approach differently is that women will immediately do what you tell them to do but they’ll overlook other things on the way, so it takes them time to adapt if a different situation arises during a match.  I have to think more about coaching for flexibility.’

 McFadden cites Turner and his Cronulla coach Bruce Falson as major influences on his coaching career.  ‘Bruce’s style was to ask everyone in the team “how do you think we should go about this game”, and then he’d weigh up everyone’s thoughts and say “here’s what we’re going to do”. Me, I don’t do it quite the same way.  I do ask the senior players but some of them are reluctant at times. I do like to listen to players but some may say I’m strong willed.’

McFadden also says he is inspired and influenced by coaches of other sports, including Vince Lombardi the US football coach, Wayne Bennett coach of the  Brisbane Broncos Rugby League team,  Rod McQueen with the Wallabies, US basketball coach Phil Jackson and hockey coaches Frank Murray and Barry Dancer.

When he was first appointed head coach, McFadden says he sat down with Dancer and labels the meeting as ‘the best three hours I could have ever invested as a coach’.  ‘I had heard that Barry was running his program in a similar way to the way I wanted to run mine and I wanted to get his thoughts.  Being open to that and having the opportunity to speak with him was the best thing I could have done.’

McFadden is quick to laugh and often self-deprecating, confessing that the current women’s water polo squad might see him as a bit of a ‘lunatic’ who is ‘quick to fly off the handle’.
But there is no doubting his professionalism and his results speak for themselves.

McFadden describes himself as a passionate coach who is honest with his players ‘whether they like it or not’. ‘Some of the players tell me that they don’t like it when I take the calm and passive approach as they liken it to when they get in big trouble with their dad  ... their dad becomes mad at them and doesn’t talk because they have let him down.’

McFadden sat down with his players and outlined a four year plan that would culminates a gold medal at Beijing. While he’s focussed on the 2008 Olympics, he’s not ruling out shooting for gold at London 2012, ‘or even with the men wherever the Olympics are after that, and then I’ll retire,’ he says lightly, but you get the feeling that McFadden will be involved with the sport he feels so passionately about for many years to come.