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Surjan the ‘Next Coach’ on the rise

The AFL coaching fraternity is littered with graduates of the AFL Players’ Next Coach program; former Port Adelaide defender Jacob Surjan is the latest young coach to rise quickly through the ranks.

The program, which is run by the AFL Players’ Association in conjunction with the AFL Coaches’ Association and AFL Sportsready, is designed to equip footballers with the skills required to pursue a career in coaching; from recruiting and player development through to opposition analysis and on-field tactics. To qualify for the course, players must have a Level 2 Coaching qualification and a genuine desire to transition into coaching. For Surjan, the course was exactly what he needed.

“I was always interested in getting involved in coaching after my playing days were done,” Surjan says.

“The skills of playing are not the same skills of coaching, and they’re not automatically transferable” – Dave Wheadon

Having completing the Next Coach program, Surjan is gearing up for his first season as Port Adelaide’s Academy Coach, where he will coach a squad of players aged between 18 and 22. The former Port Adelaide vice-captain, who played 121 games for the Power, credits the program with kick-starting his coaching career.

“I found out about the Next Coach program through a former teammate of mine, Dean Brogan. He did the program probably two or three years before me, which obviously put him in good stead to land himself as a player at GWS, moving into a coaching role… I thought for my personal development it’d be a good opportunity for me to learn a little bit more about coaching and all the other aspects that go with the job.”

The program – which is run by Dave Wheadon, who played for Collingwood in the 1960s and went on to be an assistant coach at Geelong, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon and St Kilda – taught Surjan about the intricacies of coaching and helped him develop the skills that turn a good coach into a great one. Surjan says whilst it’s important to know the game well, it’s just as crucial to have strong interpersonal skills.

“A big role for modern coaches is just being able to manage the different personalities in the playing group,” Surjan admits.

“Being able to manage and communicate with players is really important. You need to be able to give honest and direct feedback – I think if you beat around the bush a little bit you don’t get anywhere, so being honest with the players is a really vital part of coaching.”

Surjan’s mentor, David Wheadon, agrees and describes “coaching as teaching and people management.”

“The skills of playing are not the same skills of coaching, and they’re not automatically transferable into coaching,” Wheadon says.

“We’re asking people to do things they’re not really qualified to do, and that is to teach.”

It sounds strange, but Surjan’s understanding of football changed markedly once he stopped playing the game. When playing for the Power Surjan would spend his time trying to improve his own game in order to help the team, but as a coach his focus has become much wider.

“It changes a lot. Obviously I’ve got 21 guys from the SANFL and 22 guys in the AFL that I have to watch and analyse now,” he says.

“I guess it’s being a little bit selfless and being able to help them improve their game in order to help yourself improve as a coach. That’s probably one of the more vital things I’ve learnt in the last 12-24 months.”

It’s been a steep learning curve; the sheer hours required of a coach have ensured the 28-year-old has developed quickly.

“You are at the office from nine to five but depending on training it might vary from week to week,” Surjan explains.

“Then there’s obviously the weekend work when you’re coaching and there’s a lot of vision that you have to watch, including opposition analysis. There are also issues at your own footy club that you have to deal with. You generally spend anywhere between 10 and 12 hours on the oval per week – and that’s just on the oval training.”

The job is not for the faint-hearted, but Surjan is relishing the challenge.

“It’s definitely a demanding job, but one I really love doing. We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t like doing it.”

Surjan admits he “definitely [has] that burning desire that every coach would have, to coach at the top level,” but knows he’s still in the early stages of his development.

“I want to get the experience under my belt for the next five to 10 years, being in a development role and hopefully moving up into an assistant coaching role within the next five year period and just learning my craft from there. If I enjoy it and want to have a crack at being a senior coach then I’ll make that decision and if not I’ll be happy to be an assistant coach. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an assistant coach for your whole career.”

For the moment, Surjan is learning plenty from former Geelong star Garry ‘Buddha’ Hocking, who will coach Port Adelaide’s SANFL side this season. Hocking had previously been the caretaker coach of Port Adelaide’s AFL side in 2012, before becoming the Power’s forwards coach in 2013.

“Our game-style is going to be very similar to what the AFL boys are doing,” Surjan says.

“For any current or ex AFL players who are interested in coaching, the Next Coach program is definitely a fantastic course to be part of” – Surjan

“It’s obviously going to be a little bit watered down but we’re going to be brave with the ball and move it as fast as we can. When we get the ball inside 50 we really want to get up the ground and lock the opposition team in their defensive 50 and play footy in our half of the oval.”

Surjan has enjoyed “broadening [his] football knowledge” alongside Hocking and being part of Port Adelaide during an exciting period. The Power finished 14th on the AFL ladder in 2012 but rocketed into the second week of the finals in 2013.

Surjan knows 2014 will be a fantastic learning experience and is “really looking forward to the games starting.” While he’s not sure what the future has in store for him, he has a great appreciation of the path he’s been able to undertake so far – something that started with the Next Coach program.

“For any current or ex AFL players who are interested in coaching, the Next Coach program is definitely a fantastic course to be part of,” Surjan says.

“Dave Wheadon’s a fantastic teacher and a fantastic guy to learn from. He’s been around the business for more than 40 years as a player and coach so you couldn’t learn from a better person. I highly recommend the course to anyone in the industry who’s interested in coaching.”

In 2013 Aaron Davey, Ben Rutten, Adam Schneider, Jarrad McVeigh and Mark McVeigh all completed the Next Coach program, which boasts a remarkable success rate. Simon Goodwin, Steven King, Dean Brogan, Shane O’Bree and Brad Miller will work as assistant or development coaches at AFL clubs this season, having previously completed the course. Former North Melbourne player Adam Simpson will coach West Coast in 2014 – he is the first graduate of the program to become a senior AFL coach.