Rob Harding discusses his experience at four AFL clubs over the last decade. From how he cracked it into the industry, the growing role of data and tech & advice for the new breed coming through – it’s a great first-hand insight into the industry!

Tell us about your background

Like a lot of kids in Melbourne I grew up loving footy and all sports really. I played footy until a hip injury ended my career just before I turned 16. After High School I went to Uni and did an Arts degree and in my last six months of that I found my way into the sports media, producing radio shows at SEN in Melbourne. 

From there I went to North Melbourne in a role that was a forerunner to the Football Analyst roles and then progressed through opposition analysis and game strategy. I was fortunate enough to be an Opposition Analyst at Geelong for the 2011 Premiership, before spending five years at the Adelaide Crows. I was then an Assistant Coach at Essendon for the last three years and now for Vic Metro in the Under 18 program.

You’ve spent over a decade in the AFL across four clubs. Tell us about how it all started with North Melbourne

While I was producing at SEN, one of the guest hosts we had was Nathan Thompson, who was playing at North Melbourne at the time and had been doing more media while he spent a year out with a knee injury. 

I had always been keen to step across into AFL club land and mentioned to him that if he ever heard of jobs going could he let me know. Not long after he told me about a role as Football Technology Co-ordinator, which basically looked after all stats and vision, which I was fortunate enough to apply for and get.

The best thing about that role for me was that the club wasn’t overly resourced, so I was exposed to all the different areas within the football department. I would primarily work with the coaching group, but I would also help out the high performance staff by importing the GPS data, cutting it up the way they wanted and sending it through to then. 

I would pull vision on certain players for the opposition coach, or put stats and vision together for the recruiting staff. It gave me a window into each area, and 10 years later the majority of clubs would have Performance Analysts across each of those areas.

How have the roles in performance analysis and technology changed over the last decade

They’ve certainly gone from being more of a technical role to requiring a higher level of football knowledge. Part of my interview at North at the end of 2007 was to put together a highlights video, whereas now if I was interviewing for a similar role I’d be looking for experience using Sportscode, the Champion Data suite of products, and asking questions around how the applicant would go sitting next to an Assistant Coach in the box fielding questions and being able to show them vision on short notice.

What was your involvement on game day? How does it feel to be part of such a high pressure environment?

Initially it was just to set up and make sure the technical side of the coaches box ran smoothly. It then expanded to tracking stats of key players. I remember the first pre-season game I did that role at North, we were playing Carlton and Dean Laidley was our coach. He was as good as I worked with at reading the game, he was minutes ahead of everyone else, which in footy time is a lifetime. About 10 minutes (and a few goals down) into the first quarter I finally said something along the lines of “Judd’s had 9, Simpson’s had 8 and Carazzo’s had 7” to which I got the reply from Dean,  “Don’t tell me what they’ve had, tell me how to stop them!!!”. I think I kept quiet for the rest of the half!

I had a focus on being a sponge early on in my time in AFL and just learning learning learning. I took notes in every meeting where I wasn’t operating a laptop, I asked questions of the assistant coaches, and guys at North like Darren Crocker and Danny Daly, then at Geelong Nigel Lappin, Blake Caracella and Brenton Sanderson taught me a lot. 

Sando in particular gave me a lot of confidence in how well I saw the game, as did Phil Walsh when I worked with him in 2015. When I sat in the coaches box with more of a strategic or coaching role I felt very comfortable – some coaches find it difficult and the stress they feel manifests itself in yelling, banging the desk or becoming irrational, but I never found that.

I can’t remember which club it was, but one day we had a member of the Emergency Services sitting in the box observing our communication between Box and Bench, and his response was “You guys are crazy, there is so much information flying around in here!”. 

It’s so important to keep a calm head in the box. There are a lot of people, a lot of stats and a lot of ideas being thrown around. How the game is looking is assessed by the visual (coaches watching the game) and the data (fed by analysts). Whether it’s clamping down on an opponent with a tagger, or sending a message about the depth of our F50 entries, it influences the discussion between box and bench, between coaches and players.

I spent 12 years in football departments and I can assure everyone there are no wasted resources! In fact, there are a lot of people working extraordinary hours to support players and coaches.

When did you first hear of ‘data scientists’ or mathematicians being hired by AFL clubs and has their role evolved much since then

At North I had a Psychometrics guru sit in our box to have a look at how we were using the data back in 2009, and he provided some really good feedback. Through the 2000s the better resourced clubs were employing data scientists and by 2010 nearly all clubs would have had variations on that type of role.

The old Football Technology roles really split off into three more specific streams, Football Analysts, IT Analysts, and Data Scientists. I think it’s important for all three streams to have an understanding of the other, but having a resource in the data scientist space allowed clubs to look into specific, bigger picture, projects.

From a coaching standpoint, one area I saw data scientists providing great recommendations was to assist with training planning, particularly through pre-season, making sure that we were best replicating game like situations in our training. 

Where would you like your next role in the industry to be

I certainly enjoy the coaching and strategy side of footy, so once the current situation passes and footy returns I look forward to coaching the Midfield with the Vic Metro boys. 

Currently I’m doing some study in the fitness area to add another skill set, but if I was to return to AFL level full time, longer term I would like to explore the List Management and General Manager of Football space. 

In my experience, the best GMs of Football have been the guys that have had a wide ranging experience within the football department – I use David Noble from Brisbane, who was GM of Footy at Adelaide when I was there – as the example. He was a Development Coach, an Assistant Coach and a List Manager before becoming GM. That’s the type of experience I would like to replicate, having quite literally started at the bottom of the football department at North Melbourne.

You must have a network of friends and colleagues affected by the impact of coronavirus on the industry. How is the industry coping overall?

Unfortunately I’ve had a number of friends lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, which is sad for them, and puts strain on their families as they still have bills to pay and family to support. These are good, hard working people, who have had their livelihood disrupted through no fault of their own.

There is a lot of focus on Football Department Spending, and the suggestion is that it will drop from $9.7 Million a year to $6.7 or $6 Million. That will mean a lot of jobs and a lot of resources going, which I think is a concern. 

Ultimately every resource that has gone into a football department, has been put there to assist the players and help us make the game the best it can be. I spent 12 years in football departments, and I can assure everyone there are no wasted resources! In fact, there are a lot of people working extraordinary hours to support players and coaches.

Right now, the industry is coping as well as it can, and we just have to get through 2020 to get a clear idea of what the true financial state of our game is. My personal opinion is that it won’t be until 2022 that we see stabilisation in the roles and resourcing within football departments.

What advice would you give the new breed of sport science/performance analysis graduates coming through

Graduates generally fall into either the high performance (fitness) side or the coaching side. I’ve hired a number of Analysts to work on the coaching side, and from a technical standpoint what I look for is competency using Sportscode, and experience with Champion Data, which is not always possible for graduates but more of a bonus. 

Just as importantly, perhaps more importantly, I always wanted people who were good communicators and could build relationships with people they work with. In a football department there are 45 players and just as many full time and part time staff. It’s a tight-knit environment and you’re going to see these people more than you see your family for 10 months of the year, so the ability to build genuine relationships, to have a laugh, to work hard, be proactive and get the job done is what I am looking for.

I believe I progressed from Technology Co-Ordinator to Assistant Coach because of those things. So for graduates, getting the first foot in the door is the hardest – be proactive in contacting people at AFL, AFLW or VFL clubs. Once you get an opportunity, be proactive again, ask coaches what more you can do to help them, or better yet show them something you’ve put together that might help them. The forwards coach said in a meeting that we need to look at our forward 50 entries? Talk to him about what in particular he wants to know and offer to do it.

Last piece of advice – soak in everything that’s going in inside the football department and find what interests you the most.

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