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Off-field focus a key to success

Recent studies have shown there is a tangible link between the off-field development of AFL players and on-field success. Brett Johnson, General Manager of Player Development for the AFL Players’ Association, explains why developing players as people – rather than just as athletes – benefits players, clubs and the game itself.

When the Players’ Association was founded 40 years ago, those who led the charge for players’ rights wanted one thing: the game to become more professional.

In many respects, the founding fathers of the ‘PA – men such as ‘Swan’ McKay and Geoff Pryor – would be proud of the lives AFL players lead these days. Footy has become a full-time occupation, players are well-supported financially and have access to world-class medical treatment and facilities.

‘after spending the best part of four decades making sure players are well-looked after in their profession, the ‘PA’s focus now shifts to their transition out of it.’

But while plenty has changed in the last four decades, some things remain the same; namely, footy is still a brutal game that tests players physically and mentally. While sports-science and technology have progressed beyond what most could have imagined, the average career span of an AFL player is still very short – around six years.

Ironically, after spending the best part of four decades making sure players are well-looked after in their profession, the ‘PA’s focus now shifts to their transition out of it.

Our players agree it should be a priority. As reported in The Age earlier this year, some of the most influential players in the game, such as Nick Riewoldt and Gary Ablett, have made their feelings on this issue clear, and have insisted personal development of players is of huge importance.

An excerpt from the piece ‘Nick Riewoldt and the AFL’s Lost Boys’ read, “In his time at St Kilda, said Riewoldt, one in four of his teammates had truly found satisfaction in retirement.”

Former Melbourne CEO Cameron Schwab also wrote on this topic recently, pointing out that “being a footballer isn’t just something to do, it is something to be.”

“They’ve devoted everything since childhood to getting better at it,” Schwab wrote.

“Then it stops, and they are expected to make peace before they’ve unstrapped their ankles.”

As the demands of the modern game continue to increase, the Players’ Association will increase its focus on fostering a first-class sporting workplace for AFL players – one that promotes not only sporting excellence, but the long-term personal growth and well-being of players.

In 2013 the Australian Catholic University partnered with the Players’ Association to investigate the causal relationship between off-field development and on-field performance.

The results of the study indicated players’ perceptions of club support for their off-field lives and quality of free time were meaningfully associated with the way they approached their football. Players’ confidence, enthusiasm, dedication and energy for football were all measured.

Overall, these variables predicted 13 percent of variance in on-field performance – a significant competitive advantage. These variables had an even more significant effect on players who were in the early stages of their career. Up to 21 percent of their performance could be predicted based on the measured variables described above.

Player Development is a relatively new area of the industry and as such, some clubs are yet to fully maximise its potential to impact performance and individual growth. As Nick Riewoldt and Gary Ablett have asserted, it’s more important than ever for the game to show a genuine commitment and interest in the long-term lives of players.

AFL football is an impermanent profession; the game and its clubs have a responsibility to ensure those who transition out of it are prepared and equipped for future personal and professional challenges. Not just because it is the moral and right thing to do, but also because it is good for business. If done well, personal development can provide clubs with a significant competitive advantage.

Read the AFL Players’ annual Development and Wellbeing Report here.