This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.
Paul Marsh had only just taken the helm of the AFL Players’ Association, at the start of September, when he began exit interviews for players departing at the end of the season.
One who had spent more than a decade in the game and played more than 200 games was lamenting his lack of effort when it came to off-field development.
The reason, the player said, was that he “didn’t want to think about life after football” – but was now being forced to.
Last year’s AFL Players’ Association survey revealed members overwhelmingly wanted a greater focus on personal and professional development, even though that would require more effort on their part. It was an outcome that delighted AFL Players’ president Luke Ball.
“I think it’s a good sign that players, whilst acknowledging the window of playing footy is small and the core business is to play well and maximise your potential on the field and win games of footy, it’s also a fantastic opportunity to really progress in life through networking,” said Ball, the recently retired Collingwood midfielder.
The result from the AFL Players’ Association was a computer database, called MAX360, which is based around players and their club’s player development manager giving them ratings for all aspects of their off-field life and identifying which areas they can improve on.
It was officially unveiled last month at a seminar attracting representatives from all clubs, including influential figures such as Geelong chief executive Brian Cook, St Kilda coach Alan Richardson and Collingwood director of football Neil Balme.
“MAX360 has a big focus on getting organised, things like returning phone calls and all the kind of basics that we haven’t expected of players” – Brett Johnson
As Players’ Association player development manager Marissa Fillipou explained at the seminar, a central goal is to prepare players to fit in within any workplace, not just a footy club.
“A person’s growth is more than just what job they do when they leave the game or what study they’re doing now,” she said.
AFL Players’ general manager of player development Brett Johnson said player development, in terms of off-field skills, had only emerged as a priority in the industry over the past decade or so, and therefore had not been the beneficiary of the improvement evident in other playing-related and fitness-related aspects.
Johnson said gauging player development had been hard, arguing the common measure of how many players were involved in vocational training was too narrow, because it excluded “life skills” such as punctuality and financial competence.
Similarly, player development programs can vary significantly from club to club, especially relating to documenting it for each player over the long-term.
“You can leave the game with a qualification but still not be able to successfully transition because you don’t know how to do things for yourself,” he said.
“We ask players to be really efficient in terms of their preparation around their football and getting ready for game day, but we don’t expect the same of them in terms of how efficient and organised they are in terms of their off-field life.
“I think we’ve actually taken things away from them to make it easier for them to put more energy into their football. We almost institutionalise them in many respects. It’s almost this kind of learned helplessness.
“MAX360 has a big focus on getting organised, things like returning phone calls and all the kind of basics that we haven’t expected of players.”
While clubs have previously favoured players focusing on football as much as possible, at the expense of everything else, many players still feel compelled to. One anecdote told at the seminar involved one player turning up for an AFL Players’ Association training day clutching a footy.
Even though Ball combined his playing duties with leading the board of the AFL Players’ Association, he conceded even he was not the “poster boy” in terms of taking a day off per week, as players are supposed to.
“The general competitiveness of the game has increased [so much] that nowadays in most spare moments players are looking at ways to do extra recovery or whatever [training] to get themselves in the best shape and to the line every week,” he said.
“I think that’s something clubs have got better at, stressing the importance of being able to switch off… and seeing yourself as not just a footballer, to have an identity outside of just being a footballer.”
Players being introduced to MAX360 are asked to fill out a questionnaire rating themselves in five broad areas: financial ownership, personal brand, getting organised, learning and growth and resilience and thriving.
Their player development manager then completes the same survey, based on their opinion and the club’s opinion of that player. Specific areas include: “I am accountable and can be relied on to return phone calls, be punctual and do what I say I will do; I know that some conflict is unavoidable and am equipped to manage difficult conversations and will question others if I think it is appropriate; I have established financial goals and targets, and an exit plan if my career were to end now; I don’t need rules to know the right things to do, and naturally am respectful and responsible to others”.
North Melbourne was one of four clubs – St Kilda, Western Bulldogs and Sydney were the others – that tested an early version of MAX360 this season.
The Kangaroos’ involvement came after last year’s survey revealed their players felt they were not left enough time around training and other football-related duties, to focus on personal and professional development.
Neil Connell, the club’s player welfare manager, said the results were acted upon by the football department, which amended its scheduling of training, gym session and meetings “to make sure it [off-field development] becomes part of the program … and it’s not an extra”.
“that’s something clubs have got better at, stressing the importance of being able to switch off” – Luke Ball
“We’ve all been doing it over the years, in our own way … you’re forever touching base with players and talking about work placements, uni courses, our in-house courses … but this puts a bit of a holistic approach to the player.
“It covers everything from their finance side, their personal brand … a whole range of things.”
After a year of using MAX360, Connell said he was pleasantly surprised at how players overwhelmingly responded positively to instances where the club had a lower opinion of a player’s skills in a certain area than the player did.
“It’s not a pass or fail. It’s ‘This is where we see you’ and ‘Where do you see yourself?’, and have discussion about it,” he said.
For influential player manager Paul Connors, who attended the seminar, that outcome was particularly heartening.
“That’s really good, because in normal life employees struggle to accept [negative] feedback from their bosses,” Connors said.
Even though clubs have only been compelled since 2012 to have a full-time employee devoted solely to player welfare, the key club conduit for parents of young players, West Coast has had that role for 12 years.
In that time their player services co-ordinator, club and WA footballing stalwart Ian Miller, has worked with some players for whom “it’s been very difficult to convince them to get their teeth into anything [else], and when they leave the game they struggle”.
He expects MAX360 will help players articulate, and keeping being reminded of, their non-football goals during their football career.
Miller agreed there was a league-wide trend to make players more self sufficient. He raised the example of a player coming into his office with a number of overdue unpaid bills.
Whereas previously he would have taken those bills to the club’s accounts department and get them paid out of the player’s salary, now he would make that player make that request of the club’s accounts staff – a small but significant change.
“I think we’ve all been down that track, that we’ve done too much, and now we want [to remedy that]. It’s a bit like playing the game – you’ve got to action it,” he said.
“The coach isn’t out on the field with you … you know what you’ve got to do but you’ve got to action it [yourself].”
Non-football pursuits for footballers do not have to be limited to university, especially since many players are understandably reluctant to commit to a multi-year period given the time demands already on them.
Miller and Connell both advise players to look for other shorter-term options first, such as training courses, or perhaps even work experience stints that can often be gleefully provided by club supporters and directors.
Player development managers are intended to be a confidant for players. Connors said agents’ primary contact at clubs was their list manager or head of football, but said he would see great benefit in agents regularly contacting player development managers, and vice-versa, about the how their client was progressing with his non-football skills, especially as they probably saw the client more than the agent did.
Connell’s experience with MAX360 this year at North prompted him to give two strong pieces of advice for his peers at other clubs.
The first was that players should not be given any more than two or three off-field goals to work on at a time, because any more is impractical. The second was that meetings should be held at least monthly, to ensure those off-field goals are not forgotten.
Ball said the relationship between a player and the player development manager was a “two-way street”, and that he hoped players would embrace the off-field-improvement policy they requested overwhelmingly in their past annual survey.
“The players have got to come to the party as well. The test obviously comes when you’ve lost three or four games in a row and you might not be playing that well [to focus on these personal development sessions] – forever and a day that’s going to be the test,” he said.
AFL Players’ player development chief Johnson said he was rapt the latest crop of draftees will be the first who will benefit from a universal off-field development scheme for their entire career, irrespective of if they change clubs.
“Conversations are already happening at clubs, but MAX360 allows them to be captured, documented and tracked,” he said.
“Too often in the past we’ve had players finish and game and can’t recall something they’ve completed around player development say five years earlier, so I think this will simplify how a player’s journey is tracked.
“Some players have always had this right, but we believe all players deserve this right to maximise their time in footy. Players don’t get a choice of where they’re drafted so it’s important there are consistent conditions across the competition.”
Connors commended the likes of Richardson, Balme and Cook and also officials from non-Melbourne clubs for attending the seminar.
He reckoned the reason all had come together for the MAX360 launch was because all sides – clubs, the Players’ Association, player agents – shared a common goal: improving the player.
“I think the players’ association has seen too many examples of footballers who concentrate solely on their game. It’s all just footy footy footy. It’s well documented David Parkin, for example, has always believed that players who have some meaningful outside study/work experience play better football over the long term.”