Friday 26th September I was lucky enough to be front row, centre stage for the 14th AFL Grand Final Symposium held in Parkville, Melbourne, Australia. The event hosted an AFLs who’s who, not just speaking but in the crowd too. The symposium was divided into 4 parts, being the introduction, “Balancing Innovation and Evidence Based Science”, “Legal and Ethical Boundaries for Peak Performance” and closing with “Player Development – Casualty or Opportunity?”
A welcome address was made by Dr. Hugh Seward, followed by the introduction from Mark Evans and Guy McKenna’s keynote address, which was humorous, insightful and engaging. Some take away points for me:
- Peak Performance is made up of 3 P’s: Physical, Psychological and Play (Technical skill)
- Each player has 100 units to spread between these 3
- Jnr players need to learn to prepare so an example could 40/20/40
- Snr players are physically more resilient so may look 20/30/50
- Every players looks different in each segment by apx +/-3
McKenna also spoke about his 3 tiers of leadership being:
- Junior – Learn to train (Focus) – takes 2 years minimum
- Emerging leaders – Usually playing years 3-4 (Learn feedback and how to have hard conversations)
- Senior leaders
As a club and in life, he also stated “The standards you walk past are the standards you accept”
To achieve peak performance, around a 6 weekly assessment is made that asks:
- What’s important?
- Who can fix it?
- How long will it take?
He spoke in some detail of the Karmichael Hunt project, who basically had a sole coach to learn AFL, as opposed to having line and specialist coaches the other players did. Before answering questions McKenna summed up that Discipline + Hard Work = 98% of performance
The AFL Doctors Association President, Dr. Andrew Potter introduced the “Balancing Innovation and Evidence Based Science” segment. The first speaker was Dr. Peter Brukner, whom I did not take many notes from – definitely not via lack of respect, he is the author of one of my bibles “Brukner & Khan’s Clinical Sports Medicine” – from memory he spoke about the changes over time of medicine in elite sport, such as PRP injections and different options for knee reconstructions.
Following him was Craig Purdam, the AIS Head of Physical Therapies. Purdam spoke of us needing to constantly remove bias, change our “beliefs” and develop a “belief filter”. We need to be careful what we are conditioned to believe to be true doesn’t cause bias in our application. One really interesting notion he mentioned was that the latest research on NSAIDs is showing that taking them during the first 72 hours post injury may inhibit the formation of scar tissue. The other big note I took from him was that if the total time lost to injury by players equated to 20% (5 weeks in a 6 month season) the team did not achieve its goal.
Aaron Coutts then took to the stage covering “Sports/Data Science”. I was particularly looking forward to hearing him speak as his research has played a large role in GPS protocols I’ve previously set up.
Coutts defined “Sports Science” as being made up of:
- Injury Screening
Generally testing is conducted 5 times a year:
- Start of pre-season
- Mid pre-season
- End pre-seaon
- Mid competition
- End Competition
I also made notes to look into research conducted by Billsborough (2014) on Weight Training and AFL players and Sullivan et al on “Does GPS data relate to performance?” and “Does physical activity equate to performance outcomes?” with the performance outcome being winning matches. So far GPS data shows players work harder when they’re losing a match, and less when they’re winning, so we need to be careful what we’re looking at and what we can extract from the data we collect. From my own experience, live feed is more beneficial to myself than post-match analysis. For example, if I know KPIs for a player, I can alert the bench of red flags and get him rotated, rested, looked at etc.
My final note from Coutts was to look into research he mentioned on performance post-altitude vs. post-heat by Racinais et al. From further conversations with Blake McLean, whose PhD at Collingwood Magpies was on altitude training, indications are altitude shows short term gains and heat shows long-term gains – but how much and is it worth it? Time (and science) will tell.
Hawthorn Hawks dietician Simon Austin spoke on innovations in nutrition and dietetics. I didn’t take many notes on her talk, only because nutrition is not an area of focus of mine. It was interesting to hear how she did her job and the different issues that are brought to her by players. She uses a common sense but individualised approach. She also spoke in detail of FODMAPs which seems to be getting a lot of traction lately.
A panel discussion with Brukner, Purdam, Coutts and Austin was facilitated by Dr. Potter was followed by lunch (good spread too, cheers AFL!)
The “Legal and Ethical Boundaries for Peak Performance” portion interestingly included a talk from Essendon Bombers General Manager for Football Performance Neil Craig. It was introduced by Dorothy Hisgrove and we were specifically asked not to ask questions relating to ongoing Essendon drugs saga.
Hayden Opie spoke from a legal perspective, which was interesting but I took few notes. If you were a law student with an interest in sport it was 15-20min you would not wanted to miss!
For a club perspective, Neil Craig spoke next and focussed on the importance of doing what is “right”. He told a story of his time under Charlie Walsh and working as a sport scientist leading up the games. He only mentioned Walsh by name but was referring to the pre-Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and the controversy surrounding the omission of Kathy Watts and promotion of Lucy Tyler-Sharman. Walsh was basically alone, against the people of Australia but stood by his “right” decision. Watts appealed to the High Court and won, gaining reinstatement. Although the 2 did not compete side-by-side, later results are believed to prove made the “right” decision. “Courage is a lonely sport” Craig stated.
Craig also spoke of “buy-in”, an extremely important foundation of any team success and to “begin with the end in mind”. He used an example a team philosophy was plastered around a club, but a new generation of players had taken the reigns. They agreed with the philosophy, but it wasn’t “theirs”, they didn’t help create it. Hisgrove took the mic before facilitating the panel discussion began and reiterated what Craig has said, stating “He who creates philosophy has ownership”.
One of West Coast Eagles doctors asked a really interesting regarding future litigation. We have players on the absolute knife-edge of injury and performance – to paraphrase, “if we make a call and they play hurt, careers ended through injury etc are we liable for retrospective action?” – Obviously without giving specific legal advice Opie said it’s a not a worry. He has 2 world champion athletes studying law underneath him and asked them a similar question. He said they absolutely knew the risks of injury and would compete regardless.
Funnily enough, it appeared Craig and Opie had never met but Opie was one of the lawyers involved in the Watts case. Small world…
The day was wrapped up with “Player Development – Casualty or Opportunity?”, introduced by Brett Johnson followed by a keynote address by St Kilda Saints new CEO Matt Finnis (and Johnson’s former boss at AFLPA). Finnis stated his factors of performance are:
- How does structure/environment promote better players, not just athletes?
Manny Lynch, Brisbane Lions Player Development Manager, had the final talk of the day and spoke from a club perspective. He’s driven to create “a sense of achievement outside of footy” and get players to recognise “footy is part of life – not life”
Any PDM with a “one-size-fits-all” model for players is “lazy” and the “best PDMs put as much energy into player 45 as player 1”. This works at both ends of the spectrum as your no 1 player may be suffering in silence.
A panel discussion followed and Finnis was unflappable replying to a line of questioning I felt was aggressive and irrelevant. The male asked if we should change the draft age to higher, using the USA example of NFL of apx 21 (3 years post high school) but was comparing apples to oranges.
Dr. Ross Smith closed a rewarding and insightful day. Feel free to share this page if you got something out of it and apologies to any speakers if there are inaccuracies stated above.