Dr David Buttifant credits football with getting him through the tough times. Sara Coen spoke to Collingwood’s sports science director about developing players, mentoring students and dealing with tragedy.
Dr David Buttifant has always had a knack for breaking in the lads, and that’s just what the 48-year-old has been doing at Collingwood Football Club (CFC) for more than 12 years now.
He was Mick Malthouse’s right-hand man for 11 years, has been through four grand finals, and is widely credited as being the Magpies’ scientific secret to success. He’s also backed up his on-field work with research in applied sports science, through his role as clinical associate professor at ACU’s Melbourne Campus.
In 2011 ACU and CFC combined their interests in applied sports science research to create the first industry based scholarship, offered through the University’s School of Exercise Science.
“I mentor PhD students Blake McLean and Dean Filopolous – both ACU guys looking at the effects of altitude training on athletes – it’s always great to break a few new blokes in on the research team,” David said.
“The students are a real asset to us – and we love having them around. They keep us on our toes. It’s like a big extended family down here and that’s the culture. We support each other to keep things ticking along.
“I get a bit embarrassed when the press single me out as ‘Collingwood’s 23rd man’ – I’m just one bloke playing my part in an awesome team.
“The whole club is full of talent – players, strength and conditioning coaches, biomechanics, sports scientists, dieticians and key stakeholders – all working together.
“My job is about getting a model together and collaboratively designing a program to enhance performance – then scrutinising and evaluating players individually and collectively. Using monitoring systems, we identify when players are in peak control and how they’re tracking physically. But it’s not all physical.
“It’s not just about developing a footballer – it’s about developing a person and I think that’s really important.”
David said life with the Magpies wasn’t always black and white, and there were plenty of ups and downs in the lives of players and in team results.
“Players come in as young kids, grow up, get married, get injured, experience tragedies, have setbacks – and that’s all part of it,” he said. “The game is holistic – it’s physical, mental, and spiritual. There is a village connectedness – and sometimes it’s the setbacks and losses which really galvanise the group.
“Football has held me together through some extremely tough times – like in 2009 when my son took his life. Nick was 20 years old at the time. Losing him turned our lives upside down – and the club was there to back us all the way.
“The pain of losing a child is terrible, but it can enrich your life – and it made me appreciate just how precious life is.”
Inspired to do something positive for families coping with similar tragedies, David and his wife Maria set up the N.I.C.K Foundation in 2011 – a volunteer led organisation which runs workshops in schools to develop self-belief and resilience in young people and their families.
From the letters of their sons first name, they developed the foundation’s core values – Nurturing, Independence, Commitment and Knowledge. More than 20,000 people have participated in the workshops to date and the program is continuing to gain popularity and momentum in Victorian schools.
“We have guest speakers like AFL coach Nathan Buckley and CFC Psychology Manager David Siff visit schools to share their stories of hope and inspiration,” David said.
“They run the workshops where parents and students can learn strategies to build self-esteem and cope with adversity in healthy ways. You can turn pretty much anything around in life and draw from it – and that’s what we are on about with N.I.C.K.
“So many things in life are out of our control. When struck with a challenge, we can choose to deal it positively or negatively – and that’s what is empowering about tragedy.
“I chose to deal with my son’s death by doing something positive for other people and it’s helping me no end.”