ACU (Australian Catholic University)

Insight

Issue 9, Winter 2013

Fieldwork

Fieldwork

ACU researcher Matthew Pink looks further afield at the prospect of AFL players achieving a more balanced lifestyle, writes Sara Coen.

AFL is a lucrative business – and the footy field has become a workplace for professional athletes. 

Although players have the capacity to earn more money than ever, their rights and welfare have attracted considerable interest in recent years.

The AFL research board with support from the AFL Players’ Association (AFLPA) has commissioned an investigation to better understand what players need to achieve a healthy work-life balance and a positive lifestyle.

While similar topics have long been a discussion point in AFL circles, this research intends to look deeper into the subject than the sport ever has before. The findings have the potential to shape the practices of player welfare departments across the entire league. ACU is conducting the project under the leadership of Exercise Science Associate Professor, John Saunders, and the AFL Research Board is funding it.

“We are looking to gain an insight into how a player’s involvement in off-field activities may be related to their on-field performance,” said Professor Saunders. 

“These off-field activities may include further education and vocational training as preparation for a career after football, as well as involvement in recreational activities away from football.”

There has been plenty of anecdotal support from athletes and coaches indicating that having interests outside of professional sport is beneficial for performance, but so far there has been little scientific research to back this up.

It can be extremely difficult to undertake education and engage in meaningful off-field activities while forging an AFL career, and this research aims to identify ways in which AFL clubs can best support individual players in their various off-field involvements.

ACU key researcher Matthew Pink spent two weeks inside an AFL club during phase one of the three-year, three-phase project, to better understand what variables are relevant. 

He is using this information to develop survey instruments that will generate an understanding about the situation in all clubs concerning AFL players’ off-field activity.

“This research is not about proving a causal link between off-field activity and on-field performance,” said Pink. “It is about seeing how they are related, and how we can get the best out of these off-field activities to provide worklife balance, without these activities impeding upon a club’s core business.”

Among the key initial findings was that the ease with which players were able to schedule off-field activity determined their willingness to be involved in things away from the club. The time that they had to accommodate the activity was also considered critical to determining their engagement and satisfaction with off-field activity.

The AFLPA views the initial results as further validation of the need for players to have a set calendar during the football season that provides them with as much certainty in planning off-field activities as possible. 

Mr Pink said that the research was important as the demands imposed on elite sports people were becoming ever more intense.

“AFL has become increasingly professional and players are required to participate in extensive training schedules, meetings, and other professional engagements for most of the year. They are also highly visible to the public and are held to a particularly high standard of behaviour as they are seen as role models to the community,” said Mr Pink.

Professor Saunders said the project was a positive recognition of the stresses and strains experienced by professional footballers, as it acknowledged that players needed to have other dimensions outside their football lives for their personal and professional well-being.

“We have a role in sports science to make sure that athletes are seen as whole people, not just physiological machines tuned for optimum efficiency,” said Professor Saunders. 

“Recent media publicity about the extent to which players (and their management) might be prepared to go in order to gain competitive advantage, is evidence of the dangers in treating athletes as commodities.”

Mr Pink said that the study was coming from a pragmatic perspective that might inform more effective management of the valuable human resources that are elite footballers. 

“We hope that our research might contribute to the continuing development of a sporting culture that respects the human dignity of all those involved,” said Mr Pink.

The first phase of the research is over and some lessons have been learned about what a positive experience looks like through a player’s eyes. With work-life balance for players on the AFL agenda it is important that a new model for a new era is identified. 

The initial findings have been included in the AFL Players’ Development and Wellbeing report and AFL CEOs will be updated on the purpose of the research and its preliminary findings this month.

RESEARCH FOUND

Factors contributing to the quality of a player’s involvement in off-field activities include; 

• Interest in the activity
• The activity’s ability to take the player’s mind off football
• Ease of scheduling and the time to accommodate the activity
• Having friends within the activity
• Identifying with the purpose of the activity

Factors within the club environment that contributed to the support of players’ off-field lives were:
• The club’s recognition of the player’s life outside football
• The quality of the player’s relationship with the Player Development Manager
• Player development being taken seriously within the organisation 
• The provision of a variety of genuine opportunities for player involvement
• Players being encouraged to engage in activities but not forced to
• Positive living arrangements for the player 
• A feeling of social comfort with other players and staff regardless of career stage and status

• Encouragement to sample different off-field activities as opposed to pressure to make specific choices to commit to activities 

Other findings include:

• The players’ perceived importance of the credibility and status of the Player Development
Department
• The importance of the Player Development Manager role being separated from on-field duties

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