By Graeme Pratt
The sport of Australian Football requires many different skills and attributes to play the game successfully. Players range in size and shape and the roles of positional play are varied. The playing field is the largest amongst world sports and 18 players from a team can be on the oval at a time. Because of the complexities of the game there is also great diversity in player make-up. But what separates the athletes at the highest level (AFL) from those at state leagues and community clubs? When we watch a game how do we know who the good players are? Who should we select for matches and participation in talent squads? Why do some footballers progress and some plateau? How do we develop all individuals so they can be the best they can be? Community clubs and coaches should continually ask themselves these questions so they can understand what it takes to help their players learn and grow.
Traditionally the best players were the ones who collected the most disposals (kicks and handballs). While this is still the case today, AFL Club recruiting staff (and others in the Talent area) have identified certain qualities of elite players. These can be grouped into 4 categories:
All these different attributes develop at different times and different rates for different individuals. Some players may never fully master some of the skills and be a work in progress for their entire careers. Only the rare players, such as Premiership Captain and 2-time Brownlow Medalist – Chris Judd, possess the natural talent and work ethic to make all of these strengths of his game.
The AFL Talent Pathway provides for progression of players from Youth to Senior level. Talented Youth players (from Under 14) participate in Regional Development Squads where they increase their skills and widen their knowledge. The most gifted progress onto state selection for participation in National Championships and possibly the AIS-AFL Academy. To track the progress of talented youth performers the AFL uses Recruiting Reports (ratings for 14 Key Performance Areas in an open environment) and Combines (closed environment measurements and tests)*.
However there are many issues with talent identification and selection tests or measurements. Research has shown that they should be used as a guide only and not for exclusion purposes. Many factors have been discovered which can result in misjudgments in analysis. It is important for community club coaches to have knowledge of these following concerns in talent detection.
Firstly, the validity of certain tests needs to be questioned. Does the assessment report what it was meant to? Each test should be relevant to the game situation it is looking at. Also the majority of skills and fitness assessments are carried out in a closed environment. This does not take into account actual pressure experienced during a match and the constantly changing variables within it. Players can be trained to prepare for tests as they know what to expect and when.
Coaches also make errors when observing players. The following are common mistakes made by coaches and the majority of the time these are made subconsciously:
A major issue with selection in youth development programs is the Relative Age Effect. This refers to early birth dates having an advantage over later ones. Players born soon after the cut-off date for particular sports (January 1st for AFL) are more likely to be more mature and identified as being more talented and as a result are often included in development squads where they receive better coaching and opportunities.
Another similar problem with youth sports is the different maturity levels of players. This refers to differences in physical age among children born in the same calendar year. Due to greater body size, strength, speed, power and endurance the mature players are likely to dominate. However, players will not necessarily maintain this advantage at senior level.
Coaches must be careful not to judge a player because of parents or siblings. Genetics refer to the in-born characteristics passed down from mother and father. Human physical performance is the result of interaction between natural inheritance and environmental factors (nature v nurture debate).
Subsequent to this is the view that the quality and quantity of training has the biggest influence on the development of athletes. Quality of training depends on coaching knowledge and transfer, team performance and standards, individual focus and attitude, player feedback and correction. Quantity of training depends on time in sport, accessibility of resources, devotion and desire to succeed.
There are also external factors that impact on the development of players. These factors are outside the scope of regular training and competition and include: parental support; cultural background; socio-economic factors; schooling emphasis; and lifestyle stability.
Because of all the above issues team sports have been less inclined to conduct talent identification and development programs compared to individual athletic pursuits. It is more difficult to predict potential talent because success in team sports is more related to knowledge of game play and skills as well as performance characteristics. Studies into Professional American Sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) have shown the challenges of accurately evaluating amateur talent with draft predicting and career potential.
From the AFL competition we see many examples of unique success. Jobe Watson, who was the 2012 Brownlow medalist, always had question marks on his athletic attributes. He was nearly delisted by Essendon, but he worked hard on his weaknesses and developed his strengths, and was eventually rewarded as being judged the best player in the competition this year. AFL Recruiters also had doubts about Sam Mitchell, mainly because of physical determinants, but his true football skills would not be denied, and he ended up captaining Hawthorn to a Premiership. On the flip side Nic Natanui is one of the most gifted athletes to the play the game. He has always had critics regarding his ball-winning ability, but this season (in his 4th year as an AFL player) he was an All-Australian. James Podsiadly is a great example of continually developing and overcoming adversity. He was selected as a mature age rookie by Geelong in 2009 at the age of 28 and ended up playing in a premiership in 2011.
International players have always been disadvantaged as they were not brought up playing the game through juniors. However, this does not stop particular players having an enormous impact on Australian Football. Jim Stynes from Ireland rewrote the record books with his remarkable streak of 244 consecutive games and also winning the 1991 Brownlow Medal. Also one of the heroes on AFL Grand Final day this year for the Sydney Swans was Mike Pyke who had played rugby union for Canada. Dean Brogan is an exceptional individual who has played in both a National Basketball League championship in 1998 and an AFL Premiership in 2004.
So what does this all mean to community clubs and coaches? The first point would be to acknowledge that every player is an individual. For some this is a difficult concept to grasp in a team sport environment. Australian Football culture is built upon team first principles and personal sacrifice. These rules and ethos should not be lost, but the emphasis should be on team AND individual development. Coaches must recognise that no player is perfect and they should be attempting to get to know all of their players – on and off the football field.
Also coaches should remember that youth or inexperienced performers differ from adult or experienced performers in the fact they are less developed in all the qualities of an elite sportsperson. They are less skilled and have reduced physical capacity. They are less mature and also do not know all that is required to be elite. There is also a greater range in performance between youth or inexperienced players.
Clubs should focus on a quality training environment. This includes:
With selection it is important to understand internal constructs and biases and judge players on consistent and regular occasions. Constant positive feedback should be given to players about their progression. Coaches should regularly attend workshops and seminars to up-skill themselves and keep up-to-date with latest knowledge. As players are expected to work hard and improve, so should coaches and administrators. Development programs should be inclusive and be multi-dimensional in design.
Players need to feel respected and for some it will not be all about the game. Some will want to be AFL players whilst some will just want to be able to kick the ball to their best friend. We need to understand these individual wants, identify the particular needs, and put in place processes to help them be realised. Players need to be honest with themselves and others and always be grateful for the time volunteered on their behalf. Coaches need to communicate effectively and be equitable in their approach. Clubs need to be places of opportunity.
Finally it is significant to appreciate that players never stop developing. The process from novice to master is never really complete. Of the many things that make up elite performers it is probably character that is the most defining. Those that seize opportunities presented and commit to improvement will eventually be successful.
* Further information on the AFL recruiting reports and tests can be found in the AFL Youth Coaching Manual.
Graeme Pratt works for AFL Victoria as the Regional Development Manager – Western Region and is an accredited level 2 coach and has a level 1 accreditation in Talent Identification.