To win an AFL Grand Final, you need a team of health pros to build your champion athletes

Over the next fortnight, Australia’s biggest football debut will be decided by groups of athletes who have trained – and played – most of the year for a chance to take home the title.

With four clubs still in the running in the National Rugby League – Penrith, North Queensland, Parramatta and South Sydney – this week all eyes will be on Geelong and Sydney as they play the Australian Football League grand final at the MCG.

There are two teams on the stage who have already played 24 games – each for around two hours – for competition points, as well as numerous compulsory and internal club practice games in the pre-season.

And while the coaches and players will have the glory – and the scrutiny – of the public ahead of the game, behind the scenes a group of professionals is responsible for getting the athletes to play in the best possible condition.

This mix of sports scientists, physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, doctors, dietitians and nutritionists, massage therapists, trainers and psychologists share responsibility for maintaining their knowledge of the human body, how it works and what happens when it’s under stress, with athletes in top form.

Australian football and rugby are very physical games that require significant aerobic capacity and the right body composition to harness that stamina and absorb regular, vigorous physical contact for six months or more.

dr Darren Burgess is currently Head of High Performance for Adelaide Football Club and Research Associate at the University of South Australia’s Academic Department of Allied Health and Human Performance.

Before that, he oversaw sporting achievements at Arsenal and Liverpool in the English Premier League, amidst AFL engagements with Port Adelaide, the Sydney Swans and most recently the Melbourne Demons, where he oversaw the high-performance program that helped the team achieve the AFL premiere in 2021 to win.

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In terms of building a team fit enough to win a championship, he’s quick to point out that in professional sports, sports scientists create conditions that give a team the best chance of winning a game.

“My job is to give [the coach]the players they want and in their best physical condition to perform in big games,” says Burgess.

Physical fitness and mental preparation are not the reason why a team wins or loses – of course the way the game is played is a major factor – but it can give teams an advantage when they are tactically balanced.

On the day of a Premiership decision – or any game – the high performance manager is given the opportunity to manage playing time for athletes and optimize playing time to get the best possible performance from each individual. This includes telling a coach or manager how much work a player is capable of in the game.

Panorama of Melbourne Cricket Ground after the final whistle of the AFL Grand Final on September 30, 2017 in Melbourne, Victoria
Victory at the MCG on the last Saturday in September requires nearly a year of athlete management by team health professionals / Credit: Flickrd (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The long run to a grand finale

It would be fair to assume that a player’s preparation for the big finals day begins immediately after winning the final that gets them there – for most sports it’s a semi-final, but in Australia they’re called semi-finals.

In reality, pre-season begins about 10 months before the crucial game, when the trainers hit the track on day one of pre-season.

All summer long athletes hit the pavement and pump the irons to strengthen their bodies for the rigors of the coming season. Athlete progressive overload is a principle of training science in which the intensity, frequency, and duration of training is increased over time. In response, the body adapts to meet the increasing demands of exercise – building larger muscles, increasing aerobic capacity.

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However, successfully executing a training program is a balancing act that requires careful management of an athlete’s workload. Peel it off and you can carve out a physical specimen ready for the challenges of pro sports. Stress the body too hard and it could get injured.

It’s not just about the training. Using the right diet is essential. They no longer drive a Formula 1 car with regular gasoline and need premium fuel for top athletes.

Ensuring optimal intake of macronutrients – fats, carbohydrates, and proteins – is managed these days by a sports nutritionist, who may dictate what players should eat before a game, but also educate athletes on what to eat outside of sports.

Hydration is also important, especially for endurance athletes who work in high temperatures for long periods of time. Field sports are likely to be better positioned than competitive runners, swimmers and cyclists in this regard because team sports have the opportunity to spin off the field and rehydrate within the game.

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The science behind the sport

Knowledge in the field of sports and exercise science has grown immensely in recent years, with almost twice as many articles being published, for example on training loads in football, as a decade ago.

With an ever-growing body of scientific evidence influencing the decisions of sports health professionals, high performers like Burgess must weigh their experiences and compare athletes on the field with findings from academic research.

“We have to be a bit cautious about how the science is applied, because a lot of the research is done in labs, not in the field,” says Burgess.

“But in general I now have a lot more information about what is the best diet for an endurance athlete or a football player, how strong a hamstring should be to prevent hamstring injuries, the best exercise to target different muscles.

The Cats' Gary Rohan runs the ball during the round seven game between the Sydney Swans and the Geelong Cats at the SCG
Geelong and Sydney face off in Saturday’s AFL Grand Final / Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“This doesn’t dictate what we do, but it informs what we might do.”

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Technology plays a role in decision-making (Burgess points to advances in technological precision over the past decade) related to athlete management.

Teams can track where a player is running within games using GPS trackers deployed in game attire. They can use strength testing devices to inform a player’s program for the week ahead, they can even track physical stress levels and heart rate variability with wearable technology.

The next big step for science in sports, says Burgess, is the brain’s impact on athletes’ performance, both physiologically and psychologically.

Burgess uses the example of the player who is doing their best on the ground one week and nowhere to be seen in the game the next as an example of how the brain can affect performance.

Mental resilience training has made its way into sports development programs in recent years, but it’s less clear how a player’s contract negotiations can affect how well he plays on the field.

“We know that the influence of the brain on performance is enormous,” says Burgess.

“All of us as supporters get frustrated when things go very well one week and then very badly the next. You think, “How can this be? Not much has changed’

“I guarantee nothing has changed physically in that time, just something mental happened that led to this achievement – ​​one person was physically incredible one week and not the next.

“In terms of association football, you may see players going through contract negotiations getting injured in the process due to the stress of that process.

Science hasn’t figured out why, we only know that players in this scenario are at much higher risk of poor performance and injury.”

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