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

In the next fortnight, Australia’s biggest football premierships will be decided by groups of athletes who have trained – and played – nearly all year for a chance at taking home the silverware.

While the National Rugby League has four clubs still in contention – Penrith, North Queensland, Parramatta and South Sydney – all eyes will this week be on Geelong and Sydney contesting the Australian Football League grand final at the MCG.

On the stage will be two teams that have already played 24 matches – each around two hours in length – for competition points, as well as numerous competitive and intra-club practice matches during the pre-season.

And while the coaches and players will bear the glory – and scrutiny – of the public leading up to the game, behind-the-scenes are a group of professionals responsible for delivering the athletes in the best possible condition to play.

This mix of sports scientists, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, doctors, dieticians and nutritionists, masseurs, trainers and psychologists are collectively responsible for using their knowledge of the human body, how it works, and what happens when it’s put under stress to keep athletes in peak condition.

Australian Football and Rugby are highly physical games that require significant aerobic capacity, the right body composition to utilise that endurance and absorb regular, forceful physical contact for half a year or more.

Dr Darren Burgess is currently the head of high performance for the Adelaide Football Club and an adjunct research fellow in the University of South Australia’s allied health and human performance academic unit.

Before this, he ran athlete performance at Arsenal and Liverpool in the English Premier League, amid AFL involvements with Port Adelaide, the Sydney Swans and recently the Melbourne Demons where he oversaw the high performance program that helped the team win the 2021 AFL premiership.

In terms of building a team fit enough to win a championship, he’s quick to point out that in professional sport, exercise 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,” Burgess says.

Physical fitness and mental preparation isn’t the reason why a team wins or loses – clearly the way the game is played is a major factor – but it can offer an edge to teams when they’re evenly matched tactically.

On the day of a premiership decider – or any game for that matter – the high performance manager will be given scope to manage game time for athletes, optimising game time to extract the best possible performance from each individual. That includes advising a coach or manager how much in-game work a player is capable of.

Panorama of the melbourne cricket ground after the final siren of the afl grand final on 30 september 2017 in melbourne, victoria
Taking victory at the MCG on the final Saturday of September requires an almost full year of athlete management from team health professionals / Credit: Flickrd (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The long run to a grand final

It would be fair to assume that the preparation of a player for grand final 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 preliminary finals.

In reality, the preparation begins about 10 months in advance of the deciding match, when the running shoes hit the track on the first day of pre-season.

Across the summer, athletes pound pavement and pump the iron to build their bodies for the rigours of the upcoming season. Progressively overloading athletes is a principle in exercise science where the intensity, frequency and duration of training is increased over time. In response, the body adapts to meet the increasingly demands of the training – building bigger muscle, increasing aerobic capacity.

But successfully executing a training program is a balancing act that requires careful management of an athlete’s workload. Pull it off, and you can carve out a physical specimen ready for the challenges of professional sport. Work the body too hard, and it might be injured.

It’s not just training that comes into it. Using the right nutrition is essential. You don’t run a Formula One car on standard petrol any more, and you need premium fuel for elite athletes.

Ensuring the optimum intake of macronutrients – fats, carbs and protein – is nowadays managed by a sports dietician, who might dictate what players should eat before a game, but also educates athletes as to what they should eat away from the sporting field.

Hydration is also important, particularly for endurance athletes operating in high temperatures over long periods. Court and field-based sports are probably better placed than competitive runners, swimmers and cyclists in this respect, given the ability for team sports to rotate off the field and rehydrate within the game.

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The science behind sports

Knowledge within the sports and exercise science sector has grown immensely in recent years, nearly twice as many papers are published, for instance, on training loads in football, compared to a decade ago.

With an ever-growing body of science informing the decisions made by health professionals in sport, high performance staff like Burgess need to weigh up their experience, comparing athletes on the field, with insights coming out of academic research.

“In terms of applying science, we need to be a bit cautious, because a lot of research is conducted in labs, rather than in the field,” Burgess says.

“But as a general rule, I’ve got a lot more information available now on what’s the best nutrition for an endurance athlete or a footballer, how strong a hamstring should be to prevent hamstring injuries, the best exercise to target different muscles.

Gary rohan of the cats runs the ball during the round seven afl match between the sydney swans and the geelong cats at the scg
Geelong and Sydney go head-to-head 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.”

Technology plays a part in decision-making (Burgess points to advancements in technological precision in the last decade) in terms of athlete management.

Teams can track where a player runs within games using GPS trackers inserted into playing uniforms. 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 using wearable technology.

The next big step for science in sport, Burgess says, is the impact of the brain on athlete performance, in both a physiological and psychological sense.

Burgess uses the example of the player who puts in a best-on-ground effort one week and is nowhere to be seen in the game the next, as an example of how the brain can impact performance.

Mental resilience training has made its way into sports development programs in recent years but building research into how say, a player’s contract negotiations might impact how well they play on field, is less clear.

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

“We all, as supporters, get frustrated when things go really well one week, and then really poorly the next. You think ‘How can that possibly be? Not much has changed,’

“I guarantee that nothing’s changed physically in that time, it’s purely something mentally that’s happened, that has led to that performance – one person being physically incredible one week, and then not the next.

“In terms of Association Football, you might see players going through contract negotiations get injured in the process, because of the stress of that process.

The science hasn’t come up with why that is, we just know players under that scenario are at a much higher risk of both poor performance and injury.”

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