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What it’s really like to be a VFL performance analyst

If you’re like many considering a career in sport, landing a job in AFL footy is probably high on your bucket list. Melburnians love their footy, so it’s a competitive industry to crack.

Qualifying as a sports scientist opens up job opportunities to work in professional and semi-professional sporting clubs – such as in AFL – or for institutes of sport. And opportunities are on the rise: sports coaching jobs are predicted to grow by 25.7% by 2022, according to the Australian Government Department of Employment projections.

There’s far more to sports science than strength and conditioning training. As the science around athlete performance is increasing in sophistication, data analysis is a huge part of high performance sports management.

Ashley Crawford, who recently completed his Master of Applied Sport Science at Deakin, is a VFL Performance Analyst at Essendon Football Club. It’s a dream job for many – so what’s it really like?

Find out more about studying a Master of Applied Sport Science with Deakin.

What led you to becoming a performance analyst?

‘I’ve followed football for a long time as a fan, and I always enjoyed sitting high up behind the goals to watch things like how teams moved the ball up, down and across the field, how players lined up at stoppages and what players did when they didn’t have the ball.

‘When I decided on a career change, I thought this would be a great place to start. I was lucky enough to be exposed to some of this when I undertook my undergraduate placement hours at Geelong Cats in 2016. I then undertook a year-long placement at the Victorian Institute of Sport in 2017, where I worked as a performance analyst across their netball programs – very different to football, but the essential skills are transferrable across all team sports.

‘I’ve worked closely with the Victorian 17/U Netball team for the last two years as their performance analyst, culminating in silver medals at the National Championship in 2017 and 2018. I’m always working on a range questions to analyse and answer, and it really helps develop my critical thinking and attention to detail.’

What does an average day look like for you?

‘The old adage of ‘no two days are the same’ is certainly true in performance analysis! First day back in the office after a match, I’ll compile a report for the coaches on how I saw the game based on the statistics I took on the day. Away from the manic nature of game day, I can put the statistics in a better context. I look at the statistics from all of the opposition clubs from the last round and add those to a database that I refer to frequently.

‘I also start to think about our upcoming opposition early in the week, looking at how they play versus how we play and how we might combat their strategies. I prepare vision for players based on requests from the coaches, which helps players understand their own performances and how the opposition play. I also spend time mining my league dataset to look at any interesting game trends or occurrences that might be good to present to the coaching staff.

‘Game day involves setting up our IT infrastructure for the coaches, with screens and iPads connected to vision coming in and screens showing the statistics that myself and my team of statisticians are collecting. At the quarter breaks, I also give our coaches a quick snapshot of what I’ve noticed.’

What do you love most about your job?

‘It’s certainly never boring! I really enjoy the business of the coaches box on game day… everything happens so quickly and it’s satisfying to notice a trend, communicate that to the coaches and watch strategies implemented that steer that particular aspect the way you want it to.

‘Away from matches, it’s also great to be able to identify trends about the way your upcoming opposition play, help the coaches to put together a plan to combat this and then seeing the fruits of my opposition analysis working on game day.’

'Everything happens so quickly and it’s satisfying to notice a trend, communicate that to the coaches and watch strategies implemented that steer that particular aspect the way you want it to.'

Ashley Crawford,
Essendon Football Club

What are some of the challenges of your job?

‘Building your knowledge and becoming familiar with the specifics of the sport you’re working with is probably the biggest thing. Even though I was a fan of football for a long time and had watched a lot of games as a spectator, learning the nuances of the game on such a molecular level has been the most challenging aspect.

‘There is a lot of complex terminology that you need to be familiar with to be a valuable analyst, and it’s important to recognise the playing style of your team and the opposition – this is important so you can give context to the statistics being generated during a game. For example, if you’re not familiar with your team’s style of play, you may emphasise a low tackle count to the coach where, because of the game style being played, would be expected to be low.

‘In addition to this, becoming accurate with your recording of statistics is important. My best advice? Find an experienced analysts and become a sponge!’

What are the necessary skills required in your job? 

‘Aside from the normal communication, presentation and problem-solving skills, having excellent critical thinking, digital literacy and analysis skills are vital.

‘Attention to detail is also really important, as coaches make decisions based on the data you are feeding to them. In this respect, it’s important that you take the required steps to learn all of the aspects of the sport you’re working in. For me, I achieved this by spending time with sport coaches and experienced analysts and picking their brains.

‘I also watched A LOT of vision and practiced coding the statistics I need to collect.’

What school subjects and university qualifications fit this job?

‘I think you need to have a keen eye for numbers and patterns, so subjects like maths, IT and some sort of statistics knowledge helps.

‘In terms of university, I studied my Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science at Deakin University and graduated from that in 2016. In 2017, I undertook the Master of Applied Sport Science, also at Deakin, which had some really good units that covered performance analysis, statistical methods and data presentation, which are all really important; the information you gather will need to be presented to a wide variety of people, so it’s important to be able to tailor your message to the right audience.’

Interested in pursuing a career in performance analysis? Find out more about studying applied sports science with Deakin.  

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