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Sports stars now responsible for their own fitness, just like us

In late March, following a round of fixtures played in empty stadia, the Australian Football League (AFL) suspended its 2020 season until at least the end of May. Having completed months of arduous pre-season training, players were stood down as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

They weren’t alone. With up to 80% of employees across the industry put on unpaid leave – including strength and conditioning coaches – and no certainty around a resumption date for the competition, players’ training schedules for the weeks and months ahead suddenly looked starkly different.

And, in a strange twist of fate, you could be well-positioned to help some of the stars of our national game with the challenges they now face.

Strength from within

At this stage of any normal year, our footy heroes would be closely supervised by coaches, with speed, strength and endurance work tailored to each individual based on a range of factors such as age, experience, team role and recent injury record.

Intrinsic motivation levels might vary across the playing group – truly it is the playing they love, not the midweek grind – but, with their working lives mapped out by the hour and intensive programs to which to adhere, these differences would scarcely be noticeable to anyone except the most seasoned observer.

This year it’s different. There are no crowds. There’s no adulation. No epic wins to fuel the players through winter, and no heartbreaking defeats to inspire them to go the extra mile on a cold, wet Wednesday in July.

In 2020, the required discipline and focus will have to come from within. The man in the mirror.

Stop us if this sounds familiar

An exercise program has been written for you. You know following it is the right thing to do. It’s in your best interests. You’ve committed to it. It’s important.

It’s still really hard to stick to though, isn’t it?

So, whilst recognising the value of checking in regularly with their performance managers, Dr Eric Drinkwater, senior lecturer in Sport Science at Deakin University, thinks the players are actually now facing a challenge with which us mere mortals are much more familiar.

He paints a vivid scene: ‘There’s a goal, but it’s somewhat fuzzy – “Do I need to be ready for May or August?” – and the goalposts keep moving. There’s no-one there to watch over you. There’s family around and the kids are craving attention. There’s home-schooling to be done and meals to be made.

‘The divide has almost disappeared between elite and sub-elite athletes over recent weeks,’ Dr Drinkwater says. ‘Most of the professional athletes are home training, without the structure, certainty and face-to-face coaching they’re used to.’

'There’s a goal, but it’s somewhat fuzzy – “Do I need to be ready for May or August?” – and the goalposts keep moving. There’s no-one there to watch over you.'

Dr Eric Drinkwater,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Equipment and connection

It’s beyond question that many footy players have slightly more elaborate home gyms than most of us can muster, but many clubs will be reluctant to have their stars lifting heavy weights unsupervised due to the risk of injury.

That’s why Dr Drinkwater is confident the home training programs clubs have set will ‘focus on aerobic and anaerobic power, with lots of high intensity interval work, alongside calisthenics.’

‘The players will be doing drills similar to those that are available on workout apps used by hundreds of thousands of Australians,’ Dr Drinkwater says. ‘Strava, Peloton, Zwift, Zoom and other virtual tools and communities are undoubtedly helping with motivation. As they are doing for friends, “weekend warriors” and community clubs, they’re keeping elite athletes and teams connected and competitive.’

However wonderful the technology is though, it can’t replace the kind of techniques we see all year as Aussies of all shapes and sizes work on their fitness – allocating exercise time, placing the early-morning alarm clock just out of reach to force you out of bed, micro goal-setting and beating personal records to name just a few.

Back to peak fitness

Eventually though, when the AFL is given the green light to brighten up our weekends once more, the divide will reopen.

‘Clubs will want their players to return with the capacity to handle the training they’ll be given,’ Dr Drinkwater says. ‘The best players will have used the time off to work on weaknesses such as core stability or range of motion, and will be ready to return to peak fitness levels. They’ll want to get into the teamwork and skills required to win games and play finals.’

It will be interesting to see how the challenges of this unique period of time affect individuals and teams; who has been able to stay motivated, disciplined and focused without much supervision.

Whatever happens, when Friday night footy is back, we’ll likely be watching players who have a better understanding of our battles to stay fit and motivated.

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Dr Eric Drinkwater
Dr Eric Drinkwater

Senior Lecturer of Sports Science, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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